Seaman Jacob Schlauder’s platoon was in a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle doing a quick-reaction force mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 25, 2014, when the turret gunner Lance Cpl. Alex Juedes noticed that three kids playing outside suddenly went inside a home, as though called in by a parent.
Suspecting that they might be attacked, Juedes, Schlauder and the two other men in the MRAP immediately started looking for a suspicious vehicle. Then a rocket-propelled grenade hit the MRAP.
Schlauder was knocked unconscious. Juedes, who fell in from the turret and was crammed between two seats, had lost most of a hand and was bleeding from his leg. The vehicle commander, Staff Sgt. Michael Lane, had taken significant shrapnel to the arm. Events seemed to move in slow motion, Schlauder said, and everyone’s voice — including his own — sounded weirdly deep, somehow affected by the gas spilling out of the punctured fire suppression system hose.
He screamed to Lane to see if he needed anything and immediately started treating Juedes.
“To wake up in literally hell, it’s not that great,” Schlauder, 21, said in a phone interview from Afghanistan, where he is still serving. “It just feels like a dream now.”
Schlauder wrapped Juedes’ hand and put a tourniquet on his thigh, where shrapnel had pierced his femoral artery. But even as he worked on Juedes, Schlauder continued to lose consciousness. He passed out several more times — once while he was giving Juedes morphine.
The driver, Lance Cpl. Lester Frank, began quickly heading back to Patrol Base Boldak. When they arrived, the fresh air hit Schlauder hard, and he threw up outside the vehicle. His commander told him he was in shock and had a traumatic brain injury. A medevac helicopter was coming, the commander said..
Schlauder went to Juedes and started an intravenous line — but when the Marines started reading his identification number out loud, he screamed: “You’re not going to medevac me!”
Schlauder stayed at Boldak, while Juedes and Lane went to Germany and then to the United States for treatment. He later learned that because of the way the RPG hit the MRAP, he would have been killed if he had been sitting one seat to the right.
“I was really lucky,” he said.
Schlauder had been in Afghanistan since October 2013 and was in his first firefight in Afghanistan on Oct. 15, he said. His unit, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, does frequent patrols to keep nearby Camp Leatherneck secure, and Schlauder had treated other Marines and Afghan police.
He fought against going to Leatherneck for care after his TBI; he said caring for the rest of the Marines after an attack is even more important than the care he can provide on the spot. So when he was told to go to Leatherneck a few weeks later, he figured it must be related to his injury.
After Schlauder spent two days of “doing nothing” at Leatherneck — “absolutely wonderful,” except that it made him feel guilty — his platoon commander came to his room and asked whether he had brought his camouflage utility uniform with him. He had. The uniform was spotless and unfaded because the Marines and sailors at Boldak typically wear flame-resistant gear.
Schlauder was told to wear the uniform and wait in a hangar for a town hall meeting hosted by Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal Barrett.
Once there, Schlauder’s platoon commander told him to stand to the side.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Am I in trouble?’” Schlauder said.
When the warning came that Amos and Barrett were about to arrive, the platoon commander told Schlauder to stand in the back of the room at the center and ran through where to walk and how to stand. Schlauder still wasn’t sure what was going on.
“My biggest concern was what I should do with my cover,” he said, referring to the uniform hat he had in his hands. Then Amos walked in, started talking about corpsmen and called Schlauder forward.
Schlauder walked to the front of the room, unsure of how he should stand or what he was supposed to do. Amos began to tell a story about his recent trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he had spoken to Juedes and Lane.
Amos and Barrett said they had mentioned they were visiting Leatherneck soon, and the wounded Marines and their families had a message for them to take to Schlauder: Thank you.
But Amos did them one better, awarding Schlauder the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” device for his actions.
“The doc here had the presence of mind, even though he’d been knocked unconscious,” to save Juedes’ life, Amos said.
“Over the last 11 or 12 years of combat, sergeant major and I have pinned on more Purple Hearts, visited more corpsmen (in the hospital), been to more memorial services for our corpsman than you can imagine,” Amos said. “You give your lives and you give parts of your bodies for those of us who call ourselves United States Marines.”
Schlauder said he is proud of the medal, but mainly he’s just happy that everyone is alive.
Not long after Juedes got back to the U.S. for treatment, he turned 21, Schlauder said. His father — who also served in the Marine Corps — called to thank Schlauder for making sure his son had another birthday.
“Getting to talk to everyone, seeing that everyone’s going to have a normal, happy, good life… I couldn’t be happier,” he said.