LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. Brandon Camacho was in a "pissing contest" with the enemy. He shot one guy, then another popped up.
He threw a grenade, but it bounced off the man and exploded in a ditch.
As the squad leader then zigzagged through a field, he felt someone tug at his shirt sleeve. Hours later, after the firefight, he’d discover that a bullet had whizzed right through it, narrowly missing his bicep. It tore a hole through his 10th Mountain Division patch and through a pack of cigarettes in his arm pocket, destroying all but one.
"So I pulled it out and had myself a cigarette," Camacho says, holding the patch over his arm. Then he lifts the patch to expose a scar. It’s not from that bullet in April, but from another one a month later, earning the 22-year-old his fourth Purple Heart for wounds in a war he just won’t quit.
Struck by shrapnel during heavy mortar bombardment in Iraq in 2003, Camacho has since been grazed by one bullet, hit in the shoulder with a tracer round and finally, in June, shot in the arm. His men call him "The Bullet Magnet" and joke that since all his injuries have been on his left side, if they just stand to his right, they’ll be fine.
The most Purple Hearts received by one person is eight, according to various sources, but receiving four remains a rare occurrence.
A soldier’s soldier with a penchant for military history, Camacho has risen from private to staff sergeant with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team’s Company B, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, through three deployments and four combat wounds. He’s been shot, mortared, came within seconds of being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. He’s watched colleagues die.
“He’s the most experienced guy I know,” said Sgt. Daniel Hernandez, 23, of Odessa, Texas, who is in Camacho’s squad. “He can take any bad situation and use it in our favor. If we could fight this war and pick a dream team, I’d pick him.”
Camacho dreams of digging his toes in the sand and sipping a drink by the ocean in his native Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. And while he toys with the idea of getting out next year, he’s still in awe of the U.S. Army.
“I remember when I was a private. I’d look at my squad leader and think, ‘Look at him. He’s a staff sergeant. No one can touch these guys.’ Now I think, ‘God, I am the same,’ ” he says.
He recites the names of the men who didn’t make it: Maj. Douglas Sloan, the company commander with a great sense of humor they used to call “Lunch Box” because he was always looking for snacks, killed by a bomb in Wygal Valley, Afghanistan, on Oct. 31, 2006; Pfc. Alex Oceguera, who was killed with Sloan in the blast; Sgt. Russell Durgin, who died on June 13, 2006, in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, when his unit took small-arms fire; and Sgt. Brandon Adams, Camacho’s first roommate at Fort Drum, who taught him how to clean his boots and was killed in Iraq. Adams died of injuries sustained Feb. 16, 2004, when a grenade exploded as he was clearing a house in Fallujah.
“You meet the best people in the world in the Army,” Camacho says.
His first combat wound came in 2003, when his Army base near Fallujah came under mortar fire. Shrapnel was screaming into flesh and lit the tents on fire.
While Camacho was running to the bunker, a shard of burning metal struck just above his left knee, and a rocket hit the structure. He headed for another bunker but fell. Sgt. Ryan Haskins, who is deployed with him again now in Afghanistan, picked him up and pulled him to safety.
It was a singed flesh wound and Camacho was back in his unit two weeks later.
The son of a Saipan-born father and a American-born mother, and grandson of a U.S. Navy World War II veteran, Camacho grew up understanding what it is to be an American in a bigger world. His uncle is a command sergeant major with the 101st Airborne Division.
He was born in Saipan but moved to the States as a teen, joining the Army at 18, straight out of high school. It was shortly after 9/11, and he knew he’d be going to war.
He knows he’s fighting “on the right side of this war,” and takes his responsibility for his men seriously.
His uncle yelled at him for being the guy on point.
“He said I shouldn’t be doing that anymore,” Camacho says.
“They tell me I need to go back to basic training and practice IMT (individual movement technique) a lot more,” he says. “A lot of people say I am unlucky. But I think I am pretty damn lucky.”
He notes wryly that everyone in his platoon who has gotten hit has been in his squad. But even they trust Camacho to lead them through battle.
“The way he trained us back in Drum, I don’t want to be with no one else,” said Spc. Devin Johnson, of Chester, S.C., who was hit with bullet fragments in both legs in May when insurgents fired at the turret of a truck where he was gunning. “If something happens, we know what to do.”
Camacho’s second and third Purple Hearts came during his next deployment in Afghanistan’s northeastern Nuristan province. He had just come off a tough year back home. His father suffered a stroke and his grandfather died.
In July 2006, a bullet grazed his fingers as he pulled himself over a rock while chasing the enemy. He was hit again in April 2007, this time with a tracer round, after their deployment got extended beyond March. Both times, he finished the fight before realizing he was wounded. And both times, he was back to work within weeks.
Finally, in June 2007, Camacho went home, two more Purple Hearts in hand.
When it came time to redeploy this year, Camacho was assigned a recruiting job, which would have kept him out of harm’s way.
But the soldier was having none of it. He was thrilled when a captain intervened to get him back to the front lines.
Last May, Camacho, now a squad leader, and his men were chasing insurgents through tall grass in Afghanistan’s Logar province when a gunman jumped up and sprayed gunfire. Camacho reached back to get a magazine and felt like he’d been hit in the shoulder with a baseball bat. He was bleeding heavily. His arm froze up. But he kept firing until he got too dizzy and stumbled out to mounted units in trucks.
Camacho got his fourth Purple Heart and a two-week leave to go back home.
When he returned in July, the men greeted him warmly.
The next day, 1st Lt. Scott Davis, Camacho’s platoon leader, was talking to villagers at a girls school in the province’s Charkh District when shots rang out. Camacho was already at the forward position, where his men were returning fire from behind an orchard wall.
When the exchange was over, the men slid down behind the wall, smoking cigarettes as the adrenaline subsided.
“Welcome back, Sergeant,” one of the men called to Camacho.
“Right back in the game, huh, Sergeant?” said another.
Then Hernandez chimed in.
“‘The Bullet Magnet’ is back!”