'I wanted to be up front, leading the way'
Cradling his newborn son in a New Mexico hospital room, 25-year-old Joshua Hernandez was buzzing with the elation of becoming a father.
Then a nurse walked in and told him and his wife that they should turn on the TV. Hernandez held tight to his baby as he watched the second airplane collide into the twin towers, and his personal happiness gave way.
He remembers the shock. The helplessness. The anger.
And the fierce protectiveness he felt for his young family.
“From there, it grew and grew,” Hernandez said. “It was just something inside me, and holding my son, I knew I had to do something.”
As the details of what happened unfolded and al-Qaida became a household name, Hernandez was “like the rest of America: glued to the news.” He was restless, needing to take action. At the time, he was a manager at a fitness club, and one of the members was an Army recruiter who talked to him about enlisting.
“I could do that,” he remembers thinking. “I can at least go out and defend my country and do something honorable as a father. Show my son something good.”
In January 2002, he signed up for the infantry. He wanted to take a gun to the front lines and avenge what had happened to his country.
“I didn’t want to be in the background cheering people on,” he said. “I wanted to be up front, leading the way.”
His wife, Michelle, and his family were nervous about his new career choice, but they supported his decision.
“I couldn’t talk about anything else” after 9/11 happened, he said.
On the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Hernandez was in boot camp.
Hernandez, Michelle and 1-year-old Sebastian moved to Fort Hood, Texas, where he would spend his entire military career.
He deployed to Iraq in 2004 for a 15-month tour with 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment in Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad. His unit was there in April when cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his shiite militia declared holy war on American troops.
“We had eight KIAs on that day,” Hernandez said.
After the deployment ended, Hernandez had about a year and half at home before deploying again to Iraq in October 2006.
About nine months into his second deployment, this time with 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, Hernandez was on a dismounted patrol, and he walked over an improvised explosive device. The blast threw him, badly rattling his whole body, but the area wasn’t secure enough for a helicopter to pick him up. When they got back to base, he was treated by a medic for a back injury and a concussion, and was given the option to go home.
His unit was already shorthanded, and he often filled in as platoon sergeant when needed, so Hernandez declined to leave his soldiers behind. Instead, he spent two weeks on bed rest, and then worked through the pain for the next six months of the deployment with medication and steroid shots.
“I sucked it up and drove on,” he said.
But when he got back to Texas, the choice to stay in the military was no longer his. He had to have surgery on his back to fix two spinal fractures, and the doctor said carrying any large amount weight could paralyze him. Hernandez, a staff sergeant, was medically retired in 2009 with 100 percent disability for his back, traumatic brain injury and hearing loss.
“I would love to have continued serving,” he said. “There’s nothing better I could be doing.”
By the time he retired, he had had a second son, Alexander. Now awaiting the birth of his daughter, he’s working on his teaching degree at a school near Fort Hood with the goal of becoming a basketball coach. He said he likes the idea of spending all day in a gym, but he’s disappointed he couldn’t continue in the Army as he had planned. His eldest son, Sebastian, old enough to have heard the story of 9/11, had thought of him as Rambo.
“I did what I did for love of my country,” Hernandez said. “Even knowing I’d be injured, I’d do it over again. No questions asked.”