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Healing the Invisible Wounds of War

Sergeant Says, 'I Will Not Let Him Win'

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2008 — "Burning flesh and diesel fuel," Army Sgt. Robert Bartlett said, recalling the roadside bombing he survived in Baghdad. "I can still smell it."

Three years later, the memories of this life-altering moment on an Iraqi highway remain fresh in Bartlett's mind. But after undergoing more than 40 surgeries and persevering through an arduous regimen of therapy, the sergeant has learned to shed the post-traumatic stress that once enveloped his life.

On May 3, 2005, an armored Humvee carrying Bartlett and three other soldiers dusted down Route Pluto, a desert road flanked by palm groves that runs into the heart of the Iraqi capital. The unit had cleared two sectors already that day, and only one more remained before the troops could retire to their base at
Camp Rustimiyah.

The truck commander turned left toward an overpass along Route Brewers, where a series of highway barriers sat in staggered formation. This tactic, known as "side-stacking," prevents car bombers from maneuvering easily. But one drawback is that the concrete labyrinth also slows coalition vehicles, which on that day would have fatal consequences.

Watching the Humvee as it snaked through the maze was an insurgent who clutched a handheld radio transmitter linked to a 40-pound bomb hidden inside a barrier. The triggerman waited until the unit was at its most vulnerable to detonate the explosive, spewing a deadly brew of shrapnel, ball bearings and molten metal through the vehicle.

The blast shaved the top of the driver's cranium, riddled his body and killed him instantly. It sawed through the machine gunner's legs. It ripped off half of Bartlett's face, burned his arms and caused him to bleed internally.

"I knew I was hurt very bad," Bartlett recalled. "I looked over at my truck commander, who was dead. His body was mutilated. I started to pass out. My gunner tried to stand up in the gunner's hatch, and his legs collapsed underneath him."

Bartlett regained consciousness when his gunner toppled onto him. With all the strength his singed hands could muster, Bartlett tried to straighten the gunner's mangled legs. Both men winced in pain.

"We figured we were going to die right then and there," he recalled. "Smoke was inside the vehicle. The smell of burning flesh and diesel fuel - I can still smell it. I smell it every day. I leaned over on him and we kind of just hugged each other. We were going to die together."


Four years earlier, Bartlett, then a civilian, operated a construction company in Gilbert, Ariz. When the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ushered in a period of economic weakness, his business foundered. To make ends meet, he took gigs bartending at two local Irish pubs. For the extroverted Bartlett -- who said he had never met a stranger in his life -- employment that placed him in the center of the crowd was the right fit.

But in 2003, he left his civilian life behind when he answered the call to service that had beckoned his father, both grandfathers and generations of his forebears: He linked himself to a rich family tradition by becoming a military man.

"We've been fighting since George Washington in Valley Forge. And before that it was the Irish and the Scottish fighting England back in the day," the hulking 6-foot Bartlett said. "We like a good fight."

Army Sgt. Robert BartlettAt age 30, Bartlett's Army career as a scout platoon sniper began at Fort Stewart, Ga., then on to the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, Calif. After a stint at Fort Benning, Ga., he deployed in December 2004 with the 3rd Infantry Division to Baghdad's Sadr City, a volatile Shiite slum with sympathies to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

During his tour in Iraq, Bartlett said, his unit encountered shooting, rockets or homemade bomb attacks about once a week. While combat operations were part of his regular duties there, the sergeant occupied 90 percent of his time performing humanitarian missions, which surprised the young soldier and seemed to validate his choice to enlist.

"I was skeptical that our government was doing a good job, and I was wrong. I was absolutely wrong," he said. "I took a huge pay cut to do what I do. I sold everything and joined the military. It was the best decision I ever made."

The other 10 percent of the time, Bartlett conducted route reconnaissance, clearing sectors and overpasses and sniffing out homemade bombs and explosively formed penetrators -- the armor-piercing category of makeshift explosive that he came to know all too personally. Bartlett, who said he acknowledged the danger involved in his mission beforehand, spoke with an air of steely humility in an interview last month while recounting his ill-fated deployment.

"It's part of the job," he said.


Inside the bombed-out Humvee, Bartlett and his gunner held each other as they waited for their last living moments to pass. Meanwhile, however, the second truck commander -- who was sitting behind Bartlett and had been ejected from the vehicle during the blast -- awoke in the street. He was injured, but capable of forcing himself toward the charred truck.

Once inside, the truck commander moved Bartlett into the back seat, affixed a tourniquet on the wounded legs of the gunner and cranked the Humvee out of the kill zone.

"The truck was just grinding with metal. Ball bearings went through the motor, through the transmission, and all the tires were riding on their rims," Bartlett recalled. "I just started yelling 'GO! GO! GO!' That's all I could get out because my jaw was hanging down by my neck. My eye had already closed like a red curtain going over it. With every breath I took, I was losing
another breath."

Back at Camp Rustimiyah, Bartlett's breathing stopped. He was legally dead before the doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy and resuscitated him. Later, a helicopter evacuated Bartlett to the 86th Combat Area Support Hospital in Balad, Iraq, where he was revived a second time.

Medical personnel flew him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. His chances of survival

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