Heroes 2006: ‘I was actually the lucky one’

Corpsman saved two Marines after IED blasted Humvee

By LISA BURGESS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2006

Until Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Maldonado faced three months of Hospital Corps School, the Los Angeles native never felt much incentive to study.

But Maldonado had two strong motivations to graduate and become a full-fledged corpsman.

The first, according to the 25-year-old sailor, was pride.

“This was the first school I ever took serious,” Maldonado said in a telephone interview from Kauai, Hawaii, where he is on shore duty at the Naval Branch Medical Annex at Barking Sands.

The second reason was more practical: The Navy sends hospital corps dropouts to the fleet as undesignated seamen.

In other words, he said, “you fail, you’re chipping paint for 18 months.”

Little did he know that all those nights hitting the books would pay off in a single day five years later and 6,000 miles from home.

In fact, the events of Sept. 30, 2005, in Afghanistan would not only earn Maldonado a Navy Achievement Medal with Valor, they would also help convince him to set his sights on becoming a Navy officer.

Afghanistan was Maldonado’s first combat deployment. He and Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, which is part of the III Marine Expeditionary Force based at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, arrived in June 2005 at Camp Blessing, in the Kunar Province.

On Sept. 30, Maldonado and three Marines were bringing up the rear of a convoy moving through the Korengal Valley — “bad-guy central,” as Maldonado called it — when an IED exploded directly under their up-armored Humvee.

The explosion blew the doors off the vehicle and sent shrapnel into Maldonado’s arms and legs.

“But I was actually the lucky one,” he said.

The gunner and the relief driver in the right front seat were both blown clear out of the vehicle, while the driver, a Marine sergeant, “absorbed most of the impact of the blast,” Maldonado said.

Ears ringing and “throwing up — I think it was radiator fluid. I was like ‘wow, my mouth tastes like chemicals,’” — Maldonado lurched out of the Humvee, pulling the unconscious driver with him.

The driver’s lower leg was blown open, bones sticking out “of a huge hole,” Maldonado said. And blood so bright it looked almost pink was spurting rhythmically into the air.

“I was like, “Oh God, this is arterial bleeding,” which can cause death in minutes, Maldonado said.

“I put a tourniquet on him, tightened it as much as I can,” he said, then wrapped and stabilized the sergeant’s leg, using part of the Marine’s M-4 rifle as a brace.

“Puking and stumbling,” Maldonado then ran to help the machine gunner, “who was out in the road where he could get shot at.”

The gunner also had a shattered lower leg, which Maldonado splinted and bandaged after dragging the Marine to safety behind the Humvee.

Finally, Maldonado sought out the third Marine from the Humvee, who was on the other side of the vehicle, “half hanging off the cliff.”

And when Maldonado inspected him, sure enough, “it’s the same exact thing” as the other two Marines: a splintered lower leg, with “his bones sticking out, as well.”

Maldonado had just finishing bandaging his third patient and was checking back on the sergeant when Marines from the convoy came racing back to help.

“They were like, ‘Wow, everybody’s already bandaged up!’”

The four wounded Marines and Maldonado were evacuated by helicopter to the combat support hospital at Bagram Air Base.

There, a military doctor told the corpsman that his swift action had saved the sergeant’s life.

“I just thank God he was the closest one to me, thank God he was the first one I attended [to],” he said.

What the corpsman was surprised to learn was that he might also have saved the machine gunner.

“The doctor said yeah, that guy had arterial bleeding, too,” Maldonado said. “I didn’t see it [at the time] but I was afraid,” given the nature of the injury.

“So I put on a tourniquet, just in case.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class

Robert Maldonado
Unit: Attached to the 3rd Marine Division
Medals: Navy Achievement Medal with “V”
Earned: Sept. 30, 2005, Afghanistan

Hear Maldonado describe the actions that led to his Navy Achievement Medal:

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