Brent Jurgersen's vow to protect his soldiers' lives nearly cost him his own life.
Part one of a three-part series
By KEN FUSON
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
November 28, 2005
He winged it.
That was his style. No prepared speeches. No fear. Just speak straight from the heart. That's how he earned his nickname: "The Rock."
His troops, 300 or so, stood in formation at the U.S. Army Base in Schweinfurt, Germany. This was a January night in 2004, and the men and women of the 1st Squadron, 4th Calvary Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, were heading off to the war in Iraq.
The Rock - 1st Sgt. Brent Jurgersen - addressed them and their families. He was 41 then, but he still owned the broad shoulders of the Low Moor farm boy and Central DeWitt High School football star he once was.
Six-foot-three, 230 pounds, mostly bald, which made him look even more imposing. A portrait in self-discipline, he had never drunk a cup of coffee, chewed a stick of gum or smoked a cigarette in his life. "Like a machine," one soldier described him.
Imagine how comforting The Rock's confident voice must have sounded to those nervous family members who had assembled to tell their soldiers goodbye.
He talked about how their lives would surely change. Then, with tears in his eyes, he referred to himself and Capt. Jeffrey Paine, the unit's commanding officer:
"One year from today, we will personally bring these soldiers back home to you."
After a few weeks in Iraq, he realized how difficult that task would be. He also knew it was a promise he might not be able to keep.
One of many
Since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, 2,105 American troops have been killed, and more than 15,800 have been injured.
Where among those stark numbers does one place the story of Brent Jurgersen?
Where is the statistical category for an Iowa soldier who is shot in the face, returns to battle only four months later, and then almost dies a second time when his Humvee is blown up?
How do you explain the actions of a man who sacrificed so much, but still wonderes if he could have done even more?
Other wounded soldiers may express different views. Others may not have been so willing to return. Others may entertain doubts about the U.S. involvement there.
Brent Jurgersen doesn't consider himself a politician, a symbol or a hero.
He's just one soldier.
And this is his story.
'An amazing lesson'
Sgt. 1st Class Marvin Miller of C Troop was the squadron's first death.
The 38-year-old Miller, described by relatives in North Carolina as fun-loving and devoted to the Army, was shot and killed while on traffic control duty north of Samarra. It was April 2004. The unit had been there for two months.
Jurgersen had known Miller for three years. Jurgersen's wife, Karin, and Miller's wife, Linnette, were friends. The Millers had four children. Michael Campbell was the second one killed.
An Army specialist from Marshfield, Mo., he was killed that May when his convoy hit an improvised explosive device - known as an IED - in Samarra. He was 34.
The Rock and his squadron pressed forward.
"A funny thing about war is that when you lose a soldier, your heart sinks, you conduct a memorial, you mourn in your own way, and then you figure out in your own way how to deal with it," he wrote in a letter months later.
"But through all of this, the war is still going on, you still have to get up every day and often fight when you are not ready to. War is an amazing lesson in life."
He had work to do, troops to supervise. But he remembered the promise he had made back in Germany.
He already had lost Marvin Miller, a friend and former platoon sergeant. Now he had lost Michael Campbell, one of his own soldiers. They would not be coming home alive. There would be others.
"We made promises that never should have been made," Jurgersen said later.
That's what bothered him the most when he eventually returned home.
He demanded much of himself, and took great pride in his Army career, but above all else, The Rock kept his word.
Jurgersen loved being a first sergeant.
He was promoted to the position in 2003, for the 1st Squadron's C Troop, then for HHT (Headquarters and Headquarters Troop), both based in Germany.
Most soldiers need 18 to 20 years to become a first sergeant. The Rock did it in 13.
The rank made him responsible for the health, welfare and morale of 350 men and women. The first sergeant also directs discipline, fitness and training.
But it was more than that. Jurgersen believed he could help change lives. He enjoyed turning someone with poor skills or a negative attitude into a proud warrior.
If a soldier had a problem, he or she went to The Rock. So did spouses, for that matter. His door was always open, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. "Sleeping is overrated" was his motto.
"I have never seen anyone motivate and inspire soldiers like Brent Jurgersen," says Capt. Jeffrey Paine, 31, the Texan who was Jurgersen's commander for the three years that they worked side-by-side. "He has an innate ability to understand soldiers and find the right area to talk about or push to get them to excel."
Many nights, after dinner, Brent would ask his wife, Karin, if she minded stopping by the barracks, where many of his soldiers lived. Just to check in, of course. A five-minute visit turned into an hour, then longer. Karin brought along a book. She was a good partner.
"This was his life," she says. "It was my life, too."
She remained in Germany when he left for Iraq. She worried more about his soldiers than she did about him. He always had exuded such confidence.
"I've always thought I was invincible," he says. "I went to Iraq thinking that way, and I thought my guys thought the same, too."
He was in great physical shape, could run all day. He never went on sick call, thought he could solve any problem. Whatever his soldiers needed, he would provide.
In Iraq, he was in charge of a troop that had grown to 450 soldiers and civilians. He also was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the forward operating base in eastern Samarra - called FOB MacKenzie - that contained about 1,100 people.
The Rock knew everybody.
He led and participated in numerous patrols and combat missions, but also tried to improve life for soldiers back at the base.
Everything had to be brought in, from portable toilets to air conditioners. He opened a phone center, a PX retail store, a fitness center, and designed a place where soldiers could relax.
He allowed a group of Iraqis to open a small shop, a barbershop and a diner. "That was a big hit," he says.
Jurgersen is no politician - he says that all the time - but he believed in the mission in Iraq. He believed the American troops were helping the people there. He could see encouraging signs of improvement every day.
But there also was enough violence to make him worry when one of his soldiers left the base. He wasn't concerned about himself, of course. He was invincible.
'No time for this'
On the morning of June 18, 2004, Jurgersen joined an engineering mission north of Samarra. The U.S. troops planned to knock out some berms that insurgents had been using to bury and hide IEDs.
They heard shots. Just one here and there, "and then bullets started zinging past."
Jurgersen took up a position behind a berm, on a hill, and began spotting for two gunners.
The U.S. troops were ready. They had anticipated contact from the enemy.
"As soon as they presented themselves, we pretty much unleashed everything we had on them guys," he says. "They weren't too smart, because they were hiding next to a gas station."
During the fight, something struck Jurgersen in the mouth; he didn't know what. It didn't hurt that much, but it knocked the M-16 rifle out of his hands. He spit out blood and a few teeth.
He felt behind his head, then his neck, but couldn't feel an exit wound. He heard Spc. Ryan Beasley yell, "First sergeant got hit!"
Jurgersen crawled down the hill, where Beasley put a pressure dressing on his face. The Rock figured he had a cut lip.
"I was pissed," he says. "I mean, I was hot. I was saying a few choice words that I shouldn't have been saying.
"I didn't want to be taken out of battle. I had too much going on. I had soldiers over there. I had projects going on. I didn't have time for this." He looked in a mirror on a truck, saw that his lip was ripped and that he was missing some teeth. Crap. He'd need stitches. Probably have to spend the night at the medical base.
He was taken to a landing zone, where he walked onto a Medevac helicopter.
Five days later, he woke up and saw his wife.
Something was wrong.
"She wasn't supposed to be here."
Touch and go
Karin Jurgersen was back at Schweinfurt when an officer called.
She remembers what he said: "He told me it was just a flesh wound, he was missing a few teeth, but his smile wasn't all that pretty, anyway."
But the officer had been misinformed about the extent of Brent's injuries. When Karin reached the Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, three hours away, she learned the truth.
A bullet had struck Brent's M-16, breaking the charging handle, and ripped into his lip, just below his nose, then knocked out four teeth, shredded his tongue and lodged in the back of his throat.
He had suffered an arterial wound in his throat. He had bled for more than an hour. He was in a coma and on life support to help him breathe. His airway had swollen shut.
He was in critical condition.
"Is he stable?" she asked.
"Yes," a doctor replied.
That was code. Karin had done enough volunteer work for the American Red Cross, and spent enough time around Army hospitals, to know that "stable" meant the doctors expected her husband to live. She said her prayers and remained calm. Like her husband, she also prided herself on her ability to handle anything.
"I knew what happens when there's a bullet wound to the face," she says. "But no one can prepare you for what you see."
Brent's entire body was swollen; his face grotesquely so. His eye was swollen shut; there was a piece of shrapnel behind it. To her, it appeared as though someone had stuffed a small animal down his throat, that's how swollen it was.
Doctors told Karin he would probably be in a drug-induced coma for at least three months. She should plan on a nine-month hospital stay. "You don't know this man," she thought to herself.
This is what she knew, even as Brent lay helplessly in a hospital bed: As soon as he regained consciousness, the first thing he would want to know was how soon he could get back.
They were a team, Brent and Karin. If he was the surrogate father for his unit, she was the mother for many of the soldiers' wives.
Right from the start, she informed his doctors that their mission was to get Brent on his feet as quickly as possible. She knew her husband well enough to know his Army career wasn't finished yet.
She had grown up in Camanche; they met at Clinton Community College. He was the former high school football star. "I never thought I had a chance with him," she says. His eyes attracted her. He was attracted to . . . well, "I'll plead the fifth," he says.
They raised dairy cows at first, in Illinois and Wisconsin, and Brent could have done that forever. But Karin's health worsened - something called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome - and they had two young children. Running a dairy farm was too much for one person. He needed a new career.
He joined the Army in 1989.
The first year, he didn't like it. He was 27 and accustomed to being his own boss.
"Now I've got some 23-year-old drill sergeant telling me how to manage an $800-a-month paycheck."
But he saw the potential. A person could succeed, and advance, if he just worked hard. He was a farm boy. He certainly could do that.
He moved quickly up the career ladder. First sergeant was the best job yet, for both of them. They could help people, solve problems and direct careers. Karin saw how much influence Brent wielded in the lives of other soldiers. She knew how much he cared about their well-being.
Brent dreamed of becoming a command sergeant major before he retired. If that was his dream, it became Karin's as well.
She figured the Army doctors in Germany had no idea who they were dealing with.
He was out of the hospital in 3 weeks.
He couldn't talk well, not yet, but his tongue was mending. Doctors removed three more teeth and rebuilt two others. He endured seven surgeries to repair his face and mouth. He was fitted for dentures.
Doctors removed the bullet from his throat. He had it put in a paperweight.
"I wish I could say the recovery was easy, but it wasn't," he wrote later. "To be honest, it was one of the toughest things I have ever done.
"I remember many nights when everyone had left the hospital, and it was hard to breathe. Oh, I so felt like just giving up. But somehow I made it through this."
The Rock - give up? Not likely.
His daughter Cassie, now 22 and a first-year student at Valparaiso Law School in Indiana, and his son, Chase, now 19 and a sophomore at the University of Dubuque, were in Spain at the time. They rushed to join their father in Germany, and stayed with him in shifts. That boosted his spirits tremendously, and he eventually returned to Schweinfurt to recuperate.
Every morning when he looked in the mirror, the sight reminded him of a teenager with acne, as tiny pieces of shrapnel worked out of his face.
The first few months, he couldn't drink out of a bottle or a cup, only glasses of a certain size. He lost much of his sensitivity to hot and cold foods, and discovered he could burn himself if he wasn't careful. He lost feeling in a large portion of his lip and tongue. His speech sounded slurred, but he could tell he was improving. Slowly.
The Rock occasionally needed to carry a wash rag to wipe the drool from his mouth. That was humbling. But he pushed forward, as always. No fear. No looking back.
The Jurgersens belonged to a church congregation at the base, and Brent's arrival there was viewed as a sign of hope. The military families had attended several memorial services for fallen soldiers. His recovery cheered them.
But Jurgersen was miserable.
Here he was, watching the news, trying to catch a snippet of information about the 1st Squadron. He received e-mails from his soldiers in Iraq, but they couldn't say much, for security reasons. He certainly understood.
The television reports angered him. He saw footage of bombed cars, day after day. Grim reports of U.S. deaths. He wondered: Why didn't they ever show the good work the soldiers were doing?
"He had a hard time enjoying himself," Karin says. "He felt guilty every time."
In between surgeries, he and Karin embarked on a four-day trip to Switzerland and Austria. How could he relax? He was supposed to be in Iraq, keeping the squadron running smoothly and the soldiers safe so he could bring them back home, so he could fulfill the promise he had made to all those families.
"How can you be in Austria and Switzerland with your wife, living in nice places, eating nice food and enjoying yourself when your guys are over there in Iraq, and you have no idea what's going on with them?"
"We didn't plan any more trips after that."
Special Report: A Soldier's Promise - The Attack
Back in Iraq, Brent Jurgersen faces an even greater nightmare
Part two of a three part series
By KEN FUSON
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
November 28, 2005
During his first tour of duty in Iraq, before he was shot in the face, 1st Sgt. Brent Jurgersen's squadron had been conducting a house-to-house search for insurgents and illegal weapons.
When they came to one house, they discovered a friendly old man and his family. The man, it turned out, had been tortured and castrated by members of former President Saddam Hussein's regime, and he enthusiastically supported the U.S. war effort. He also needed a job.
The soldiers asked Jurgersen about employing the Iraqi man and his family. Jurgersen - called "The Rock" by his troops - agreed to give it a try.
They brought the Iraqi and several of his relatives to FOB MacKenzie, the U.S. base near Samarra. Soldiers taught them how to pour cement and how to paint, and also paid them for odd jobs around the base. The homeowner, known as Fauzi, referred to Jurgersen, who grew up in Low Moor, as "The Sheik of MacKenzie."
Fast forward to November 2004. Jurgersen had been out of the country for four months, recovering from face and mouth injuries suffered when an insurgent shot him during a firefight. This was the first time the Iraqi had seen the The Rock since his return.
"He was so happy, Jurgersen says. "He embraced me, kissed me on the cheek and held my hand for about five minutes. It probably wasn't that long, but it seemed like an eternity, especially for our Western culture."
Back in charge
He had a scar over his lip, where the bullet had entered, and he still needed some repair work done on his teeth and jaw, but Jurgersen quickly reasserted his authority among the 1st Squadron's 1,100 soldiers in Iraq.
He didn't have to return to the war. He had been injured badly enough that he could have remained in Germany and continued to recover. But he had promised the families of his soldiers that he would bring them home.
From the first day back, The Rock let it be known he didn't plan to miss a beat.
Pity the poor soldier returning to FOB MacKenzie after some rest and relaxation. Or maybe it was a newly arriving replacement officer.
Here would come Jurgersen, all 6-foot-3 of him, ready for inspection.
Where's your earplugs?
Where's your eye protection?
He checked their weapons and ammunition. If something was amiss, he'd let them have it.
"Oh, yeah," he says, smiling slyly. "The game was on."
Eventually, though, he would reach into the bag he had brought with him, the one with the extra earplugs, eye protection, lubricant for the weapons, extra ammo.
He would hand them out, along with precise instructions.
They didn't argue.
Sgt. William Kinzer Jr. was not pleased.
Jurgersen had chosen Kinzer, 27, of Hendersonville, N.C., to be his new gunner. Kinzer didn't want to leave his support platoon; all his friends were there.
"I listened to him, and I said, 'Here's the deal: I think you're the best man for the job, and I want you on my truck.' I think he saw it my way."
He also selected a new driver, Spc. Mario Page, who was a medic. "He was just a great medic, a very hard worker, very mature," Jurgersen says.
This was The Rock's crew. They ate together, joked with each other, went on patrols. They discussed what they would do when they returned to Germany in four months, what foods they craved, what cars they wanted to drive.
One day, while they were walking, Jurgersen asked Kinzer what his plans were, and he remembers the answer: "I'm going to get married."
The Rock, surprised, stopped in midstride: "Don't you have to get engaged first?"
Kinzer explained that, while he was on an R and R leave, he and his girlfriend had agreed to get married when he returned home. They would move to Alaska, where Kinzer had been assigned next.
Jurgersen smiled. He enjoyed Kinzer.
"He didn't run his mouth a whole lot, which I liked. I'm a pretty quiet guy when it comes to doing what we're supposed to be doing."
Three months passed. Jurgersen felt healthy; the wounds to his face and mouth caused him few problems.
At some point, he would require a yearlong series of surgeries and dental work to rebuild the inside of his mouth. He planned to have the first surgery while his soldiers were on leave; that way, he wouldn't miss anything.
But first things first. This was the beginning of January. Before long, he would return with his unit when they were redeployed to the U.S. Army base in Schweinfurt, Germany.
This was important to him, and one of the reasons he had returned to Iraq after being shot.
He had promised his soldiers and their families that he would bring them all home safely.
He knew that wouldn't happen - in all, the squadron would lose 10 soldiers and one civilian, a retired master sergeant - but his commitment remained firm to the rest. He would do what he could.
"I felt we were doing a lot of good work," he says. "I felt really good about things, and I felt good right up until the morning of Jan. 26."
Last in line
They were in the last vehicle.
That was an inside joke among The Rock's crew.
They all liked to be in the lead vehicle, but whenever the troop commander and the first sergeant traveled together, the commander traveled in the lead vehicle, while the first sergeant brought up the rear.
Capt. Jeffrey Paine and Jurgersen had done this all year; they worked well together and trusted each other. The fact was, though, the rear vehicle was often the most dangerous place to be.
But you never knew for sure. Once, while they were on a different mission together, Paine's lead vehicle was hit. He wasn't injured.
"It didn't really matter," Jurgersen says. "Our crew was always confident in our abilities and had the attitude, if it was your time, it was going to be your time."
It was their time.
Sgt. Jeffrey Hummert joined them; he would be a passenger in the seat behind Jurgersen.
Their mission was to inspect polling sites before the historic Iraqi national elections. The night before the elections, using darkness as a cover, soldiers would place barricades in front of the election sites to prevent insurgent attacks.
The patrol had just inspected the second site on the peninsula in Ad Duluiyah, and The Rock's crew returned to their truck.
They traveled a few hundred yards.
Then, suddenly: A bright flash.
Jurgersen remembers his earplugs spitting out from the concussion of the blast and the pressurization inside the Humvee.
"That must have been a loud bang," he said later, but he didn't hear it. He had blacked out.
When he regained consciousness, crumpled against the radios, he wondered about his men. What was their status? For some reason, he couldn't talk. He heard Hummert yelling to keep the vehicle moving, but the driver said it wouldn't go. Jurgersen blacked out again.
Two armor-piercing, rocket-propelled grenades, fired from a short distance, had struck his vehicle.
The first person to arrive, 1st Lt. Robert Thrailkill, saw The Rock's eyes, open and fixed. "We thought the worst," he said later. But Jurgersen moaned as Staff Sgt. Roy Clayton and two other soldiers pulled him out. That was a good sign. He was alive.
When Jurgersen came to again, he was lying on the ground, on a stretcher. Somehow they had dragged his large body out of the truck. There was a bandage on his head. Another solder's belt was used to tie a tourniquet on his leg.
He looked. His hand was bloody, a finger was dangling and his left leg was cramping. It felt like he was strapped too tightly to the stretcher. Then, when he was lifted, his right leg flopped.
He no longer controlled its movement.
What about his crew?
He remembers what Master Sgt. Todd Shippy told him: "You know, First Sergeant, I will never sugarcoat anything for you. Kinzer didn't make it. Sergeant Kinzer is dead. He was killed instantly."
Jurgersen says he turned away. He then asked about Page and Hummert.
"They will be OK," Shippy replied.
The Rock's troops responded the way they had been taught. All of the patrol members knew their roles. They secured the area and loaded Jurgersen into a Humvee.
He blacked out again.
"The next five days were lost," he wrote later. "I don't remember a thing."
Again, just like the first time her husband had been injured, Karin Jurgersen received a telephone call in Germany.
Again, she asked: "Is he stable?"
This time, the answer was different: "No."
"That was a bad thing," she says. "That meant he was fighting to live."
Her husband had suffered a skull fracture; doctors could see his brain through the gash in his head. His right hand was fractured. His right knee was mangled, but his left leg was worse. Doctors were desperately trying to save it.
His brain had swollen, but the scan looked good. They didn't know if he would walk or talk again. He had lost so much blood, he had to be resuscitated twice.
They would keep her notified.
She wrote her husband a letter, hoping he would live to read it someday:
"They told me how bad it was. I truly felt I could feel your soul's pain, Brent. My heart just broke for you."
"My life as I know it"
He woke up.
What is Karin doing here?
What is she saying - explosion . . . brain injury . . . right knee injured . . . shrapnel wounds to back . . . left leg amputated . . . what in the world . . . how was this possible?
She'll never forget the look of shock on his face.
He was The Rock. He was invincible. Now he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., back in a hospital bed.
"What are the odds of this happening a second time?" she asks. When her husband regained consciousness, when he fully understood what had happened to him, he was angry.
"How could this happen?" he wrote months later, recalling his thoughts. "I thought: My life is over as I know it. I would not be able to run again, and I thought those bastards had taken everything from me."
The price of survival
The fact is, more injured U.S. soldiers have survived the war in Iraq than have survived any other war in American history. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that nine of 10 soldiers survive their wounds. In the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the survival rate was 76 percent.
While more soldiers survive, they must deal with horrific injuries - primarily loss of limbs. Many had the same question Jurgersen asked himself in the dark of night.
He was alive, but would he have a life?
The nights were the worst. He hated to go to sleep. He had bad dreams. One night, he swears he imagined himself walking through the town where he was injured. He could see every building, street and sidewalk. He truly felt he was there.
"Then they'd give you some drugs and make you sleep in Happyland for a while."
He would wake up and wonder: What was he going to do?
This is a nightmare, he told Karin. We will wake up, and we'll have our old lives back.
He was supposed to lead his troops out of Iraq in less than a month. Back to their loved ones in Germany. The happy homecoming.
Lead them? He couldn't even stand up.
Special Register report: A soldier's recovery
By KEN FUSON
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
November 29, 2005
Washington, D.C. - He could hop out of bed, get dressed, and dart out the door in five minutes. He prided himself on that. He took five-mile runs just to relax. He considered himself more physically fit than soldiers less than half his age.
What good would that do now?
First Sgt. Brent Jurgersen lay in critical condition in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. This was in late January, two days after two rocket-propelled grenades struck his Humvee, killing another soldier. He was 42 then.
Jurgersen - known as "The Rock" - suffered a head laceration and a compressed skull fracture. His left leg had to be amputated through the knee. His right knee was damaged. His right hand had been fractured and burned, and a finger had been nearly ripped off. He had suffered shrapnel wounds and burns. He would require several more surgeries in the next few days.
Beyond that, he still needed medical work completed on his teeth and jaw to repair damage from injuries he had suffered months earlier, when an insurgent shot him in the face.
"To me, this man can physically overcome anything," says Jurgersen's wife, Karin. "But he needed to heal emotionally, as well."
She had an idea. She thought it would help.
Karin sent an e-mail to Brent's friend and commander, Capt. Jeffrey Paine. Her goal was to have Brent return to Germany in time to welcome his troops on their return to Iraq.
How was this possible? The explosion had occurred on Jan. 26. The soldiers would begin returning on Feb. 20. Brent was still recovering. He hadn't been fitted yet with a prosthetic leg. For the first 10 days after he was brought to Walter Reed, he had been wheeled to the operating room every other day for surgeries.
But she had seen how fast her husband can heal when motivated. After all, he had returned to Iraq only four months after getting shot in the face. Give him a mission, she figured, and he can accomplish it.
Paine was enthusiastic. If the Rock could make it, he replied, the soldiers would love to see him. He would, too.
A chance to heal
Brent Jurgersen was excited by the idea, but also wary. He had carefully crafted an image among his men. The intimidating presence. The tough guy who can meet any challenge. The Rock.
That was the biggest adjustment, even worse than the physical pain. He had always put the Army first. Now he had to take care of himself before he could lead his troops the way he wanted to and always had.
"He didn't want his soldiers to see a broken person," Karin says. "At the same time, I knew that wasn't what they were going to see. It would be as much of a healing process for him as it was for his men."
She had to do more than persuade her husband. The doctors were skeptical, too. Here was a man who had suffered two life-threatening injuries in a six-month span.
He deserves to be there, she said, for that very reason.
He needs to be there.
Don't they get it?
He had promised them.
That was so long ago, but the memory lingered for him. At his unit's final formation before leaving for Iraq, The Rock had personally vowed to bring his soldiers home safe. He had told their families he would.
"It all came down to, how fast could he heal?" his wife says.
An inspiring visit
People stopped by the hospital ward at Walter Reed all the time - politicians, celebrities, military officers.
One day, Tom Porter stopped to visit Jurgersen. He was a 70-year-old Korean War vet. They chatted. Porter happened to mention that he had been injured, too - in fact, both of his legs had been amputated.
Jurgersen was surprised.
How did you walk in here? he asked. You didn't even limp.
Porter raised his pantlegs and showed his two prosthetic legs.
That was impressive. Someday, Jurgersen thought, he, too, might be able to walk again.
Sgt. William Kinzer Jr. wasn't coming home safe. The 27-year-old soldier from Hendersonville, N.C., had been killed in the same explosion that injured Jurgersen. The Rock thought of him often.
He knew all the men in the squadron who were killed - 10 in all, as well as a civilian who helped the unit.
But he hadn't been with them when they were attacked. He had been with Kinzer.
"I think I'll always have the guilt that I could have done something to save his life that day and I didn't," Jurgersen says. "Not only was I his first sergeant, but I also was in charge of the crew and truck that day. I'll carry that guilt the rest of my life."
He knew such emotions - survivor's guilt - are common. But they were new for him. He held no doubts about the United States' involvement in the war, quite the contrary, but that didn't mean he could just forget about the men who had died in the cause.
"The bottom line is that another guy lost his life that day, and behind that guy there is a family that will be changed forever."
The power of modern medicine and The Rock's will combined in late February to put Brent and Karin Jurgersen on a plane back to Germany. It had been less than a month since he had nearly died.
"How would my guys react?" he asked in a letter. "Here was their invincible first sergeant, all beat up."
He needed crutches to walk; he didn't have a prosthetic leg yet. The squadron was returning, in groups, to welcome-home ceremonies in a gym on the Army base in Schweinfurt. Brent and Karin hoped to attend as many of the events as they could.
About 100 soldiers arrived for the first ceremony. They gathered behind a curtain. The Jurgersens mingled with the family members on the other side.
Robert Rose, the squadron's command sergeant major, approached: Would Jurgersen like to address his soldiers before they came out?
The Rock hadn't planned anything to say, but that had never stopped him before. He walked behind the curtain.
The soldiers didn't even know he was in Germany. They thought he was still recuperating at Walter Reed. They probably wondered if they would ever see him again.
Rick Scott, a member of the Jurgersens' church congregation in Germany, attended the ceremony and followed Jurgersen behind the curtain to take photographs. His report to church members:
"Brent was in great spirits. He walked with the help of crutches, was in pain at times, but smiled continuously and engaged easily in conversations.
"All of a sudden they escorted Brent back to see the soldiers behind the curtain. . . . As soon as they saw him, they erupted in tremendous applause and cheers. I'm not sure who was the happiest at the time."
After the applause abated and The Rock composed himself, he looked around.
There was Master Sgt. Todd Shippy, who had dragged Jurgersen from the crippled Humvee and helped evacuate him.
There was Staff Sgt. Roy Clayton, who drove the injured Jurgersen in his truck to the landing zone, where help awaited. And Sgt. Louis Irizarry, who accompanied The Rock on many patrols, was there, too.
Finally, he saw Spc. Mario Page, Jurgersen's driver and medic. Page had treated The Rock at the scene, saving his life.
The room became silent.
As usual, The Rock winged it. He spoke from the heart. He told them how proud he was of them, how much great work they did, and he thanked them on behalf of the country.
When he was done, Lt. Col. James Chevallier, the squadron commander, asked, "Do you want to lead your guys out?"
"No, this is their day," The Rock replied.
"No, First Sergeant, this is your day, also. Lead your men out."
So Jurgersen, resting his weight on crutches, led his troops through the fog created by a machine and into the gymnasium.
The crowd could not stop cheering.
"It was like the Academy Awards - just nonstop applause," Shippy told Stars and Stripes, the newspaper published for the U.S. military. "There was not a dry eye in the gymnasium."
His other family
After it was over, after the soldiers had been dismissed, a surprising thing happened. The soldiers did not immediately rush to rejoin their families.
They first crowded around The Rock, to give him a hug, as if they wouldn't believe he was there unless they could touch him.
"I just had to pay my respects and shake his hand," Spc. Tyson Winingham, 22, of Hutchinson, Kan., told Stars and Stripes. "He doesn't give up."
Two warriors embrace
A few days later, Jurgersen attended the final homecoming ceremony for his troops. This time, when The Rock was led behind the curtain, he found Capt. Paine, his commander for three years and friend.
Months later, Paine still has difficulty describing what it was like to see The Rock again.
"I was elated to see my old friend, but pained and guilty that he had but one leg and was on crutches," he says. "I really was not sure how to react or what to do. I think we must have just stared at each other, smiling for a few minutes before we were able to move."
They embraced. The 100 soldiers in the gymnasium were quiet. Paine says it was the first time since leaving Iraq that he had truly felt safe.
Back to reality
If this were a movie, that's precisely the moment when the final credits would roll. But real life's not so tidy.
After the homecoming ceremonies in Germany, The Rock returned to Washington, D.C., and joined the 300 amputees who have been treated at Walter Reed for injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He had to learn to walk again.
For four hours each afternoon, he endured a physical therapy routine.
He stretched, lifted weights, worked on improving his balance and rode an exercise bicycle to strengthen his leg muscles.
He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and took timid steps at first, then grew more confident.
Through it all, there were dozens of medical procedures to repair his broken body. He was even fitted with braces as doctors began the long process of restoring seven teeth and fixing his mouth.
"Yes, a 42-year-old male with braces," he said in an e-mail to friends.
One day, he received an e-mail from an Iraqi man. It was from Mashail, a local Iraqi who Jurgersen had hired to do electrical work on the base.
His English skills were poor, but Mashail's message was clear:
hi my franid (1SG)
I hope to good helthy
when you shwo your pictuer feel to very sad and bageen me and my family to praier for you
but iam suer you strong man
you good leder.
In May, the Jurgersens returned to Iowa for the first time in four years. Brent grew up in Low Moor, Karin in Camanche.
The Rock walked in his daughter's college graduation from the Franciscan University of the Prairies in Clinton - without a cane, he notes proudly - and he celebrated his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. He also toured his son's college, the University of Dubuque.
He had a chance to visit in Clinton with his father-in-law, Clyde Bradley, a former state legislator and Korean War veteran. They talked about what it's like to know soldiers who had died in battle.
"You always 'what-if' yourself," Bradley says.
Jurgersen has talked with several relatives of soldiers in his squadron who were killed, including Kinzer's parents. He attended a golf tournament in Houston in honor of Capt. Andrew Houghton, 25, who died in August 2004 from injuries he received a month earlier.
He remembers them all.
"Sometimes I think hanging on to it is good in a way," he says. "I think it just kind of helps you appreciate what you've been through and what you were about."
On good days, The Rock could walk more than two miles with his new leg. He entertained dreams of continuing his Army career.
But something was wrong. In June, he felt tremendous pain where his amputated leg fit into the prosthetic.
Doctors discovered that the bottom of the bone on his amputated leg had eroded, the result of a previous infection.
When his leg was amputated originally, holes were drilled into the bottom of that bone, and his leg muscles were sewn to it. Now those muscles had torn loose, and the bone was drifting inside.
A revision was needed. Another inch of his leg needed to be amputated - only an inch, but that was enough to put him back in a wheelchair.
He would have to learn to walk yet again.
At the same time, a 2-by-4-inch hunk of bone from his right hip - his good leg - was transferred to his upper jaw and gum line.
The Rock spent his 43rd birthday, and his 23rd wedding anniversary, in the same place that he had spent it last year - a military hospital bed.
"Often, I feel like I am still engaged with the enemy," he wrote friends.
And the enemy wasn't finished. In July, Jurgersen cracked his hip and pulled muscles loose from his bone graft site.
"Do not know how this really happened," he wrote, "but I did take a pretty nasty fall in the hospital. The other amputees rated the fall as a 9.5 for style, but technical scores were not that good."
The joke masked his frustration.
"It was just a tough time, mentally and physically," he says. "You come so far, then you have a setback. So much progress. Then back to square one."
He was back in a wheelchair once again.
Not long ago, Jurgersen received a package in the mail. Inside, was a framed Iraqi election ballot, from the election that occurred a day after he was injured the second time. Several soldiers had written messages on the back.
He's proud of the work he did in Iraq. He thinks almost all the U.S. soldiers are. It bothers him when polls show ebbing support for the war.
When he met President Bush at the White House this summer, The Rock told him to "remain strong."
"I just believe in what our country is doing," he explains. "We are giving Iraqis the opportunity to be a free country and choose their own government and their own way of life. The cost of that is going to be American lives and Iraqi lives."
Sometimes he thinks about the insurgents who attacked him. He jokes that they probably voted the next day.
They changed his life, but they didn't get everything.
"The one thing they can never take away is my love of country."
And then the Rock gets very quiet, and looks down, and wipes the tears from his eyes.
Strange how life works. Just when his future looked most jumbled, Jurgersen learned that he had been selected for a promotion to sergeant major. He also was selected to attend the Sergeant Major Academy next summer.
This was the first step toward becoming a command sergeant major, and that had been The Rock's dream for a long time. It's one of the highest rankings a noncommissioned officer can attain.
His injuries probably will prevent him from eventually leading a combat division, but he could work as a command sergeant major in another capacity. He could continue his Army career. He could continue to serve his country.
This was all uncharted territory. He would have to pass a physical. He'd have to show that he deserved to stay on active duty, even with an amputated leg.
Imagine the inspiration he might serve to younger amputees who want to continue as soldiers.
Some Army officers advised him to consider other options. Take the medical disability and run, they said.
The Rock ignored them.
He went back to work.
He began walking again, with a new prosthetic leg.
He had another surgery on his right hand. And another surgery on his right knee to remove shrapnel from the joint. He had five titanium implants inserted into his mouth, where replacement teeth will eventually go.
He and Karin moved their belongings from Germany to Washington, D.C. Their parents arrived from Iowa to help.
"It was kind of humbling, having people have to do the things you once did," The Rock says. "I've always been the backbone or the muscle. Now I'm more of the director."
This summer, Brent Jurgersen learned that he had been nominated for Army Times Soldier of the Year.
He was sent a questionnaire. In it, he wrote that his goal was to get his life back to normal:
"Although I know this is impossible, I want to get as close as possible. I want to run again. I want to stand out in front of soldiers and lead them again. I want to be a Command Sergeant Major one day. I want to be the first amputee to attend the Sergeant Major Academy. Not for the title, but as an inspiration to other amputees in the Armed Forces."
Another soldier won the Army Times award. The Rock and another soldier were runners-up.
Jurgersen says he doesn't care about awards, medals, or personal glory. He volunteered for Army service, "and if my country asked me to, I'd go back to Iraq in a heartbeat."
So he continues, four hours a day, often longer, pushing himself to regain what he once had - for himself, for his family, and for the memories of those soldiers he couldn't bring home.
He will give it his best shot.
He says he has no choice.
He promised them.
The Rock's message to Iowa
I would like to thank everyone who has been part of this journey through life in the last year and half.
I realize that I cannot even begin to thank everyone who has touched or affected my life in the last year, but I would like to mention and recognize a few: the fellow warriors and civilians who I served with in Iraq; the Medevac pilots who transported me; the doctors, nurses and other professionals who treated and cared for me in Iraq, Landstuhl and Walter Reed; the physical therapists, occupational therapists and prosthetists who helped get me back on my feet; the many peer visitors; the countless numbers of people who took the time to visit, write, call or pray; the many chaplains, pastors and church congregations who prayed for me; the soldiers whom I have served with, past and present.
Family has always been a big part of my life, and I thank my relatives and family for their continued support, each contributing in their own individual way. I give a special thank you to my grandmother; my parents and Karin's parents; my daughter and son, Cassie and Chase; and our adopted daughter, Berkley. Most importantly, I thank a very strong woman, a woman that has been by my side through this all, "my Rock," Karin.
Although I know this journey is far from over and that there will be several more challenges, nothing will change my determination and focus.
On 18 June and 26 January I celebrate life, as I have been given another chance to live, and I thank the Lord for it each day. I humbly think about our true heroes, those warriors who have given the ultimate sacrifice, their life, and I ask you to pray for their families. I also ask you to continue to pray for the many wounded warriors and their families, as they still face many challenges. Last, but not least, I ask you to continue to pray for and support our warriors. We are making a difference.
Thank you and God bless,
1st Sgt. Brent R. Jurgersen