Five years after being wounded in one war, amputee soldier re-enlists in another
By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 14, 2011
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan — When people ask Staff Sgt. Brian Beem why he stayed in the Army after a bomb blast took part of his right leg, he usually answers with a joke.
“I was on a lot of drugs when I made that decision.”
On Wednesday, a little more than five years after the blast, Beem was lucid and upright on a prosthetic limb as he re-enlisted at a remote base in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, extending his contract with the military.
The decision was easy, he said.
Even as he lay doped up on painkillers in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006, “I knew I was going to stay in for the full 20,” he said. “I’ve always known that.”
His patrol was returning to base Oct. 11, 2006, rolling a block south of the notorious Baghdad slum Sadr City when an explosively formed penetrator sliced through the hull of his Stryker combat vehicle. Beem, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was knocked off his feet, but didn’t know why.
“I’d been in a couple IED blasts before that,” he said. “That was a rugged one.”
He looked over to see his best friend, Sgt. Nicholas R. Sowinski, of Tempe, Ariz., dead next to him. The vehicle was on fire. All power and internal communication was out.
As he called out to the rest of the soldiers in the vehicle to find out if anyone else was injured or dead, he felt down the length of his leg. Down to his knee was fine, but as he probed further, he felt what seemed like a second knee. It was a compound fracture.
He managed to climb out of the back of the Stryker and took three hops away from the burning wreck before his headset’s cord yanked him back. His leg was shattered, his best friend gone, but even in that moment, he said, he had to laugh at forgetting to unplug himself.
“I find amusement in all the little things,” he said. “It’s a coping mechanism, I guess.”
Less than three weeks after the bombing, complications forced surgeons to remove part of his leg. And less than a year later, he was back to work in Alaska.
That’s not where he wanted to be. His unit, 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, was deploying to Iraq without him.
“But when this one came around, and when our number was drawn to come over here for this fight, Staff Sgt. Beem fought very hard to make sure that he could be here,” said Col. Todd Wood, commander of 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, the squadron’s higher headquarters.
Wood issued Beem’s oath of re-enlistment at FOB Frontenac, in Kandahar’s Arghandab River Valley.
The fact that he still wanted to deploy after having already done it, not needing to further prove himself, “is amazing,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Bobo, a 5th Squadron targeting noncommissioned officer and close friend of Beem. “He’s one of the few people I’ve ever introduced my friends from home to.”
“I call him my bionic friend,” said Bobo, of Payson, Utah. “It’s almost like basking in the reflected glory of somebody else’s coolness.”
Beem shrugs off that kind of thing. For him, it’s about the inspiration he derives from the people around him and the memory of his friend, Sowinski.
“I would like to think that if he were still alive today … and he were in the same situation, he would make the same choices,” he told the dozens of 5th Squadron troops who attended his re-enlistment. “I do it for people like him, I do it for my family, I do it for my friends and I do it because of all the people like you.”
Staff Sgt. Brian Beem, the nighttime battle noncommissioned officer for 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, who lost part of his right leg in a bomb blast in Iraq in 2006, shakes hands with Col. Todd Wood, commander of 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, who re-enlisted Beem in a ceremony in Afghanistan on Nov. 9.
MATT MILLHAM/STARS AND STRIPES