By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 21, 2009 - An Air Force major recovered from injuries suffered in Afghanistan to complete 20 years of honorable service. "I decided pretty early on what I wanted to do," Maj. Matthew Conlan said. "I was going to get back on the job and continue serving. I wanted to finish what I started."
Conlan, assigned to the Air Force's civil engineering directorate at the Pentagon, will retire from the Air Force this month.
Part of Conlan's drive to complete his active-duty service despite the extensive wounds he suffered came from the support he received from his family and the Air Force during his recovery, he said, but also had roots in his family's long history of military service.
"My family has a long association with the military in the United States well back into the early 1800s," Conlan said. "It's something that we do. We serve, so I knew at a young age ... that the military was going to be my path."
Conlan's older brother, a Marine at the time, was wounded while serving in Beirut, Lebanon. Both brothers have been awarded the Purple Heart.
Conlan's experience as a civil engineer required him to deploy several times during his career, and was a catalyst for his deployment to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in April 2005.
Referring to himself as a "leader from the front," Conlan said he wanted to participate in one of his unit's missions to collect unexploded ordnance near an old Soviet artillery base. Conlan and his team -- four explosive ordnance disposal technicians, two heavy-equipment operators and 30 to 40 Army combat engineers and military police -- left to complete the mission for that day. In retrospect, Conlan said, he realizes how fortunate he was that an Army combat medic accompanied the team that sunny day in June.
"As I was walking down the hill with Air Force Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ramakka, I saw at the corner of one of the revetments something buried and what looked like artillery round," the major said. As Ramakka and Conlan were inspecting the area, they didn't know they were standing near a landmine. Conlan said the area was also used by the Afghan army and was supposed to have been cleared of mines. The mine they were standing near detonated after Ramakka stepped on it.
"While it was an old Soviet artillery, the enemy had purposefully planted it there. We, unfortunately, found it the hard way," Conlan said. "[The blast] was nothing like you see in war movies. I'm here to tell you that is not how it works."
When the mine detonated, Conlan said, he didn't hear it. Though momentarily in shock, he assessed both his and Ramakka's wounds. The explosion removed the bulk of Ramakka's lower leg, and shrapnel from the explosion resulted in wounds in his right leg and his hands. The blast also wounded Conlan's legs, creating a massive hole in his left leg, and inflicted other, more serious, damage to his right.
While assessing his wounds, Conlan said, he saw the gigantic hole in his left leg. "I stuck my hand in that hole to see if any blood was spraying out," he said. "I looked down and I saw a smoking hole. I knew that things had just turned bad. At that point, a thought went into my head: 'You have to check yourself out.'"
Fortunately for Conlan and Ramakka, the Army combat medic on duty helped to secure the scene and started immediate medical assistance. Two other soldiers helped. "[The soldiers] had combat medic lifesaver training," Conlan said. "They were able to bandage off my left leg, but on my right leg, they had five or six bandages on and couldn't stop the bleeding."
Conlan said he remembers hearing the soldiers arguing about whether to apply a tourniquet. "I sat up and said, 'If you need to do it, do it,'" he recalled. "To the day I die, I will also remember the look [on their faces]." He added that he would rather lose his leg than his life.
Following emergency care at Bagram, the airmen were flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. A few days later, both Conlan and Rammakka were flown to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
After Conlan had resigned himself to losing it, the doctors were able to regain blood flow in his right leg. "Long story short, the medical personnel were able to save my leg," he said. "I have nothing to say but good things about the medical folks. I have been seen by Army, Navy [and] Air Force, and had nothing but exceptional service along the way."
Conlan has endured 10 surgeries, and probably will need more. Rammakka, who lost the lower part of his left leg, also returned to active-duty status.
In addition to the gratitude he expressed for the medical care he received, Conlan thanked the leaders who allowed him to finish what he started out to do 20 years ago.
"One of the most important things that anyone said to me was actually during my Purple Heart ceremony," he said. Maj. Gen. Dean Fox, then the Air Force's top civil engineer, presented the Purple Heart to Conlan on Aug. 12, 2005, at Wilford Hall. Conlan said the general told him, "When you are ready, we have a job for you." The major said those 10 simple words had a huge impact on him and his ability to return to duty.
He acknowledged that he may not move as fast as he once did, but said he knows he is still contributing to the Air Force's mission.
"My legs are nowhere near as strong or useful as they were, due to the damage of my right leg," he said. "[But] I can walk, and there are a lot of things that I can do."
If people need inspiration or want to know what the human spirit is all about, Conlan said, they should spend a "day in the life" of a wounded sailor, soldier, airman or Marine.
"Go visit Walter Reed ... or any of the major hospitals and talk to some of the wounded guys and gals," he said. "All they want to do is get back to their unit, and we are all the same in that regard.
"I don't consider myself special," he continued. "My injuries were pretty bad, and it took a long time to come back. [But] I felt like that I was letting everyone down if I didn't get up and get back to it."
(This is the eighth installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)