“It felt like somebody had just thrown a rock,” says Army Airborne Staff Sgt. TJ Ivey, describing what it felt like being shot by a Taliban sniper while serving in Afghanistan in July of last year.
A Scotland County native, Ivey recalled the incident for The Exchange the day before he was set to rejoin the 173rd Airborne in Bamberg, Germany.
Sitting at the kitchen table of his father’s early 1900s Church Street home on a quiet blue sky day, Ivey said that he remembered grabbing the back of his leg and then suddenly realizing that he’d been shot.
“I pulled my hand back and there was blood. I tried to get back up and couldn’t,” Ivey said.
Ivey and the artillery platoon he commanded on a dangerous remote outpost had spent the day removing explosive ordnance from containers embedded in a nearby hill.
“Our (combat outpost) was kind of weird. It had about 50 guys and was pretty much flat but our gun was up on that hill for some reason,” Ivey explained.
“All of that morning we had taken sporadic sniper fire. Probably one round every 45 minutes. A couple of my guys almost got hit before I did.”
Ivey’s platoon was only a couple of weeks into a three month mission, working to transfer custody of the outpost to Afghan soldiers as part of the American military’s ongoing drawdown from the region.
“I was standing up there right at the place where we went down to get ammo and, I don’t know, just all of a sudden I was on the ground.”
No sound, no muzzle flash, only the sensation of being hit by a harmless stone accompanied the sniper’s shot, Ivey said.
Ivey even yelled at his men, telling them to stop playing around.
Then he saw the blood.
“My guys immediately grabbed me and pulled me behind the wall. We were under fire the whole time after that. (The sniper) definitely knew he’d hit someone.”
At a range of around 600-700 meters, the sniper used his Russian-made rifle to rain down on the men as they called for a medic to assist their wounded sergeant.
The soldiers assisting Ivey rushed to slice off his pants leg, knowing that if his femoral artery was severed he could bleed out in only a few moments.
It would take the combat medic 10 minutes to reach the hill because of the unrelenting sniper fire.
“I was kind of freaked out at first. I didn’t know if it had hit my artery or my femur. Once they actually cut my pants off and I saw that I wasn’t bleeding that bad, I saw that I was fine, at least for what could have happened.”
The relief was short-lived, as Ivey was quickly put on a helicopter that took steady gunfire as he was evacuated from the outpost.
From there Ivey was examined by Air Force surgeons at a nearby Polish base and flown to the relative safety of Bagram Air Field and then finally to Landstuhl, Germany where surgery and two weeks of rehabilitation awaited.
Eventually met in Landstuhl by his German wife, Janina, Ivey had already called his family back home during his brief stopover at Bagram Air Field.
“The Army had called my dad and he called everybody else, so that night at Bagram in Afghanistan I just called my mom and my dad and my wife to tell them I was OK.”
Ivey describes the two weeks of rehabilitation that followed as “difficult,” saying that his mind remained on the men he’d left behind.
“The platoon had become pretty close, especially after being there just for that month and I’d been working with them for six months leading up to that. It was probably one of the better platoons I’d been in and I wanted to be there helping them out, not in a hospital bed.
“I’d talk to the guys the whole time through Facebook and they’d fill me in on what was going on.”
Just three days after the incident where Ivey was wounded, there was bad news from the outpost.
“It was the same thing, a sniper. This time he shot five guys instead of one. It wasn’t my platoon but some infantry guys we were with in the (combat outpost).”
The same medic that had bravely faced incoming fire to treat Ivey was dispatched to treat the five wounded infantrymen, Ivey was told.
In the process of seeing to their wounds the medic was shot and killed.
When it came time to return to Afghanistan, Ivey said that his family naturally “didn’t really want (him) to go back.”
Upon returning Ivey found his unit had already finished their work at the outpost where he was wounded. That outpost, like all others in Afghanistan, was being abandoned by American forces.
Ivey finished his last few months in Afghanistan at a larger base in southern Afghanistan before returning to Germany.
A seven year veteran of the Army, Ivey has been sent to Afghanistan three times – and to the same outpost twice.
“It was just a lot hotter the last time, for some reason,” Ivey said. “You couldn’t fly in, they couldn’t drive in, we had to have our food air dropped. It was probably one of the hottest spots for the three months we were there.”
While it never gets easier, Ivey said that he eventually got used to leaving his wife and his family to go into a war zone.
“I guess it’s like any other job, there are good things and bad things about it.”
The lasting psychological effects of the sniper incident are few, said Ivey, who prefers not to think of the attack.
“When I hear certain pops and stuff like that, but other than that it’s really nothing.”
Ivey was awarded the Army Purple Heart while at the hospital in Germany.
At first reluctant to accept commendation for being shot, Ivey said that he came to appreciate the fact that he would be joining a long line of American military men and women wounded in the service of their country.
“To start with I actually didn’t want to get a Purple Heart but after I got it I kind of felt proud to have it,” Ivey said.
Since getting back to Germany this month, Ivey is serving as a Battalion Air NCO, waking up at 6:30 a.m. daily for physical training and then working until 5 p.m. coordinating the airborne operations for his unit.
“We’re not jumping as much because of the budget cuts” however, Ivey said.
Living in Bamberg with his wife of three years, Ivey says that he hopes never return to Afghanistan – and when he returns to America in July of 2014, he wants to stay. For good.
“I’m not done with the Army, but I’m done with Afghanistan. Hopefully. I don’t want to go back. Three times is enough.”
And though people are going to always ask first about that day on the remote hill where he was wounded, Ivey said that he will remember the many other months he spent in Afghanistan working to help the country and its people.
“I think (the future of Afghanistan) is something that I will follow closely. We did a lot of work there building bridges and wells and trying to get the citizens jobs. For the most of my time there our major mission was basically going out to the villages and just asking them what they needed, helping them with their crops … and teaching them how to grow apples and corn and build wells.
“The majority of the Afghans, from what they told us, they wanted us there.”
Even Germany, with its “great beer, great food, awesome weather … and great people” is a place Ivey hopes to leave behind.
“I don’t plan on staying there. I plan to come back to the states and go to work. I could stay in Germany and still be in the Army, but I’ve got to get back to the States. Seven years is too long.”
As the United States honors its dead servicemen and women on Memorial Day, Ivey said that there is one important way to be of benefit to those veterans who are still alive.
“Just be there. When they return, be there. That is probably the most important thing. To have somebody there so that they know somebody cares about them. When we could, especially back in Germany, we would make sure we were there for all the guys coming back because many of them didn’t have anybody there.”