CHICAGO — Stationed in an Afghan battle zone, Navy trauma nurse Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari gained plenty of experience treating the wounds of war. But he had never seen anything like the case that arrived by helicopter one day in January.
A Marine had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, but the device hadn't gone off. It was still there — a live explosive lodged in the young man's thigh.
For Gennari, treating the Marine meant risking his own life. The surgeon on hand told him he didn't have to tend to the Marine, who was kept outside the hospital because of the danger.
"I said, 'I'm a nurse,'" Gennari recalled this week. "'That's my job. I'm going.'"
With the help of an explosives expert, Gennari removed the grenade and saved the Marine's life. The act, which was captured on video, earned Gennari the Bronze Star Medal for heroic or meritorious service.
"He's a natural leader," Navy Capt. David Beardsley, Gennari's commanding officer, said at the ceremony Thursday. "We all carry our service reputations with us, and Jim's was stellar. I knew I could have confidence he'd do the right thing."
Gennari, 52, of East Chicago, is now stationed at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, where the medal ceremony was held.
He was deployed to Afghanistan from August 2011 until March, treating the wounded at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh in Helmand province. His main job, he said, was aiding service members wounded by improvised explosive devices.
On Jan. 12, Gennari received word that a helicopter was bringing in a desperately hurt Marine: Cpl. Winder Perez, whose leg still bore the explosive that had been fired at him by an enemy combatant.
Shaking off the surgeon's offer to remain on the sidelines, Gennari approached Perez, who had been taken to a safe area outside of the hospital and was still conscious.
"I said, 'I promise you no matter what, I won't leave you until that thing's out of your leg,'" Gennari recalled. "He said, 'Thanks, cool.'"
Gennari then anesthetized Perez and, with Army Staff Sgt. Ben Summerfield, an explosives disposal specialist, got down to work. When they sliced away Perez's pants, Gennari saw a projectile the length of a man's forearm almost entirely buried in Perez's thigh.
Summerfield and Gennari deliberated on whether to pull it out or call the surgeon to cut it out, Gennari said. They decided to pull it out because if the device exploded, the base had more nurses. The base had no more surgeons, he said.
With three or four tugs, the projectile came loose, a moment captured on video. Other troops took it away to be detonated safely near a berm that surrounded the base. The blast could have demolished a car, Gennari said.
But the emergency still wasn't over. Gennari boarded a helicopter to help transport Perez to another camp about 60 miles away. During the flight, Perez's ventilator stopped working, so Gennari pumped a manual bag-and-valve device to help him breathe.
"Go figure," he said. "The thing doesn't blow you up, then the damn machine breaks."
Perez survived the trip and today is recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he is assigned to the Marine Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment. He declined to be interviewed, but Gennari keeps up with him by phone and said that, despite suffering a shattered femur, Perez has improved enough to be able to run.
Leslie Gennari, Gennari's wife of 25 years, said at Thursday's ceremony that she wasn't surprised when her husband called her with the news of his harrowing adventure.
"That's him," she said. "He's always ready to take that first step to be the good Samaritan."
Gennari said he hopes the Bronze Star he received will remind the public that the military's medical personnel can face deadly peril alongside the troops they treat.
"We risk our lives out there saving lives."