Injured Fort Lewis soldier back from the brink
SCOTT FONTAINE; The News Tribune
WASHINGTON – No one knows how long the bomb lay under the packed earth of southern Afghanistan. How many times had the soldiers stepped over it? Each member of Lt. Dan Berschinski’s platoon had, at least twice. The Fort Lewis officer figures he walked by the area two times with no problems.
But the bomb lay there, inches below the dirt path. It was likely made of plastic and triggered by a pressure switch.
Bombs like this one kill and maim indiscriminately. It didn’t target Berschinski on Aug. 19 because he was an officer or because he was leading a Stryker platoon on foot into a Taliban-controlled area. Nor did other enemy explosives pick out his comrades from the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Of the 26 men from the brigade reported killed to date, all but one died in bomb blasts, and many others have been wounded by bombs.
Berschinski, like the others, just happened to be in the wrong place. And it rendered him a disabled war veteran just a month into his first deployment.
The explosion – the second he would survive that day – threw him against a house, shattering his left arm and breaking his jaw. He bounced off the wall and slid upside down into the blast crater. The 25-year-old Georgia native reached down to feel his legs and felt nothing.
His helmet slipped over his eyes; he ripped if off and threw it to the side. Soldiers yelled at him to keep his eyes open. He couldn’t see anything. Every few minutes he felt himself start to drift. His eyelids felt heavy. And then his first sergeant would be screaming at him again.
He remembers the hot air of a helicopter rotor blowing over him and swirling the dust. His memories begin to muddle. Was it the medevac chopper dispatched from nearby Kandahar Air Field? Or was it one of the OH-58D Kiowas providing air support overhead? The memories of that moment fade with the scene in the orchards of Kandahar province – the night 21/2 months ago when Lt. Dan Berschinski felt the life draining from his broken body.
A NEW WORLD
To adjust his position, Berschinski grips a metal rail suspended above his hospital bed. He grabs it with his right hand, lifts himself about an inch off the bed, shifts his weight enough to get comfortable again. His face sometimes winces as he twists his body.
His right arm is the only limb working: His left leg was amputated above the knee; his right leg is gone at the hip. Plates keep the bones in his left arm together. Doctors needed to reconstruct much of his left hand.
An Army career that began with great promise – a degree from West Point, graduation from Ranger School, an assignment to Fort Lewis in September 2008, his own platoon at age 25 – has brought him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
He spends much of his day in Ward 57, reserved for those who have lost limbs.
Bombs targeting vehicles or foot patrols have become the most frequent and effective weapon for Afghan militants. NATO troops encountered 704 bombs in October; they killed 39 service members and wounded another 193, according to the Pentagon.
The total number of incidents involving bombs has more than tripled in the past three years, and insurgents often pair bomb attacks with small-arms ambushes.
Berschinski figures he’ll be in Washington another year, much of it at an outpatient apartment. He could transfer to a hospital at Fort Benning, Ga., which is closer to his native Peachtree City, but the military’s best prosthetics doctors work at Walter Reed. They’ll make two legs for Berschinski and teach him how to walk again.
The surgeons who worked to patch together his arm and rebuild his left hand believe the lieutenant will regain full use, but months of physical therapy lie ahead.
Recovery will be tough at times, especially for someone who grew up playing soccer and running track and cross-country.
And yet, during a bedside interview last month, Berschinski said his thoughts often center on what his unit – Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment – continues to endure: the Spartan living conditions, the frequent attacks, the feeling of trying to win over a skeptical Afghan population.
“I feel bad that I’m in here while my platoon is out there fighting,” he said. “I know there’s not much I can do about it now. There’s really nothing to do. But that doesn’t make it any easier.”
The nearly 4,000 soldiers of 5th Brigade left Fort Lewis in July for Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. The brigade’s job is to go into areas of southern Afghanistan where NATO’s presence historically has been light and largely ineffective.
Berschinski’s battalion alone has seen 19 men reported killed – two on the same day that the bomb took his legs. And those are only the fatalities. A brigade spokesman said last week that 5th Brigade has had 70 casualties, but he did not have a breakdown on the number of injured and wounded returned to duty and how many were evacuated to the states.
Soldiers returning to Fort Lewis say the explosions and firefights are a near-daily experience for many platoons.
And the unit has about another eight months in Afghanistan.
The 35 soldiers of Berschinski’s Second Platoon left their outpost in the Kandahari desert during the late afternoon of Aug. 18 for a patrol in pomegranate orchards that straddle the Arghandab River. Afghans would go to the polls for the presidential election two days later.
The atmosphere was tense enough to spook the Afghan soldiers serving alongside the Americans. When the men of Second Platoon woke that morning at their outpost in the desert, the Afghans were missing.
The mission involved Second Platoon and another platoon from the battalion’s Alpha Company. The mission called for Second Platoon to dismount from its Strykers and patrol a trail running south of Shuyene Sufla to the river. The Alpha Company platoon had a similar mission in the village of Babur, about a mile to the southwest. The vehicles would drive in the desert and shadow the foot patrols.
The pre-mission briefing echoed a common refrain: Bombs were the main threat. They had taken out several Stryker vehicles in the past few days. In recent weeks, the troops had taken to driving off-road rather than risk the bomb-riddled dirt path of Route Red Dog, the only street in the area. No explosive ordnance disposal support or mine-detection equipment was available for this mission.
Berschinski’s platoon arrived on the northern outskirts of Shuyene Sufla, a collection of adobe compounds, about 3 p.m. The village was deserted. The soldiers dismounted and began walking south.
After about half an hour, they received a call: The platoon from Alpha Company had been attacked near Babur. One bomb exploded and the soldiers came under small-arms fire.
Spc. Troy Tom, the platoon’s radio telephone operator, was killed in the explosion.
Berschinski was ordered to move Second Platoon to rendezvous with the other platoon.
He and his soldiers marched southwest, between the village and Route Red Dog. They approached the beginning of a trail that starts near the southern edge of the village, cuts through the orchards and curls around to the location of the other platoon.
Berschinski’s men knew the area well: On their first mission in the Arghandab, insurgents ambushed them near the trailhead. Second Platoon was on a high-alert posture, Berschinski said, but the soldiers had yet to see signs of life.
The trail crosses an irrigation canal shortly after entering the orchards. The soldiers recognized the adobe bridge as a potential location for an attack, but the water was 4 to 6 feet deep. Each man carried more than 50 pounds of equipment. Wading was too dangerous. They began crossing the bridge.
About a third of the platoon had walked across when a blast threw Berschinski to the ground. Dust blocked his view. His ears were ringing. The fire team that had already crossed the bridge started firing at what they believed were Taliban gunmen.
The dust meant most soldiers couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. They began calling each others’ names. Pfc. Jonathan Yanney, the platoon’s forward observer, didn’t answer.
The bomb had blown a crater 5 feet deep and 6 feet across. Yanney was standing on the bridge when it blew.
Berschinski radioed his headquarters that his platoon had been attacked, with one soldier missing. Several soldiers began looking for Yanney. Bravo Company’s Third Platoon, which had been on standby as a quick- response force, arrived at the scene at about the same time.
Soldiers from Second Platoon looked for the bomb’s triggerman. They kicked down the doors of the closest compounds but found them empty. A few men climbed to the rooftops to provide security. Medics treated a soldier who took shrapnel in his right biceps and another who was deafened.
A few other soldiers searched the trailhead in the orchard for Yanney’s remains. They found part of his rifle, his shredded helmet cover and pieces of a boot about 70 yards from the blast site. A few more minutes of searching turned up body pieces small enough that the search party put them in a Gladlock bag.
Two soldiers needed medical evacuation, and a squad from the quick response force escorted them into a clearing. One of Second Platoon’s squad leaders pulled Berschinski aside and asked if he needed a medevac. The lieutenant declined.
The company commander told Berschinski to make sure the casualties were evacuated, then join up with the platoon from Alpha Company. The soldiers returned to their Strykers and began to drive south. The convoy stopped when it neared Route Red Dog. “Too many IEDs,” Berschinski said, using the shorthand for improvised explosive devices. “No one wanted to drive on that thing.”
The sun was setting when Second Platoon dismounted to link up with the other platoon. No one wanted to walk on the trails either, so they slogged through shin-high muddy water that irrigates the orchards.
The soldiers set up camp in three abandoned compounds on the outskirts of Babur, several miles southwest of Shuyene Sufla. Second Platoon’s compound was a little hut surrounded by adobe walls.
Company commander Capt. Jamie Pope called the platoon leaders and platoon sergeants into his compound about 25 yards away. Pope said the soldiers would hold the area the following day and continue the search for the remains of Tom, the Alpha Company soldier.
After the hourlong meeting, Berschinski returned along the same trail he had walked at least twice that day. He was two or three steps from entering the yard of the compound when the bomb detonated.
A high-pitched tone, the result of two blown eardrums, blocked out much of his hearing. He called for help. He immediately felt down and realized his legs were missing. He didn’t feel a sharp pain in his legs; it was more like tremendous pressure, he said, like someone had applied tourniquets. Someone dragged him out of the blast crater by his shoulders.
Medics worked frantically, trying to stop the bleeding. Someone called for a medevac. Berschinski stopped breathing and was revived three times, a medic later told him.
“Where the (expletive) is the bird?” he remembers other soldiers screaming.
Kandahar Air Field was about 15 miles away, but it took 50 minutes for the helicopter to arrive. Other medevacs got to a similar location in about half that time. The crew of a Kiowa helicopter already circling overhead to provide air support offered to land and pick up Berschinski. The medics declined; a Kiowa isn’t designed to transport the wounded, and it likely would have killed the lieutenant.
The warm air of the rotor wash blew over him. Memories get spottier. His body gushed blood. He closed his eyes and drifted off.
Susan Berschinski returned home in Peachtree City that afternoon to find a message on the answering machine. Their son had been badly injured, an Army casualty assistance officer said. He left a toll-free number to call back.
Susan called her husband, Bob, at the couple’s small publishing office. He arrived home five minutes later.
The officer had scant details for the Berschinskis: Dan stepped on a bomb, he lost both legs, and he was medically evacuated to Kandahar.
Bob Berschinski booked a flight for Germany in hopes of seeing his son at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the armed forces’ top hospital in Europe. Don’t bother, the Army rep later told him. When Dan is stable enough to fly – if he’s stable enough to fly – he’ll go to Walter Reed.
The distance was suffocating.
“He was there,” Bob said. “We were here. He was probably going to die, and we couldn’t get to him.”
The Army called the Berschinskis every few hours with updates. They talked to the Kandahar Air Field hospital’s head surgeon and chief emergency room nurse. The news was much the same for the first few days: Dan remained in a medically induced coma. He wasn’t stable enough to fly. One doctor told Bob that Dan needed more blood than anyone he had ever treated. Brain damage was a major concern.
But, one doctor told Bob, at least his son wasn’t going to get worse.
The lieutenant stayed at Kandahar Air Field for five days. He was transferred to Bagram Air Base, the main American military hub in Afghanistan, then to Landstuhl and finally to Walter Reed a week after the attack. A doctor, nurse and anesthesiologist accompanied him each time he flew.
“They only assign those three-person teams for a reason,” Bob Berschinski said. “You get that kind of crew when they think you can die on the flight.”
The Army booked airline tickets to Washington and a hotel room near the hospital for the family. Dan landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Aug. 25 and arrived at Walter Reed later that day. His parents and brother were waiting at the hospital.
“You try to prepare yourself for the worst,” Bob said. “And he was pretty much a mess.”
Dan’s legs were gone. His left arm sat in what his father called “some sort of erector set.” His jaw was wired shut. His pelvis was broken. Sensors ran over his body. His father counted 16 tubes running in and out of his body. Doctors and nurses tended to him around the clock.
“The only place you could touch him was the top of his head,” his mother recalled.
Shortly after he arrived, one of the surgeons had good news for the family: His injuries were treatable. If Dan had the willpower, he could walk out of his hotel room. “It’s amazing,” Bob said. “This is the most impressive medical operation I’ve ever seen. By far. The nurses, the doctors – they’re amazing. They never stopped moving.”
Susan Berschinski agreed, and sees the proof in her son.
“He looks 1,000 times better now,” she said.
Dan Berschinski spends most of his time in his room in Ward 57. A map of Kandahar province is taped to one wall; on the other, there’s a framed photo of his high school’s cross-country team holding a banner. “This one’s for Dan,” it reads.
He jokes that the easiest way to meet generals is to get injured. Given its proximity to the Pentagon and the severity of injuries of those recovering there, Ward 57 has been a favorite of three- and four-stars since the invasion of Afghanistan.
Fort Lewis commander Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, deployed to Iraq as the American military’s second-in-command, visited Berschinski in October during Jacoby’s two weeks of home leave.
Other Second Platoon soldiers also visit during leave from Afghanistan.
Berschinski’s family is a constant at Ward 57. His older brother, Rob, works as a civilian employee at the Pentagon and often sits by Dan’s bedside after work. His parents own a small business back home, which allows them to alternate weeks in Washington and Georgia. Bob and Susan Berschinski often see each other only on the weekends, when they’re both at Walter Reed.
“We want to make sure someone is always here in case Dan needs anything,” Rob said. “As long as he wants us here, there will always be someone at his bedside.”
Months in a hospital room give people time to think. Lt. Dan Berschinski ponders the extent of his injuries, the fight his platoon still faces and the decisions that brought him to Walter Reed.
He believes the injuries present an opportunity to redirect his life.
He will stay at Walter Reed in outpatient care until he’s learned to use his new legs. Then he’ll find his own place in Washington and drive to the hospital every day for therapy. When he’s satisfied with his progress, he’ll likely leave the Army.
“The Army will not force me out,” he said. “If I want to stay on active duty, they will find a job for me, which I think is important for people to know.”
He plans to attend graduate school in the D.C. area. The Army, as part of its occupational rehabilitation program, will pay for his tuition and salary while he’s there. He hasn’t decided about a major or where he’ll go, but he’s thinking about Georgetown University.
“Dan is the toughest kid I’ve ever met in terms of setting a goal and working toward it,” his father said. “Once he got back to normal, he said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m alive. I thought I was going to die. But I’m alive, and I’m going to make plans from here.’
“He’s not the kind of guy who will be dismayed by what happened.”
That shines through in his humor. One of the first jokes he cracked after emerging from his coma was that the loss of his legs probably put an end to his dream of playing professional soccer in Europe.
Berschinski thinks often about the job the medics did in the moments after the blast. They performed perfectly, he said, and he’s alive today because of them.
He said he harbors no regrets about joining the Army or deploying to Afghanistan. His injuries don’t change his mind about politics, nor does he seek pity for the loss of his legs. He’s not a religious man, so he doesn’t see the attack fitting into some divine master plan.
“You can’t go through life trying to take back the decisions that led you to a certain place,” he said. “You can’t change anything. You can’t live your life that way. This happened to me. I’ve accepted it. I’m going to move on as best I can.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758