Paratrooper Tells of Rescue from Wreckage of Deadly Afghanistan Blast

FILE PHOTO -- A U.S. Army convoy moves through a valley during a day-long route clearance mission July 7, 2010 near Khakriz, Afghanistan. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO -- A U.S. Army convoy moves through a valley during a day-long route clearance mission July 7, 2010 near Khakriz, Afghanistan. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It was a bad dream.

It had to be, Staff Sgt. Sarah Zimmerman thought as she came to in the back of a toppled armored truck.

But then she felt the flames licking at her back. She turned and saw the fire. And then a face appeared in the dark haze of the wreckage.

Col. Tobin Magsig, the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, peered at her from behind red sunglasses.

"It's going to be OK," he said. "We're coming in. We're going to get you out."

Zimmerman, of Sykesville, Maryland, was one of six soldiers inside a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle that was struck by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan earlier this month.

The Aug. 2 attack killed two of the soldiers -- Spc. Christopher Michael Harris and Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter -- but it could have been worse.

Harris, of Jackson Springs in Moore County, and Hunter, of Columbus, Indiana, were each on their first deployment. They were among the roughly 1,500 1st Brigade paratroopers serving in Afghanistan.

Zimmerman said she might have been among the deaths that day were it not for soldiers willing to risk their own lives to save her.

Now back at Fort Bragg, where she is recovering from her injuries, Zimmerman said she doesn't remember the blast. But she recalls waking up in the overturned truck afterward. She was injured and unable to move.

Harris and Hunter were dead. The rest of the soldiers in the vehicle were injured.

"I was the only one stuck in the back," she said. "My right leg was stuck behind a seat... I tried to stand up and my left leg collapsed on itself. It folded up like an accordion."

Zimmerman said she realized she was in danger. The inside of the MRAP was dark except for the fire. The truck was filling with smoke.

"I was kind of scared, but I had this weird calm feeling," she said. "My focus was on getting out."

Zimmerman said Magsig was in the MRAP ahead of hers, along with the other soldiers who rescued her. His appearance at the smoking wreckage was far from unexpected.

"I think that was the one thing that didn't surprise me about that day," she said. "I knew he would help."

Of the four paratroopers who survived the attack, three are now back at Fort Bragg getting care for their injuries as part of the Warrior Transition Battalion. The fourth, who suffered a broken nose and head injury, was able to remain in Afghanistan.

On Friday, the three soldiers and their families met with Ryan D. McCarthy, the acting secretary of the Army. McCarthy was visiting Fort Bragg as part of a larger tour of military installations. In addition to meeting with soldiers, he also was slated to be briefed by Army leaders on post.

He met with Zimmerman and her fellow paratroopers at the Fort Bragg Fisher House, which serves as a home away from home for the families of soldiers receiving care at nearby Womack Army Medical Center.

Zimmerman said she told McCarthy about the soldiers who saved her life.

"They deserve the recognition," she said. "They didn't have to come back into a burning truck to pull me out but they did."

According to the 82nd Airborne Division, Staff Sgt. Adam Scarborough and Capt. Brian Jacobs climbed into the burning vehicle through the gunner's hatch to free Zimmerman. Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown and Magsig then helped pull her to safety.

Zimmerman has already thanked the soldiers who rescued her. But she can't say it enough.

"I thanked them, especially Scarborough" she said. "Without him, I would not have gotten out of that truck."

"A lot of people call us heroes. I don't feel like one," Zimmerman added. "But they are. They all came back for me."

Zimmerman, a medic with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, was deployed as part of Magsig's personal security detachment.

It was her first deployment. And three weeks in, it appeared to be the start of a quiet nine-month tour.

"Everything else prior to that had gone extremely smooth," she said.

The unit had undergone at least eight missions prior to Aug. 2, Zimmerman said. And even then, the convoy into Kandahar had been uneventful.

There, Magsig met with an Afghan governor. The personal security detachment was joined on the trip by soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Zimmerman said she sat next to Hunter, one of the soldiers killed in the blast.

The two joked with each other as they rode in the back of the MRAP, with Zimmerman on the passenger side of the vehicle, closest to the gunner.

Zimmerman said she didn't know either Hunter or Harris very well.

"But they feel like brothers now," she said.

The attack on the convoy came as the soldiers returned to Kandahar Airfield, where the brigade serves as part of Train Advise Assist Command -- South.

Zimmerman said she fought to be part of the deployment -- she had to be interviewed and selected to serve on the personal security detachment team -- and that it pained her to be back at Fort Bragg.

"I'd much rather be over there with my guys," she said.

But that's not possible now.

The blast broke bones and tore ligaments in Zimmerman's left leg. She also suffered burns on her back and an arm.

Her leg is currently stabilized, propped up in a wheelchair, as she awaits additional surgery.

"Pretty much every ligament in my knee is gone," she said, motioning to her bandaged leg and the metal bars holding it in place. "This keeps my knee together."

Doctors have told Zimmerman that it could be between a year and a year-and-a-half before she's fully recovered. Even then, she's been told to expect the knee to be no better than 75 percent of what it once was.

Zimmerman left Afghanistan a day after the blast. She was flown to Germany first, then briefly stayed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, before arriving at Fort Bragg on Aug. 7.

For the first six days at Fort Bragg, her family was by her side -- staying at the Fisher House while Zimmerman was treated at Womack.

"That was really big for me," she said of having her family nearby. "And it was huge for my mom."

Zimmerman said she joined the Army in 2011 because she "wanted to do something important." She became a medic for the same reason.

"I'm just taking it day by day," she said. "I want to bend my knee. That's my first goal. After that, we'll see what happens."

--This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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