BALAD, Iraq - "Watch any war movie," said Spc. James Black, "and you always see some crazy and brave guy with a red cross on his arm doing the impossible to save his brothers “ that is what people come to expect from combat medics."
Black, a 23-year-old student from Weatherford, Okla., didn't have a red cross on his arm Sept. 4, 2006, nor does he consider what he did that day to be crazy or brave. It was just his job.
The mission was to escort supply trucks to an Army base in northern Iraq. Black, then attached to the B Troop of the Lincoln, Neb.-based 1st Squadron, 167th Cavalry Regiment, was the convoy's medic, driving in the middle Humvee as the group returned to Balad.
They were on the road for about a half hour when Black saw a flash followed by a large fireball and a loud boom, he said. An improvised explosive device concealed in the median of the highway had detonated as the scout vehicle, ahead of the rest of the convoy, drove by it. A written report said the vehicle spun several times and immediately burst into flames.
When Black's vehicle reached the site of the explosion he saw the gunner, Pfc. Luis Estrada, lying on his back in front of the wreckage.
"I moved to [Estrada's] position and tried to wake him," wrote Black via e-mail. "When I couldn't keep him conscious, I pulled him to the side of my vehicle away from the burning truck."
After bandaging Estrada's bleeding, shrapnel-damaged hips and moving him to a safe area, Black treated two of the other passengers for smoke inhalation. He then went back to the burning truck to aid in the extraction of the driver Sgt. Germaine Debro, who was still trapped inside. It proved difficult at first because the driver-side door had been caved in and wedged in position by the IED detonation. Also, heat from the fire caused ammunition and fragmentary grenades inside the cab to begin "cooking off." The door was finally ripped away and Debro was removed.
"We called for a medical evacuation and I began to treat Debro for all the injuries I could in a hasty manner," said Black.
This wasn't Black's first enemy encounter in a war zone. He had been attached to the Pennsylvania-based 28th Infantry Division when it was deployed to Ar Ramadi in 2005. His Humvee sustained minor damage from an IED attack while he was on a mission two weeks after being in Iraq. His first chance to perform duties as a medic also happened in Ramadi; a supply truck had been hit in its fuel tank while he was part of another convoy. It too caught fire, but both occupants managed to escape. Black helped carry one of the injured men and load him into his vehicle before both passengers were airlifted to a nearby hospital.
Black, a five-year Army veteran, drew upon both of those experiences as he and another medic continued to treat Debro for about 45 minutes. The two were struggling to keep the injured Soldier's vital signs positive, alternating as they breathed and pumped air into Debro's chest until the evacuation helicopter arrived.
Even though Black seemed outwardly calm and collected while he was treating Debro, "that was a complete mask," he said. He had to work as fast as possible just to keep his hands from shaking.
"One of the first things I learned in school was to not show how bad things are to anyone," said Black. "If everyone thinks you have the situation under control, then it helps others to stay calm “ especially the wounded."
Despite Black's quick, instinctive rescue actions and decisive medical treatment, Debro's injuries were too severe and he later died “ an event that still gives Black nightmares.
"I think the burden of the medic is to live not only with the successes of saving a life, but also the horrors of seeing your friends die," said Black. "[As a medic], there is no greater failure than having someone pass away in your arms. You have to learn to accept the fact that you can't save them all, but the first time someone dies that you treated directly, it scars you."
Black has been home since November after fulfilling his 12-month deployment obligation as a member of the Inactive Ready Reserve. Immediately after the attack, he was nominated for a Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his actions but is unsure of whether or not it has been approved yet. He maintains that he was simply doing what he was trained to do “ "to treat the wounded, regardless of the risk."
"My title is 'Doc,' and I refuse to be called a hero," said Black. "To me, the term 'hero' is usually applied to people who don't have to do the incredible things they do for others. The ordinary Joes who run into a burning building to save another but have had no training in firefighting, those are heroes."