By Linda D. Kozaryn
WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2006 – Army Spec. Crystal Davis proved her steely grit the night the up-armored wrecker she was driving in Iraq hit an improvised explosive devise.
Trapped in the destroyed vehicle with her right foot nearly severed, she told her cohorts she'd hoist herself out rather than risk having them come in. "I think about it every day," Davis told country music singer-songwriter Rockie Lynne Aug. 18, at a dinner for wounded servicemembers and their families. "Every moment that goes by a part will flash back. I tell it differently every time because I remember different things as time goes by."
Davis was one of about 20 severely injured servicemembers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., who dined on the rooftop of The Exchange restaurant here. Lynne was among the 40 or so family members, veterans and other guests who joined the troops at the dinner hosted and sponsored by Jim Nicopoulos, owner of The Exchange.
"What an inspirational story -- she's amazing," said Lynne, a former Army infantryman, after listening to Davis describe her experience and profess her determination to stay in the Army. "This is such an example of how today's battlefield is so vastly different than even the Gulf War, because now there are no frontlines. There are no support units in the rear," he said. "In today's military, there is clear and present danger for every single person who joins."
Davis, 22, a native of Camden, S.C., joined the Army in January 2004 to become a track mechanic and also trained as a vehicle recovery specialist. As she put it, her job was to "pick up blown up, broke down or stuck vehicles." Assigned to the 54th Engineer Battalion in Bamburg, Germany, she deployed to Iraq in November 2005. At first, she said, she didn't feel threatened being there. "I just felt like it was another day at work," she said. "I would go outside the wire three, four, five times a week, doing different missions."
On Jan. 21, 2006, a two-hour firefight ensued outside the wire. Her team chief remarked that he hated to go outside into a bunch of irate Iraqis. “I just kind of laughed at him and brushed it off," Davis recalled. "He asked if I wanted him to drive that night. I said no, I'd drive. He said we'd be taking the same route we always took so it would be all right -- but it just wasn't all right."
Davis was driving the second to last vehicle in a convoy doing route clearance. As she straightened out of a left turn onto the road, Iraqi insurgents detonated a remote-controlled IED. "It was about 2 in the morning," she recalled. "I had just taken off my eye protection because I'd been up all day and I wanted to stretch and scratch my eyes and kind of wake up a little bit. I had one hand on the wheel, and as I went to grab for the glasses I saw a red flash and heard a boom. I put my hands on the wheel and hit the gas to get out of the danger zone."
The next thing she knew, she awoke to find the vehicle stopped. She was facing the driver's door, but the door had been was blown off. She had glass fragments in her eyes.
"I turned and saw my weapon was still there but my seat belt had been blown off of me," she said. "My right leg was bent backward on top of the steering wheel and my foot was hanging off - it was still connected, but I guess you could say it wasn't there.
"I couldn't see my left leg. I didn't know where it was. All of a sudden my team chief said, 'Hey Ms. Davis, are you all right? Talk to me; talk to me.' All of a sudden the pain just hit me at once, and I said, 'My legs hurt. I don't know why. My legs hurt.'" Within what seemed like seconds to the injured soldier, Sgt. Jessie Venable, Davis' best friend and the unit's medic, was there. "She looked at me, and I could see the tears in her eyes, but she kept everything professional and she did her job.
"She took off my helmet and my flak vest and turned to the people who were going to help her and said, 'I don't know how we're going to get her out.' She didn't know I heard her. Trapped in a vehicle the size of an 18-wheeler with 4-foot-tall tires, Davis told Venable, "'Hold on a minute, let me see if I can get myself out. If I can't then you can try.'
"I'd rather hurt myself worse than have her climb in there and hurt herself and hurt me," she said. Davis found her left leg crushed underneath the seat. Knowing her right foot was already lost, she put pressure on that leg to lift herself up. She grabbed her other leg and set it on the doorjamb.
"I grabbed my left leg and gently pulled it over, and as I went to go set it down somebody grabbed my foot, so I set my leg on top of my foot where it was disconnected," She said.
Venable told Davis to fall forward and she did. Davis said she believes she fought off death shortly after she was put on an air evacuation plane. "I don't know what happened, but I felt the medic's lips on mine and I felt her pushing on my chest, but at the same time I was looking down at her. It was like someone was telling me, 'You can give up now peacefully, or you can fight.'
"I've never quit," Davis told Lynne. "I've never given up a fight. I'll be the first one in the middle of a brawl." Davis said some people say she's crazy because she wants to stay in the military. "But, there's a reason to my madness," she said with a slight smile. "I'm doing everything I can to push myself to the limit and past it to get there. They're going to have to put up with me for the next 18 years."
Her original goal was a long-term Army career. "When I signed up, I signed up for four years," she said. "But in my mind and in my heart, I signed up for the whole 20 years. "I joined to get a change of life, to do something better with my life than what I was doing," she said. "My life was heading down the wrong street at the wrong time, and I wanted to live."
Every bone in Davis's left leg was broken. Her heel, ankle and nerves were crushed. Today, she said she has partial feeling in her foot. She cannot wiggle her toes. She can move her foot up and down a little and side to side. She said it looks like the doctors took a handful of screws and put them in her foot. She has a plate holding her heel together. She also got a prosthetic right leg she's been walking on since mid-March.
Despite such trauma, this young soldier said she has no regrets. "I wouldn't take back a thing," Davis said. "I believe that even if I wasn't in the military that this would have happened to me some way or another somewhere down the line. I'm glad I was in the military because they can pay for it. "It's a miracle that I'm here, and I thank God every day," she concluded.