It was late at night and we had been on patrol all day and just made it back to our bombed-out apartment buildings inside Camp Dragoon.
We were sitting around our beds cleaning weapons when we heard a large explosion in the distance. I remember looking at my watch and seeing that it was right on the top of the hour at either 2100 or 2200.
It was common to hear explosions throughout the city, and usually, when they were at the top of the hour they were EOD controlled blast. None of us in 3rd Plt really thought much about it.
A few moments later I recall standing on the second story balcony hearing SSG Mike Quarles yelling as he ran back from the Camp HQ. He had been waiting in line at the talk to use the precious 5 minutes of satellite phone time we got each week.
He was frantically yelling, “Medic, Medic”. My heart sunk as I knew that my buddy Don Allred and I were the only medics around.
With only my Nike basketball shorts, combat boots, and a brown tee shirt; I grabbed my aid bag and ran down the stairs. Mike told us that an IED had gone off with soldiers wounded just down the road from our back gate.
I remember the guard at the back gate told us the HMMWV was not able to leave the base unless we had two gun trucks. Without consulting with the Lieutenant – Don, Steve and I unload out of the HMMWV and took off out of the gate running down the road towards the convoy that had been hit.
I remember being mad at myself for having to slow down from the dead sprint pace we had taken off in – but Steve was hurting more than me with the weight of the SAW that he was carrying.
We arrived at what would be my first mass casualty involving US troop – or as we call them in the Emergency Department “code traumas”.
I remember vividly raising the back flap of a troop carrier soft top HMMWV and looking in the back seeing a Major with most of his arm blown off around the elbow. There were two other guys helping him – one of them a medic. They assured us that they did not need any more help and that they were going to transport him back to Dragoon for medical help.
Don and I with Steve while covering our every move with his SAW, went over to the vehicle that Cpl. Tomas Sotelo was in. It was like time stopped for me. I remember seeing the blown up HMMWV and what looked like a scene out of a movie. My brain had a hard time processing what had gone one.
I remember him lying there lifelessly with very thick blood around his neck. I had never seen a dead person before – at least outside of a funeral. The unreal moment continues as I knew what had happened but had a hard time processing that it was one of our own. The same uniform, the same rank, the same young look on his face made the war for me at that moment, real. The noise and surroundings came to a standstill, I could no longer hear the voices yelling or the engines running, it was the moment CPL Sotelo and I meet.
Both Don and I knew Sotelo had passed instantly from the power of the blast. We quickly moved on and found other walking wounded.
Fortunately, the other injuries were non-life threatening – so we bandaged them up and loaded them into the back of another HMMWV and road back to base.
When we arrived, we helped them into an aid station and could hear the rotor blades dust off coming for the Major.
They brought Sotelo into a room and Don and I stayed with him. One of the aid station medics told us that they would then perform an autopsy on him to find the cause of death.
He sustained several different non-survivable injuries. I often wondered if I would have been able to run faster or get there sooner, would I have been able to help Cpl Sotelo in his final moments of life.
I knew these ideas were not rational or logical – because of the severity of the injuries he sustained – but I still have those thoughts and hated that I could not get there faster.
I never knew Cpl Sotelo when he was alive, but knowing him at his death was a great honor that has helped shape my life ever since. It has given me a drive that I share with my brothers and sisters who have stood beside me in situations like these. A drive to make my life better since his was taken too soon.
Through this story, I wanted to share my experience of that warm summer night on the 27th of June 2003. I hope that he may rest in peace and that his family will know and remember that their son still impacts people to this day, and his memory will never be forgotten.