Bell pins Purple Heart on two troops
DEXHEIM, Germany — Two Iraqi-war soldiers who survived malicious strikes and made it back home to family and friends were awarded the Purple Heart during a ceremony Wednesday.
The attacks on their convoy left the two 1st Armored Division troops struggling for life and forever changed.
Master Sgt. Royce Ray, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, and Spc. Victor Baquero, 123rd Main Support Battalion, were presented their awards by Gen. B.B. Bell, U.S. Army Europe commander, who heard of their plight over Thanksgiving dinner with the troops. Bell thanked the soldiers for their service as he pinned the medals on their uniforms.
Ray, who has been in the Army for 21 years, explained that an improvised explosive device blasted the first vehicle in his unit’s three-vehicle convoy.
The attack caused a lot of smoke and trapped the convoy between three lanes of traffic and a median. Next came a rocket propelled grenade attack and then, small arms fire.
Ray said he and members of the convoy returned fire. Trying to see through the smoke and get out of the area, the convoy began moving again. With only voice commands to guide them, the convoy drove into another vehicle and crashed.
Then it all became black, he said.
“I’m really hurting right now,” Ray said just after the ceremony, explaining why he could not go into further detail. The pain is physical, because mentally he said he still wishes he were “back in Iraq.”
Later, during a phone interview, Ray, who is the division safety noncommissioned officer in charge, said he believes his military training played a major role in keeping him alive.
“This just goes to show the impact of training. It reinforces my belief in conducting training, serious training, and battle drills. Those things are what’s going to keep you alive,” the safety NCO said.
Unlike Ray, Baquero does not wish to return to Iraq, having already been ambushed twice, along with numerous inner-city attacks, before the final convoy strike that sent him out of Baghdad and into Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, by medevac.
Baquero said it’s a good break to be away from Iraq, though he does miss his unit.
“I’m not going to lie,” Baquero said with a sigh of relief. “That was just not for me. It was horrible. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Now, after four surgeries and two more to go, Baquero said the nightmare is behind him.
“When you’re losing blood like that, your body wants to quit,” Baquero said after he survived a direct hit from an IED. “I was screaming trying to stay awake. I didn’t want to let myself go to sleep.”
He was pulling security around his stopped convoy when he heard an explosion and felt a strong wind. Baquero, who is still on his first duty station, said his weapon was thrown into the air from the force of the explosion. Though he remained standing up, directly behind him a Humvee was demolished, with two flat tires and an exploded windshield.
Then the blood began to flow. Shrapnel had hit Baquero all over his body, leaving him fighting for his life.
“All I could do was cry,” said Isabel Saraiva, Baquero’s fiancee, who stayed with Baquero for nearly three weeks, helping to care for the injured troop and praying for his life.
Now, though both men say they feel honored to have been awarded the Purple Heart, they can’t help but think of the men and women they left behind in Iraq.
“I just pray that everyone makes it back home soon,” Baquero said. “I really do miss my friends and NCOs. It’s weird being here without them.”