By Army Pfc. Victor J. Ayala
Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 11, 2009 - The noncommissioned officer in charge of training operations for the Warrior Transition Battalion here appears to be a typical soldier. But if the right sleeve of his shirt should come up a bit, you might catch a glimpse of a story whose protagonist is more than typical. Running the length of Army Sgt. Cameron E. Stroeh's right forearm is a deep, broad scar, and beneath the scar tissue is a 15-inch bone from his leg that doctors used to replace a crushed radius bone. All this, together with his easy smile and relaxed attitude, makes for an image that sharply contrasts with what most would expect in a wounded warrior.
It was June 15, 2007, when Stroeh suffered the wounds that have limited the range of motion of his right hand and arm. He was a cavalry scout with A Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, and his squad was on a foot patrol south of Baghdad when it came under small-arms fire.
"We were ambushed by a group in a car while we were in a wide-open field," Stroeh said. "They drove up and started shooting at us. Then one of my friends got hit."
Within seconds, Stroeh was taken out of the fight.
"I was hit in the right forearm. Then I got grazed on my right bicep, and then I also took a bullet to the handle of my knife, which was right above my plate," he said. "It knocked me back, and at first there was this sharp pain, then it went numb." The bullet that hit his forearm destroyed his ulna bone, radial nerve and 15 inches of his radius bone.
After the firefight, Stroeh and the other wounded soldier received first-aid from Army Cpl. Ryan A. Woodward, another soldier in the squad, who applied a tourniquet and field dressing.
Stroeh's hand was barely hanging onto his arm, he said. But even after such a devastating wound, Stroeh and his fellow soldiers kept their cool, and they even made light of the situation while they waited for medical evacuation.
"We were all making jokes the whole time," Stroeh said. "One of the guys even said, 'You only need a left hand for that wedding ring.'"
The unit was two weeks away from it's mid-deployment rest and relaxation leave. Stroeh was to be married during the break in his deployment.
Robyn K. Stroeh, who was Stroeh's fiancée at the time, heard the news of the injury from the soldier's mother, who received only the briefest telephone call.
"When I heard, I had to pull over to the side of the road," she said. "I was in total disbelief. We didn't know where he was hit, or how bad it was. I went to my mother's work to tell her, and fainted in her arms."
Stroeh was sent to a hospital in Baghdad, where he underwent the first two of a long series of surgeries. He called his fiancée from the hospital the day after the firefight. Even that soon after the incident, Robyn Stroeh said, he never sounded worried. Calmness and level-headedness always had been part of his nature, she added.
From Baghdad, he was flown to Germany, where he received four more surgeries, followed by three more at Fort Bragg. At his request, his last major surgery was performed in his home state of Nebraska at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Omaha.
Despite all this, Stroeh and his fiancée still married right on time.
"The only problem we had was getting a tuxedo," she said. "And with those big casts on his right side, he had to stand to the left of me in all our pictures." Woodward, the soldier who first administered aid to Stroeh when he was hit, attended the wedding while on his mid-deployment leave.
Stroeh said he never really let the whole ordeal get to him, but that he couldn't help but be deeply affected by one thing: His friend Woodward returned to Iraq soon after the wedding and was killed in action three weeks later.
"One of the hardest things for me was that my friend died doing my job," he said.
Since his last surgery and a brief rest period in Nebraska, Stroeh has been a soldier in the Warrior Transition Battalion, where his main mission is to heal and get on with life. He no longer undergoes rehabilitation, having reached the maximum level of medical care.
"It's as good as it's going to get," Stroeh said. "But I'm going to do my best to live a normal life."
He is currently in the medical discharge process, and though he is leaving the Army, he said, the lessons he learned while in the Army will stay with him forever.
"The service really shows you what kind of person you are," he said.
Both Stroeh and his wife look to the future with optimism.
"We'll have a house, he'll go back to school, and I'll work full-time. Maybe there are some kids in our future, even though he may not think so yet," Robyn Stroeh said with a laugh.
In his designs to live a normal life, Stroeh shows the extraordinary spirit you can't spot with the eye. He won't let the past limit his present, and he won't let his present physical limitations hinder his future.
When asked if he would do it all over again, even knowing what would happen June 15, 2007, he replied simply and earnestly, "Of course."
(Army Pfc. Victor J. Ayala serves in the 49th Public Affairs Detachment.)