Pfc. Channing Moss was impaled by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan on March 16, 2006, while riding in a convoy with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team,10th Mountain Division. Explosive disposal team members and the medical staff at FOB Organ E saved Moss, removing the live explosive from his body despite the Army protocol of sandbagging victims with live explosives embedded and considering them "expectant." Here he was photographed near Walter Reed Medical Center last summer. (JAMES J. LEE / STAFF)
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Spc. Channing Moss should be dead by all accounts. And those who saved his life did so knowing they might have died with him.
March 16, 2006. Southeastern Afghanistan. A fierce ambush and bloody firefight. It was over in a flash and Moss was left on the verge of death.
He was impaled through the abdomen with a rocket-propelled grenade, and an aluminum rod with one tail fin protruded from the left side of his torso.
His fellow soldiers worried: Could he blow up and take them with him? For all anyone knew, the answer was yes.
Still, over the course of the next couple of hours, his buddies, a helicopter crew and a medical team would risk their own lives to save his.
"Moss is an African-American and he's gone to white. He's in total shock from the loss of blood. But at the time, I really didn't think about it. I knew [the RPG] was there but I thought, if we didn't do it, if we didn't get him out of there, he was going to die," said flight medic Sgt. John Collier, 29, then a specialist.
"It was an extremely unusual set of events. He should have died three times that day," said Maj. John Oh, 759th Forward Surgical Team general surgeon.
The 36-year-old's surgical skill and command of his own nerves would be put to the ultimate test as, wearing helmet and body armor, he would operate to extract the ordnance from Moss's booby-trapped body. One wrong move risked the lives of the patient, his own and those of the other members of the medical team.
He said the payoff was worth the gamble.
"For a soldier to be struck by an RPG and be flown and have surgery and survive… it's unheard of," said Oh. "It was a pretty remarkable experience."
Infantryman to ‘Rocket Man'
Three months after the attack, Moss attended the birth of his second daughter, Ariana.
He expects to be discharged from the Army on medical disability by October. In the meantime, the soft-spoken Georgia native attends formation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on weekday mornings and meets with his case worker to schedule whatever medical appointments remain, including at least one more abdominal surgery.
He and his wife, Lorena, live near the hospital with their daughters, baby Ariana and her 3-year-old sister, Yulianna.
Moss is missing about two-thirds of his intestines, part of his pelvic bone and needs more repair to his left hip. A member of the staff at Walter Reed calls him "Rocket Man."
But the infantryman, who joined the Army to help give his family a better life, said he knows he's alive because of his fellow soldiers.
"I don't think there has been a day in the last year and a half that I haven't thought about them, that I haven't prayed for them. They saved my life," said Moss, 24, whose slender 135-pound frame belies the hearty young man who went to war 55 pounds heavier.
"I knew it was love of country and brothers in arms. I hope God watches over them if they get deployed."
Ambush from the ridgeline
The day Moss was struck down, his unit, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, had been in country barely a month.
The Alpha Company platoon set out from Forward Operating Base Tillman around 8 a.m. for a meeting with tribal leaders in the village of Srah Kandah in Paktika province near the Pakistan border.
It was the platoon's first patrol in country.
Moss, then a private first class, was manning a Mark 19 machine gun in the turret of his up-armored Humvee, the last in a patrol of five U.S. vehicles and one pickup carrying about nine Afghans.
One Afghan would die in the ambush that wounded Moss, his squad leader and another Afghan soldier who lost a hand.
The ambush came after a quiet hour of patrol in remote terrain.
"All of a sudden, I hear this explosion. Then I hear this ‘ping, ping, ping' hitting the humvee," Moss recalled.
Attackers unleashed "a large volume of RPG fire and small-arms fire," said the platoon leader, Capt. Billy Mariani, who was a first lieutenant then.
"the attack came from a ridgeline to our right," Mariani, 27, said. The shooters, he estimated, were only about 700 meters from the Pakistan border.
Mariani's machine gunner laid suppressing fire on the ridgeline while his mortar section shelled the fighters' positions. A hail of bullets and RPGs ripped toward them from behind hills and crags to the right. All the vehicles took rounds; the Afghan pickup was destroyed.
Moss was turning his machine gun turret to return fire when the first of three RPG rounds to strike his vehicle exploded on the truck commander's door.
The second and third rounds struck the front of the vehicle; one smashed through the windshield, slicing the truck commander across the face before burrowing into Moss as he sat in the gunner's sling.
"I turned to the driver and yelled at him to get out of the kill zone," said Staff Sgt. Eric Wynn, 31, the truck commander. "That's when we got hit again."
The RPG might have exploded and killed them all, he said, had it not lodged in Moss's body.
‘Hold on, hold on'
The projectile bored into Moss's left hip at a downward angle, tearing through his lower abdomen and pulling with it some of the fabric from his uniform and his black web belt. The tip of the device stopped just short of breaking through the skin on Moss's upper right thigh.
Wynn, with the tip of his nose sheared off and his torn upper lip hanging loosely, radioed his lieutenant and told him through a bloody gurgle of words that Moss had a tail fin sticking out of his body.
Platoon medic Sgt. Jared Angell, Moss's best friend, pulled his buddy behind the passenger seat and used every piece of gauze and bandage he had.
"Luckily, his belt was there because it kept the RPG from going all the way through," said Angell, 24, who was a specialist at the time.
While Spc. Andrew Vernon took Moss's place on the gunner's sling and driver Spc. Matthew Savoie maneuvered the vehicle into a safe position, Angell wrapped the gauze around the RPG's tail to stabilize the protruding device and control Moss' bleeding.
With gunfire still within earshot and barely five months out of basic training, Moss lay bleeding on the dusty ground far from home, waiting for the crew of the 159th Medical Company that would save his life for the second time that day.
"I didn't really know what was in me. I could just hear my sergeant saying, ‘Hold on, hold on,'" Moss recalled. "I didn't think that bird was ever going to come."
What Angell remembers from that wait on the landing zone was Moss's pleas for help.
"The screaming, his screams," Angell said, his voice trailing off.
"I tried to keep him calm and needed to stabilize him so [the RPG round] wouldn't move any further. He was very combative you can imagine how uncomfortable he was. I told him, ‘If you fight with me, I'll fight with you,'" Angell said. "I knew that with the things I did, I was going to buy him enough time to get to surgery."
Help from above
As the medical team lifted off in its Black Hawk helicopter from Forward Operating Base Salerno for the 10-minute flight to the battle scene, all they knew was that there were urgent casualties and that the area was hot.
"I told my crew to lock and load because we didn't know what was going on," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jorge Correa, 33, then a chief warrant officer 2.
As the bird neared the evacuation site, the crew saw heavy smoke and a burning truck, and soldiers were "running back and forth."
One pair of soldiers was getting ready to fire a mortar and stopped when they saw the helicopter, Correa said.
Correa and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeremy Smith, 30, a warrant officer 1 at the time, landed the Black Hawk on a roadway a few meters away from a chugging plume of purple smoke that marked the landing zone. On touchdown, Collier jumped out and sped toward the wounded.
"When Collier came back to the aircraft, he told me immediately" about the RPG, said Correa, who delivered the news of Moss's condition to his crew and asked if they were comfortable with the mission.
"They said, ‘yeah, we gotta get this guy to the hospital.' At the moment, everyone was focused on the mission," Correa said. "I know we risked our lives to save Pfc. Moss, but there was no hesitation."
Wounded and dangerous
Moss was on a litter on the helicopter's floor; other wounded soldiers were positioned on the floor and in seats. Correa and Smith pushed the helicopter's speed to its limits.
Correa had previously flown medical evacuation missions in Iraq with the 30th Medical Brigade. For Smith, a former Bradley vehicle mechanic who went warrant, it was his first combat zone mission as a helicopter pilot.
"I didn't really think about it until a couple of days later," he said. "It was like, ‘wow, we had live ordnance on the helicopter.'"
Staff Sgt. Christian Roberts, the crew chief and veteran of medical evacuation flights in Iraq, said concerns for personal safety took a back seat to saving Moss.
"At the time, we weren't thinking, ‘This helicopter could blow up,'" said Roberts, 33. "We were thinking, ‘This young soldier's going to die and we need to get him some help.'"
"I never saw anybody with live ordnance in them," he said. "I've seen decapitations, amputations, gunshot wounds to the head … I never thought I'd be flying along with a patient who had something in him that could blow up in your face."
‘Everybody get out!'
Moss was nearly dead as the Black Hawk landed at the battalion aid station at Orgun-E, about 20 miles from the site of the ambush.
Collier signaled wildly over the roar of the helicopter's engines to alert the aid-station staff that this was no ordinary patient.
Oh recalled that it wasn't apparent just how delicate the situation was until they began cutting away Moss's combat uniform and unraveling all the gauze bandages.
When he saw the tail fin of the RPG round, he yelled, "everybody get out!"
"I had never even seen an RPG before, but I figured anything with a rod and fins on it had to be a rocket of some kind."
Oh asked for volunteers to stay in the operating room and help him save Moss's life. Several soldiers raised their hands.
Oh and his volunteers strapped on body armor and helmets. They called in a two-man team from the 759th Ordnance Company (Explosive Ordnance Disposal).
Protocol, as far as Oh knew, dictated that someone in Moss's condition be placed in a sandbagged bunker and listed as "expectant," which means he would be expected to die because nothing could be done for him.
But Oh believed something could be done for the wounded soldier before him.
He "was still talking to me," Oh recalled. He choked back tears as he explained: "When he comes in like that, there's no way you can give up at that point."
After the EOD team arrived, Oh warned the volunteers one last time that the surgery could cost everyone their lives.
The operating room crew prepped Moss for surgery.
Still conscious, Moss assumed the worst.
"I didn't know they had put anesthesia in my IV. I was blacking out and I thought I was dying. I thought they were just going to leave me," Moss said.
X-rays revealed that while the detonator was still attached to the device, the warhead and fuse, the parts that would have created the largest explosion, were not there.
Still, EOD technician Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Brown and his partner, Spc. Emmanual Christian, warned the medical team that the detonator was sensitive to electric current and could explode, causing its own brand of damage.
"Once I found out we didn't have the warhead, I wasn't worried about blowing up the aid station or about people getting fragged. But it would have taken the surgeons' fingers off and ruined their careers," said Brown.
As an EOD technician, he had worked in places like Bosnia salvaging cadavers in mass graves, some with live ordnance still in their bodies. But Moss presented "a very rare situation," he said.
"I was like, ‘Holy s---' these are the kinds of stories you hear about from old wars," he said. "Most human beings we deal with are dead already."
The team decided the device would have to be removed by pulling it through in the direction it had traveled. Moss would be opened up so the extent of damage to his abdomen and the path of the projectile could be assessed.
The damage was extensive. Moss's intestines had been shredded, his pelvic bone crushed and he had lost a lot of blood. However, no major organs had been disturbed.
The medical team members contemplated the options and decided that first they would have to eliminate the tail fin.
Brown began sawing off the tail fin, which protruded just above Moss's left hip. Brown said he needed to remain calm and steady, but there were moments when the situation was frightening, when everyone in the room was "wide-eyed, staring at each other."
Using his scalpel for the most delicate incision of his life, Oh took the next step and cut the skin on Moss's right thigh where the tip of the device came to rest. Then, as if delivering a ticking baby time bomb, Brown gently and steadily eased the blood-covered metal tube from Moss's body.
"OK, there's the belt buckle. It's coming. Keep feeding it you feed it and I'll hold it," Brown told the surgeons who coaxed the cylinder from Moss's open abdominal cavity as Brown, crouched down to the level of the gurney, slowly pulled it out toward his own chest.
Moss's belt clung to the tube as the rocket fully and finally came free.
Brown cradled the ordnance and rushed outside and then into a sandbag bunker.
Inside, breathing sighs of relief, the medical team patched up what remained of Moss's lower abdomen so he could be airlifted.
Moss had been saved by his fellow soldiers for the third time that day.
After disposing of the RPG round, the intensity of what he had just done left Brown weak.
"I sat down. I lost control of my legs for a minute and I just lost it. Just talking about it right now ...," Brown said during an interview after returning to the U.S.
Oh, who is currently in Baghdad working with the 28th Combat Support Hospital, said the event changed his life. He credits the bravery, training and skill of his team members for getting them all through the ordeal. But he knows how quickly things could have gone south that day.
"In the end," Oh said, "it's better to be lucky than good."