He wasn’t knocked unconscious, but it took him a few moments to gather his bearings. The blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) beneath his Stryker caused the vehicle to flip, ejecting him through the rear air guard hatch.
As the 18-ton vehicle came to a rest upside down, Rico Vargas was within inches of being crushed.
Vargas, then a 23-year-old artillery officer deployed to Baqubah, Iraq, a city northeast of Baghdad, suffered a broken nose, a broken bone, numerous lacerations and was covered in caustic fuel. He remembers that just moments after the explosion, he had the sensation his legs had been severed. They were not.
“As it so happens, I do not remember a sound. I remember the dust and dirt,” said Vargas, now a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Ill. “The next thing I know, the sun is on the wrong side, and I am face down with the Stryker over the top of me.”
After taking a quick inventory of himself, and despite the pain from the cuts, broken nose and beginnings of chemical burns caused by the Stryker’s fuel that now drenched his clothes, Vargas worked his way from underneath the vehicle.
“After I gathered myself, I did a quick bodily function check. I wiggled my toes, wiggled my feet, moved my arms,” he said. “After all that I realized, ‘OK, I’m hurt, but I am mostly here.’”
One of the other occupants in the vehicle, a female interpreter, was also on the ground, injured.
Now under attack from enemy combatants, Vargas carried her to a nearby Stryker and retrieved an M4 rifle, which he then used to begin laying down suppression fire as those who remained in the Stryker were removed.
Vargas vacated his firing position near the damaged Stryker only when the growing fire within the vehicle began to ignite the additional ammunition and grenades stored onboard. Those who were able to do so evacuated into a nearby abandoned building, where they remained until a quick reaction force and reinforcements arrived, and explosive teams were able to clear the route of any additional threats.
In all, Vargas said the engagement took two to three hours.
The May 10, 2007 mission was an attempt to recover another Stryker severely damaged by an IED explosion and support U.S. forces under attack. It was not a rare occurrence for American forces to face the threat of IEDs, and Vargas said luck simply ran out that day for him and those in his Stryker.
“At that point, we are about 10 or so months into our deployment. Up to that point, I had several IEDs go off near me — a little bit behind me, a little bit in front of me — but that was the first one that actually hit me dead on,” he said. “When you roll out the gate, you are almost playing out a statistical model in your head. I know roughly how many IEDs go off every day in the country of Iraq, and I know how many convoys roll out the gate. What are my chances of catching an IED today?”
“So, my first thought after the explosion was, ‘Ah, man, today just wasn’t my day,’” Vargas said. “It was like hitting the bad lottery.”
Following the attack, and now receiving care at an aid station, Vargas was provided a satellite phone to call his wife, Shauna, who at the time was a first lieutenant in the Army, serving as an operating room nurse at the hospital at Fort Lewis, Wash.
“At some point after I was wounded, but before I was able to receive medical attention, someone — and I do not know who — tried to contact my wife to let her know I was wounded in Iraq. She didn’t pick up the phone, so they left her a voicemail telling her I had been wounded and to call them back for more details,” Vargas said. “When I called the hospital, I was put through to her before she listened to the voicemail, which likely kept her from probably freaking out over the implications of what that voicemail could have meant.”
The unit’s commanding officer, an occupant in the vehicle with Vargas, was severely injured and later transported out of the country for treatment.
The company’s executive officer, traveling in a Stryker three vehicles behind Vargas’ vehicle, assumed command. Vargas, an artillery fire support officer assigned to the company, now temporarily assumed the role of executive officer.
“Everybody was hurt. You know the difference of being hurt and being injured? If you’re hurt, you can play, if you’re injured you can’t play. Well, I was hurt bad, but not injured,” he said. “I was in a new Stryker and out the gate three days later.”
With a Purple Heart among his ribbons, Vargas who deployed again to Iraq in 2009, said that particular mission shaped his life and his 17-year military career.
“Living through that experience and coming out the other side, it gives you a gut check of who you are as a person,” he said. “In the moment of truth, you cannot run from who you are. Who you are will be revealed.”
Not only galvanizing what he thought of himself and what he can overcome, the mission also impacted the way he dealt with others and the officer and leader he is today.
“Some people in my Army career have called me easy-going. I would not describe myself that way, as much as I would describe myself as someone who cares a lot about the things I have established as priorities,” Vargas said. “You are not going to see me yelling, tossing over tables because the font wasn’t right on the Power Point.
“That event put everything else in priority.”