Pvt. Channing Moss of Gainesville is assisted by technician Cameo Atkins in a recent physical therapy session.
Pvt. Channing Moss stood in the gun turret of the Humvee, wary and watchful. His truck was No. 5 in a column of five Humvees rumbling through the eastern mountains of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.
It was about 10:30 a.m. on March 16, a Thursday. Staff Sgt. Eric Wynn, sitting in the front seat, checked out the ridgeline above them and judged it perfect for an ambush. "I would have used it myself," he said later.
The Taliban came at the Americans with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Moss, 23, had a wife and a family back home in Gainesville; in Afghanistan he had a Mark 19 grenade launcher, a vicious weapon that can fire more than 300 grenades per minute. Moss began raining hell on their attackers.
Up front, Wynn was trying to get his troops out of the kill zone. "A bullet hits my windshield," he said, recounting the attack nearly two months later. "Then the RPGs came in. Three of them. One hit my door and two hit my windshield."
Something tore away half of Wynn's upper lip and left it hanging down over his mouth. The tip of his nose was blown off, and he was bleeding heavily. "I'm like, 'What the hell happened?' I start to look around the truck. It was then that I see Moss."
Moss was down, blood erupting from his middle. But he was conscious, and he couldn't quite believe what was going on in his own gut.
An RPG had hit him in the left side just above the hip, plowed across his abdomen and was poking out the skin at his right hip. It had snapped off a piece of hip bone, fractured his pelvis, lacerated his colon. The only thing it hadn't done was the one thing it was meant to do: explode.
"I could see the tail fins sticking out of me," Moss said weeks later from his hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I was thinking: I am going to die this way."
Finally, the battered Humvee lumbered out of the kill zone. Moss was pulled from the vehicle and laid out on the ground. He had the thought that someone might "sandbag" him, he said — move him a safe distance away and just let him bleed out and die. He had become UXO — unexploded ordnance — dangerous to himself and anyone nearby.
But a medic worked hard to stabilize Moss. He stripped off the tall private's body armor — "everything except my helmet" — gave Moss a morphine shot and covered the RPG with tape.
Moss remained conscious. "My sergeants and my lieutenant, they're all talking to me and just making sure I'm not going to black out or anything, but I was pretty cool, calm and collected. I was just lying there on the ground, asking when the chopper would come."
Would it come? And when it did, would it take him? What if the grenade went off while the helicopter was in flight? The medevac crew may or may not have known what they were being asked to carry. The RPG was covered with tape. In describing Moss' wounds to the crew, one of Moss' officers skipped over the words "live explosive" and simply said "shrapnel," Moss recalled.
"They don't evacuate people with live ordnance in them. You know, it can harm somebody else's life," he said. "But the choppers came, and I was so happy and I just got on that chopper. I was relieved, I was just praying I would make it all the way there."
"There" was a forward operating base called Orgun-E, 7,000 feet up in the mountains, west of Pakistan, east of nowhere. A small surgical group was waiting for him.
Maj. John Oh, a surgeon with the 758th Forward Surgical Team, based in Fort Lewis, Wash., watched as the medics cut away clothing and stripped away tape. Then he saw what was jutting out of Moss.
"Unexploded round!" the doctor yelled. He ordered everyone out of the aid station and put on a flak vest and Kevlar. "At this point, it's me and about three other folks," Oh wrote in an e-mail on Friday. "Patient is awake, talking. ... He starts going into respiratory distress. I'm trying to bag him, IVs still not in."
At this point the private's heart rate was in the 20s. He was bleeding heavily at the RPG's entry site.
"I finally get an IV in, give 0.5mg epi, hr and bp improve," Oh wrote, referring to the drug epinephrine and to Moss' heart rate and blood pressure. "We give fluids, then start blood. EOD [an explosive ordnance detachment specialist] is now here, trying to figure out what this thing is."
The team had to repeat X-rays three times. After poring over the pictures, the EOD came up with some good news. He concluded that the grenade's warhead was not attached to what was inside Moss' body. The warhead is the fat part of an RPG, about 3 inches in diameter. The narrower tube attached to the warhead — and the part that was inside Moss — contains a small rocket engine, fuel and tail fins that deploy after the grenade is fired to stabilize its flight and guide it to the target.
Also in the tube is a detonator, the small explosive charge that sets off the grenade itself.
"I call everyone back in, and we go straight to the OR wearing our helmets and IBA [individual body armor]," Oh wrote.
"We cut down over the right side, over the business end of the rocket, realize that this thing dragged dirt, his web belt and clothes all the way through his abdomen/pelvis. EOD confirms that the warhead is not attached, and propellant mostly expelled."
But the detonator could still go off.
"We do midline incision ... and EOD starts sawing off the left end of the UXO. We then pull the thing out, from left to right, thorough the abdomen. The EOD units disposed of the UXO."
Oh noted "multiple holes in the bowel, took out a good amount of his pelvic bones, took out part of his large intestine." But Moss' other major organs and his spine were undamaged.
Moss was conscious for just a short time after arriving at Orgun-E. He didn't know that Oh's team was administering anesthesia. He got drowsy, began to drift, thought he was dying. His next stop was the Combat Support Hospital at Bagram, near Kabul, for additional surgery, but he was unconscious the whole time.
The next time he woke up, he was in Germany.
"I just said, 'I'm alive?' "
——- Channing Moss was released last week from the inpatient hospital at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He and his wife, Lorena, and their daughter, Yuliana, who is almost 2, have moved into family quarters on the giant Reed reservation. Their second child is due June 28.
Moss must undergo daily physical therapy, perhaps for months. His hip gives him the most pain, his wife said, but some days he skips his pain medication. The RPG played hell with his colon, and he must wear a colostomy bag for another six to eight months while his intestine heals. But already he has progressed from bed to wheelchair to walker to cane.
Lorena Moss is eight months pregnant, caring for a wounded husband and an active toddler. "It's been a little rough," she concedes. Her tone is matter- of-fact, not even close to whiny. She is upbeat and bright, as if she has just received a wonderful and unexpected present. Which she has.
"She is my backbone," says Moss. "She's handling it very well." —- Thomas Hailey of College Park raised Channing Moss from the age of 9. Hailey, 57, is a Vietnam combat veteran. He wasn't thrilled when Channing decided to join the Army and go to war, but he kept his reservations to himself.
"The reason he went in the Army was for his family," Hailey said. "The jobs he was having were mediocre jobs, and he felt like he could do more for his family. And I'm proud of him for that."
The Army flew Hailey to Washington to be with Channing; he stayed for a week and now talks to Channing daily on the phone. He is amazed at his son's progress.
"He will never be a whole person. We know this," Hailey said. "But with his determination, he's going to be as good as he can be, or even better. Until he gets out into the real world and tries to function, we won't know. But some of his injuries are permanent; some things he's going to have to suffer for the rest of his life."
Moss isn't sure about his next move. "I got a couple of options. I can go back to active duty. I can reclass — take another job. I can never go back to infantry again." he said. He could also leave the military. "I'm going to see how my recovery goes. I don't want to make a decision too soon." Whatever happens, Moss will miss the infantry. "We're physically fit, the strongest of the strong," he said. "It's what the military is all about, you know, defending your country. You're a warrior, and I miss that. I was a warrior while it lasted." —- Moss and Wynn are part of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y. Wynn sits at home in Calcium, N.Y., waiting for another plastic surgery.
"I didn't know my nose was this bad until I got to Bagram," he said. "They took skin from behind my ear to repair it, but it's not finished yet. Basically, my left nostril is a lot bigger than my right one."
Wynn, 30, has been in the Army since he was 19. "I don't regret what happened. Basically I'm like, hey, me and Moss and everybody else in the truck got lucky," he said. "I don't do what-ifs. I just let it go. Nothing to worry about."
Moss, of course, had a great big what-if lodged in his gut. He is still amazed that he's alive.
Someone videotaped the surgery to remove the RPG tube, and he's eager to see it. "The nurses still talk about it," Lorena Moss says of the tape. "He's a miracle. He really is."
But Moss is like Wynn in that he does a lot more looking forward than looking back.
"I'm still the same old Channing," he said. "Another bridge to cross. Another mountain to climb. Another obstacle," he said. "I'm going to work hard and do it. So here I am."
I'm never quite ready to see a man fight tears away, much respect and thanks to all who decided to put their safety at risk to help a man, in this case, and ever.
Nothing I respect and appreciate more than this just really gets to me.