MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII -- Some may dread recalling the day of their brush with death, but Sgt. Rafael Cervantes Jr. embraces it as his second birthday.
After conducting a house search in Bakwa District, Farah province, Afghanistan, then Cpl. Rafael Cervantes Jr., a motor transport mechanic with Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, took the wheel of a mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle and hit an improvised explosive device.
On April 4, 2011, Cervantes was reborn.
Cervantes is currently with Wounded Warrior Battalion West-Detachment Hawaii recovering from injuries sustained from the IED blast.
On the day of the incident, his officer in charge, Capt. Daniel Donnerstag, told Cervantes they received intelligence of possible Taliban making IEDs in a nearby compound.
“It’s a funny story because at first we were told we weren’t going out on patrol for the day,” said Cervantes, a native of San Diego. “So we decided to have a football day. But then Capt. Donnerstag informed me of the situation, and I told the guys we had to go out and for them to get ready.”
Cervantes recalled driving to the compound on a dusky April evening in Afghanistan.
“It was getting late, but the sun was still out a little bit,” Cervantes said. “While searching this guy’s compound we found some stuff, but not enough to take him away. We left it as is."
Cervantes said they watched him for a little while to make sure he wasn’t causing trouble, and then left.
“I remember for some odd reason I decided to drive on the hard ball instead of staying on the dirt road. Riding dirt trails all the way back to base would have taken (more than) an hour, and the paved road would have taken 20 minutes,” Cervantes said. “I turned around to get to the hard ball and along the way there was another compound. It was almost dark. I remember seeing a farm with a little river flowing to a field, and as soon as I turned, I hit the IED.”
He said looking back, it felt like he hit a big speed bump. But at the time, he didn’t know what happened.
“Everything felt like it was happening slowly,” Cervantes said. “I passed out and when I woke up, everyone else was still out. It was dark and smoky. My first reaction was to make sure I had everything below my waist. I started touching my legs and I couldn’t feel anything at first.”
He recalled pulling on his leg because it was stuck, and then felt his ankle dangling from his leg. The explosion hit to the right of the vehicle, so he felt most of his pain on the right side of his body.
“I started wiggling my leg and it felt like everything was wiggling on its own,” Cervantes said. “I was able to get out and that’s when the pain got worse. But I didn’t care about myself. I just wanted to get everyone out of the truck.”
After waking up another Marine in the vehicle, Cervantes pulled him out and fell to the ground. At that point, he couldn’t move. The intense pain he felt spread to his back. However, his major concern was still the safety of his fellow Marines, so he scanned the area for threats as he lay on the ground.
“I knew I needed my weapon to provide cover, but I needed to get back inside the truck,” Cervantes said. “Kyle (the Marine he pulled out) went to get the others, so I crawled back to get my weapon.”
Cervantes grabbed his weapon by the optic, and it fell apart.
“I thought, ‘what the hell?’ My weapon was broken in pieces. But I noticed the gunner’s M16 on the ground, so I grabbed it and laid down to provide cover,” Cervantes said.
The other Marines sustained serious injuries as well, but everyone inside the vehicle survived the explosion. The corpsman who was on patrol with them applied a splint to Cervantes’ leg. They waited for two and a half hours for help to arrive.
“We couldn’t get communications with Blue Force Tracker because of the damage to our radio,” Cervantes said. “The Afghan National Police were patrolling in the area, and they randomly showed up with Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal. They were able to call in support.”
Cervantes and three other Marines were medically evacuated to a hospital in Germany. He said he has never experienced so much pain in his life. He had traumatic brain injury, and broke his pelvis, back, leg and foot. Both his fibula and tibia were broken.
“When I woke up in the hospital, I had an external fixator on my leg, holding the bones together with pins,” Cervantes said. “My leg was so swollen. I had 16 screws and two plates. I couldn’t walk.”
Cervantes was flown from Germany to a hospital in San Diego, his hometown. His family came and he spent a few months there recovering, but begged to return to Hawaii to see his unit return from Afghanistan. He was in a body brace and wheelchair, but was able to see his brothers come home.
“The week they returned, I felt really sick,” Cervantes said. “It turned out my leg was badly infected with a staphylococcus infection. The doctors were considering amputating it, and at that point, I didn’t even care.”
The final decision was to start intravenous therapy for nine weeks, and doctors had to open his leg multiple times to clean out the infection.
“They saved my leg,” Cervantes said. “My bones healed, but now I have no cartilage in my ankle. I get a steroid shot every three months and I’m having a special brace made that bypasses my ankle and transfers hard impact directly to my foot.”
Even with his medical issues, Cervantes wants to stay in the Marine Corps. He was given the option to medically retire, but feels he has more to offer if he were to stay in the Marine Corps.
“I was told combat injured can stay in,” Cervantes said. “I just want to go back to the fleet. The best part of being a Marine is watching other Marines grow. I’ve seen new Marines from boot camp turn into what they are now and it’s incredible. It’s like family. I’ve taught them in preparation for deployment and I miss taking care of one another.”
This was Cervantes’ second deployment to Afghanistan. He was a squad leader and a part of the police mentoring team. The purpose of the PMT is to train and mentor Afghanistan Police. His job was mission readiness, accountability and taking charge of the Marines in his team. Cervantes had a hard time dealing with the incident at first.
“I felt like I hurt my team,” Cervantes said. “I was involved in so much that when I left after getting hurt, it felt like I damaged my team because I wasn’t there anymore. A lot of good Marines on that team were in one vehicle (that hit the IED). I shouldn’t have done that. I was pissed off. Why me? Why did I get everyone else injured?”
Cervantes struggled to cope and turned to alcohol. He said his wife Lauren helped him through his anger, depression and anxiety. He attended Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober ever since.
“I realized, recently, that I put the Marine Corps before my family a lot,” Cervantes said. “But I know that if I don’t have the support of my wife and kids then I can’t do things and be successful.”
At the time of his injury, Cervantes’ 4-year-old daughter Sophia placed a pink Hello Kitty Band Aid on his leg to help heal his wound.
“She said, ‘Daddy, I’m fixing your leg,’” Cervantes said. “She’s so smart, and has such a kind heart.”
Cervantes stays active despite his injuries through cycling and wheelchair basketball. He spent approximately four months in a wheelchair and enjoyed the sport and continues to participate today.
“Instead of using my injury as an excuse, I just look at it as an event that happened in my life,” Cervantes said. He plans to compete in a Wounded Warriors Program triathlon next month and attend the Wounded Warrior Trials this February.
“I would not change anything that has ever happened to me,” Cervantes said. “Guys (who came) home from Vietnam were treated terribly when they came back, and when I came home I had so much support. I have met great people through wounded warriors and I feel lucky to be where I am today.”