'We had done everything right'
Amid a firefight in heavily mined farmland of the Arghandab River Valley, Cpl. David Bixler turned to see an Afghan soldier about to step on uncleared ground.
Bixler leaped up, grabbed the soldier by the collar of his body armor and yanked him backward.
And then, Bixler said, “I went kaboom.”
For the next three months, he didn’t get out of his hospital bed.
“I lost count of how many surgeries I had,” he said. “For a while there, I was spending 18 hours a day in surgery. ... One after another after another. First they fixed my insides, and then they worked on my legs.”
He remembers his response when he heard from buddies downrange that the Afghan soldier had suffered only minor injuries: “Mission accomplished.”
Saving the soldier earned Bixler the Silver Star.
The 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division arrived in eastern Arghandab during the summer of 2010 as part of the surge in the pivotal southern province of Kandahar. The battalion replaced a company that had largely been hemmed in by the insurgents, and Bixler’s unit started aggressively challenging the Taliban in their entrenched position.
The pace was “madness,” Bixler said.
By late September, more than a dozen soldiers in the unit had been killed or wounded. Bixler’s platoon leader had been killed by an improvised explosive device.
“There were bombs everywhere,” Bixler said. “We had done everything right. We had scanned all the places we were stepping. We had done all the stuff you’re supposed to do to make sure we don’t blow up and people were still dying.”
On Sept. 30, 2010, Bixler’s platoon left one of the unit’s small combat outposts, heading across muddy grape furrows and pomegranate orchards to speak with a few local elders. The area was so densely mined with pressure-plate bombs that an explosive ordnance disposal crew had to clear a narrow path for the soldiers.
Bixler was the last soldier, picking up the panels that marked the safe pathway as they went.
The day before, he had been assigned a team of three Afghan National Army soldiers to lead during the patrol. He took an interpreter to meet them.
The machine gunner and team leader for the Afghans was a 20-year-old named Fazel. He told Bixler he intended to get married soon.
The five of them planned the patrol.
“I went and sought them out to teach them as much as I could. I tried to make sure that they were as ready as much as possible for me to lead them,” Bixler said. “It really didn’t help.”
‘We knew it was there’
As Bixler’s platoon neared the village, they had to wade a sewage-strewn canal and climb a tall dirt berm on the other side.
“We weren’t talking too much at that point, trying to stay quiet,” Bixler said.
The tree line in front of them opened up with machine gun fire.
Most of the platoon was pinned down in a ditch beside the berm they had just climbed. Because of the heavily mined terrain, only a few soldiers could get into decent fighting positions.
The platoon leader called for them to turn back on the cleared path and re-engage on safer ground. Bixler was now in the lead, prepared to remark the path.
Fazel, a little shaky once the shooting started, “misinterpreted everything and took off” ahead of the platoon, Bixler said.
Another soldier yelled and Bixler turned his head to see Fazel bounding up the dirt berm back toward the canal — and off the cleared path.
He yelled “Stop” in Dari.
And then in Pashtu.
And again in English.
Fazel looked at Bixler but kept going.
Bixler jumped up from the ditch and chased him to “keep him off that soft dirt, where obviously something was there. I didn’t know where, he didn’t know where but we knew it was there. He was not thinking it through, and he stepped right on top of that stuff.”
Bixler screamed at him, told him not to move.
Catching up, he grabbed Fazel’s body armor and pulled him back off the soft dirt, but the force of the movement knocked Bixler off balance.
“When I threw him back, it caused me to go forward and a little bit to the side,” he said. “At that point: Boom.”
Bixler had stepped on an IED rigged with two 82mm mortars.
The explosion threw Bixler into the air. He landed hard on his face but managed to roll over.
A quick survey revealed his left arm was torn open to the bone and he had an abdominal wound that wasn’t bleeding. He thought: “OK, I’m still alive.”
He scanned farther down and saw that his legs were mostly gone. The blast amputated his right leg below the thigh. His lower left leg dangled from the knee.
Bixler flung his shredded left arm across his body and reached into a pocket on his right shoulder for his tourniquet.
“I got about halfway,” he said. “Before I could cinch it down, I started fading out.”
He came to briefly with medics hovering over him, but he passed out again as they heaved him onto the stretcher.
The soldiers dragged him back over the canal, and Bixler woke up again in the water — “not a pleasant experience,” he said.
The soldiers started peppering Bixler with questions.
Did he know who he was?
“I’m David Bixler,” he said. “This sucks. I don’t have any legs.”
He faded again.
The pain didn’t come until they had made it to the landing zone for the medevac.
“I started screaming,” Bixler said. “I went into shock. Both my arms went numb, my face went numb and tingly. The next thing I know I’m in the helicopter.”
Before the helicopter took off, his platoon sergeant handed him a boot.
“You’re missing something,” Bixler recalled Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Lyon telling him.
He gripped his amputated right foot against his chest.
“I hate you,” he told Lyon.
‘How long before I can stand up?’
Doctors essentially took Bixler apart and put him back together.
“My spine had to be reconnected and fixed. My whole rear end had to be reassembled,” he said during an April interview at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The shrapnel in his left arm separated flesh but didn’t touch any major nerves or slice through tendons.
“There’s some muscle loss, but it still works,” Bixler said, twisting his left elbow around to check out the scar.
Getting vertical again was more frustrating. He begged doctors for answers.
“How long do you think this is going to take before I can walk again?” he asked. “How long before I can stand up on some legs? I need to be upright talking to humans.”
Five months after getting blown up, he put on his first pair of prosthetics, short training legs that leave him six inches below his natural height. They don’t have knee joints — he has to learn balance first — but after two months with them he could stand and walk with the aid of physical therapy equipment.
He describes the first time he stood up as “a combination of euphoria and the feeling you get when you drink just enough alcohol to where you don’t care about anything anymore.”
Bixler despises his wheelchair.
“Sitting in the chair, I gotta look up to everybody,” he said. “I feel like a kid again. It’s not right. And it’s not the position a soldier should be in. You should be able to stand up, shake your guy’s hand and talk face to face.”
He’s looking forward to wearing his uniform again, “to walk around and be criticized because I didn’t blouse my boots properly,” he joked, adding with a laugh that he’ll relish bending over and pulling up his pants legs to reveal his metal legs.
Bixler said he doesn’t have any regrets about what he did that day. He’s proud that no one was killed. The Afghan soldier, Fazel, had minor shrapnel injuries and two American soldiers suffered concussions in the blast.
“There was a luck factor, maybe a guardian angel in the middle somewhere,” Bixler said. “I’m lucky to be alive. So is the ANA guy.”