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Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand.
Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand.
Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
At Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand.
At Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Sgt. Chris Champion was wounded when a mine exploded, blowing off his lower left leg. Champion, with Company C, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colo., was patrolling in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.
Sgt. Chris Champion was wounded when a mine exploded, blowing off his lower left leg. Champion, with Company C, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division out of Fort Carson, Colo., was patrolling in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand.
Sgt. Chris Champion, 25, hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, talks about the day a mine blew off his lower left leg in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. Champion, a soldier with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team also suffered wounds to his right leg and hand. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

LANDSTUHL, Germany — As Sgt. Chris Champion spoke about his injuries, he displayed no emotion, as though they had happened to someone else.

But there was no hiding the stump of his left leg, which had not been fully bandaged yet and was still raw and black.

He had seen it for the first time the night before.

It took only two days for Champion to go from an Afghanistan cornfield, where he had stepped on a land mine, to his hospital bed. Shortly after the blast, he had been transported out to the Role 3 hospital at Kandahar Air Field. Then he was later flown to Bagram Air Field, and finally on to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany as part of the swift evacuation system that has moved thousands of troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

He recalled little of the experience: “I was so doped up, I don’t even remember my first surgery.”

But sitting in the land mine’s crater, a medic attending to the tangled mass of flesh and bone that was his left leg, the 25-year-old understood immediately that he would be an amputee.

“At that point the morphine is starting to kick in,” Champion said. “I’m scared. I’m thinking I just let everybody down, and, ‘God, I hope my wife doesn’t leave me.’ ”

On Sept. 26, Champion was leading a sweep of fields and groves in the Arghandab River Valley of Kandahar Province. Besides providing food, the river valley’s lush vineyards, knee-high grasslands and pomegranate orchards were known as a favorite place for the Taliban to conceal weapons and bombs.

It was nearing the hottest part of the day when Champion — called “Champs” by his fellow soldiers in C company 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment — noticed the trampled cornstalks. He saw a “rat trail,” evidence of someone walking around.

The previous night, Champion had heard rustling and seen three figures emerge from the very same fields. It was why his soldiers were now sifting through them.

“It’s kind of like your ‘Spidey’ sense goes up,” he said. “I can feel something is not right.”

Champion told everyone to take a few steps back. Be much more deliberate, he told them, keep your eyes open. He then inched forward. In his right hand, he brushed the tamped-down cornstalks with his metal detector. Next to the cornstalks, a tangled field of marijuana plants grew.

“I had taken two, maybe three steps,” Champion said, when his foot triggered a land mine.

Thrown into the air by the blast, he landed in a ditch. After the shock of the explosion wore off, Champion’s first thought was to ensure no one had been injured, not realizing that he had been

“I go to stand,” he said, “And I see my left foot is missing.”

He picked up his rifle, and using it as a crutch, he attempted to hoist himself. But his right leg was also full of shrapnel and bleeding; he would later learn that it was broken.

“All I could feel was the pain,” he said, “throbbing with every heartbeat.”

He sat back down in the hole, and yelled for help. His unit’s medic soon found him, cinched a tourniquet on his left leg, and started administering morphine. The young private attempted to shield Champion from the carnage, but Champion forced a glimpse.

“All I see is hamburger meat,” he said. “I knew my leg was gone.”

Champion’s friend Sgt. Wesley Boelter was next to reach him. Boelter held Champion’s hand as the friends apologized to each other, each blaming himself for what happened.

Soon Champion felt woozy from blood loss. He heard the whirr of choppers. Tilting his head back, he looked up, expecting to see Black Hawks, the ones that would fly him out. But they were attack helicopters, and they passed.

He lay back in the two-foot crater created by the land mine. The medevac team would eventually retrieve him from there.

Two days later, Champion awoke in a hospital bed at Landstuhl. More surgeries awaited him the next day, after which he would fly back to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. Teal sheets covered Champion’s right leg during his interview.

He said he was fairly certain he would be able to keep it, lifting his right limb to show that it could still be maneuvered. Pink gauze wrapped around his right hand, concealing the ball bearings that had lodged into his thumb and forefinger. He wore a black T-shirt, and his thin face was unharmed.

Champion is one of many recent amputees from the war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have started using larger and more powerful explosive devices in response to increasingly intense U.S. and NATO operations.

“Don’t be fooled,” he said. “We are winning the IED war. We pull IED materials multiple times a day. Sometimes all day long there are controlled dets.”

On the other hand, “it only takes one to get me,” he said.

He was trying, he said, not to think about taking a different path through the cornfield, a few inches to the right or the left.

“If I had done that, it would have happened to the guy behind me.”

He knows he will be fitted with a high-tech prosthesis within weeks or months, and face a grueling rehabilitation, the details of which remain vague. But he plans to one day play football and baseball again, he said, even snowboard.

He added that he might return downrange, but not in a combat role.

“If I want to go back, I can. But I have a wife to think about,” he said, choking up slightly for the first time. “To think I came that close, it’s not fair to my wife.”

robbinss@estripes.osd.mil

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