Injured Navy corpsman receives Purple Heart
By Kate Wiltrout
© August 4, 2010
Angelo Anderson likes taking care of patients - mothers and babies at Camp Lejeune, clients at the infectious disease clinic at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, and more than anything, Marine infantry troops on duty in Afghanistan.
Last year, while stationed in Portsmouth, the Navy corpsman volunteered for a combat assignment. His first few weeks in Afghanistan were spent working at a battalion aid station, helping care for injured troops flown in on helicopters. But he yearned to do more - to go out on patrol with a small group of warriors, away from the security of a base.
He got his wish. Assigned to a rifle company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the Atlanta native began going on missions in and around Marjah, a city in southern Afghanistan where U.S. forces are trying to assert control.
"When you're out with a foot patrol, it's just you and your medical bag," Anderson explained. He'd spend each patrol rehearsing medical scenarios in his head: What would he do if a buddy was shot right here, or a bomb exploded on Marines a few meters away?
He learned to almost disregard the sound of insurgents firing AK-47 rifles. The bigger fear was homemade bombs buried in the streets or fields they were walking.
"The sad thing is when you get to the point where you're really not worried about getting shot. You're worried about stepping on something that will end your life instantly," Anderson said matter-of-factly.
On July 2, the Marines of Lima Company were trying to make friends in a few Afghan villages. A fire team of about eight men walked ahead of Anderson; another team followed behind.
He had just jumped across an irrigation canal and started down a footpath toward some mud huts when he heard a three-round burst from an AK-47. One of the bullets tore through his right arm. A second barrage halted him as he ran for cover. This time, a bullet entered his thigh, shattering his right femur.
Suddenly, the 21-year-old was taking care of a new patient - himself.
He remembers thinking, what can I do to sustain myself until my Marines can get to me?
They dragged him to the side of the road, rolled him over to reach his medical bag and asked him for instructions.
"Doc, we need you now," one said. "You have to talk us through this."
They applied tourniquets and gauze to his wounds. Then, he talked them through taking his pulse - a vital sign the medical team coming by helicopter would need to know.
During the 15 or 20 minutes it took for a helicopter to arrive, Anderson took stock: of his situation and his life.
"I trusted in what I had told my Marines, that they would do all they could for me. And that even if what they did didn't help, if it was my time, it was my time."
He prayed, he said, harder than he had ever prayed in his life.
Then began a series of evacuation flights: first to Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan, then on to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The final hop brought him back to a familiar place: Portsmouth, where he had spent more than year before deploying and where many of his closest friends worked.
Since then, he has occupied a room on 4G, the orthopedics ward. His room is decorated with posters and cards made by his fellow corpsmen, some he has known since entering boot camp in 2007.
They're adorned with pictures of a group of smiling twenty-somethings at the 2009 Corpsmen Ball.
"I call them my love circle," Anderson said. "If you can feel the love in here, that's them."
Tuesday afternoon, almost a dozen of them packed into his room to watch Anderson receive a Purple Heart from a three-star Marine general, Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski.
Natonski, head of the Norfolk-based Marine Corps Forces Command, commented on the crowd when he entered the room with his own retinue of uniformed supporters.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Natonski gave Anderson perhaps the highest praise a Marine can offer.
"It may say U.S. Navy on your ID card, but I will tell you, you are a Marine," Natonski said, as the hint of a smile passed over Anderson's face.
After a round of handshakes, the official party departed. A cluster of corpsmen and spouses lingered, taking pictures and examining the medal.
Anderson now has a titanium rod in his leg and a plate in his arm. He can't yet walk on his own, but he hopes to be playing basketball in a few months.
After that, his future is uncertain. He wants to stay in the Navy, maybe do another stint after his enlistment is up in 2012.
Eventually, he'd like to go to medical school.
He thinks he knows what field he'd specialize in: emergency medicine.