Marine Channels Near-Death Experience Into Helping Poor in Peru

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Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers knows the exact date and time an insurgent bullet embedded itself in his head: October 17, 2004 at 11:36 a.m.

At the time, Bowers was serving in Fallujah with a U.S. Marine Corps civil affairs unit. His job was to help Iraqi residents rebuild their lives — literally and figuratively — by repairing battle-damaged homes.

Then came the gunshot wound that changed his life.

"It's funny. Everybody seems to think you'll have an afterlife experience, your whole life will flash before your eyes," reflected Bowers. "I initially thought my rifle had exploded because I couldn't see out of my left eye and my safety glasses had blown off and my helmet had blown off."

Aware that he no longer held onto his rifle, Staff Sgt. Bowers instead pulled out his 9mm side-arm, and crawled for cover.

"When I looked into the ground, I just saw blood pouring into the dirt and realized something had gone really, really wrong," he said. "I was having difficulty seeing out of my eye and obviously losing a lot of blood."

Bowers' close call with death didn't sink in at first. "It wasn't until probably about five minutes later when I was getting patched up by the Corpsman that they realized the bullet had actually struck the side of my rifle and skimmed into my left temple. The rifle took the brunt of the blast, and that's pretty much what saved my life."

Even with a bullet lodged in his head, dangerously close to his brain, Bowers rescued some wounded Iraqi civilians who were caught in the crossfire of battle, and drove them to the emergency room himself.

"There was a 10-year-old boy who had been shot in the arm and the shoulder, and his father who had been shot in the stomach," Bowers recalled. "We were able to pull the civilians out of their vehicle … get them initial treatment, and then I loaded them into the back of my Humvee, and drove back to the surgical center on Camp Fallujah."

Now, almost four years later, Bowers is using his near-death experience to help others. This time, not in war-torn Iraq, but in Peru's remote Ayacucho region, building schools, homes and medical clinics for rural communities.

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Bowers is one of 1,000 Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force personnel taking part in Operation New Horizons — a humanitarian mission quite unlike previous deployments in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

After months in combat, Bowers said that volunteering for a mission like New Horizons is like "chicken soup for soul" because it allows him to help people improve their lives as he continues to recover from his life altering experiences.

At this time of year, daytime temperatures in Ayacucho hover around the 80-degree mark and night time lows dip into the 40s.

The days are long and sunny, meaning conditions are perfect for more than three months of dawn-to-dusk construction projects — the schools and medical clinics sorely needed in a country where the average income is a little more than $2,000 per year. Among Ayacucho's poor rural communities, incomes are much lower than that.

The saying goes, "if you build it, they will come," and Operation New Horizons is proving that point, attracting many military volunteers from locations across America.

One contingent of Air Force civil engineering personnel — known as a "RED HORSE" team and headed up by Capt. Stacy Nimmo — is drawn from bases in Nevada and Montana.

Previously, Nimmo was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"There are a lot of differences between there and here, but the hearts and minds aspect of our work is the same," she said.

One of her most memorable moments on the Peru deployment, she said, was when she visited a local orphanage.

"The orphanage was amazing — the kids were so grateful for everything we've done for them."

Those sentiments are echoed by Marine Cpl. Kathleen Ruscio, who's been part of a construction team drawn from units in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Massachusetts.

"We love interacting with the locals that live around the job site and learning a little bit about their culture," said Ruscio. "The country is beautiful and the people have been very thankful and welcoming. We enjoy being in a different country, helping those that are less fortunate."

For Bowers, the differences between Iraq and Peru are even more striking.

"I would say the welcome we received in Iraq was different in that we were needed to sustain life there. A lot of humanitarian aid we conducted in Fallujah was providing food for people, immediate medical assistance and things along those lines. They were depending on our ability to be able to take care of them."

By contrast, Bowers explains, the Peruvians' needs are still basic but not necessarily as urgent. The people, who have peace in the country after a long and bloody guerrilla war with rebel groups like Sendero Luminoso and Tupak Amaru, now need education and improved health conditions. He hopes that facilities like the new schools, clinics and fresh drinking water provided by Operation New Horizons will help and make lasting improvements.

Bowers, who will end his deployment to Peru soon, plans to return to civilian life, but will continue as a Marine Corps Reservist, working with the veterans' advocacy group "Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America."

Along with his fellow military comrades, Bowers said in Peru he leaves behind a quantitative improvement in the lives of thousands of below-the-poverty-line Peruvians, and improved relations between the U.S. Military and the Government of Peru.

As with all deployments, Bowers has learned some lessons in Peru — like don't sweat the small stuff.

"There are a lot worse things in life to worry about than a traffic jam or your cell phone bill being overdue," he mused.

The lessons they have taught him have helped him to appreciate what he has.

"When you realize there are a lot of people (dealing) with a lot harder time in life in a lot more difficult situations, but they can still persevere." he said.

As for the lesson learned in Iraq Bowers joked, making light of his war wound. "I probably should have ducked, but I didn't," he said.