Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Henrique Soares, assigned to Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), has a career that is full of stories; this particular one starts in 2006.
At the time Soares, then a hospital corpsman, was a search and rescue corpsman attached to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Three One stationed at Branch Health Clinic China Lake, California. He was the only corpsman to be assigned as an individual augementee with the 3rd Marines, 14th Battalion Police Transition Team (PTT).
Soares, along with 19 Marines, made up the PTT. That April, they were sent to Hit, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The team used an old school building as their base of operations. Each day the team woke up at 5:30 a.m., loaded their vehicles, patrolled the immediate area, and visited four to five police stations to train Iraqi police officers. Some days their mission would not end until 10 p.m., occasionally stretching into the next day.
August 15, 2016 - Interior Communications Electrician 2nd Class Henrique Soares, assigned to Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), is presented a letter of appreciation from the commanding officer by Chief Warrant Officer Ernest Brinson. Soares received the letter for his work during Ford's change of command ceremony in April 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Gitte Schirrmacher)
December 6 started as uneventfully as every other day of his eight-month tour.
“We went to the first police station, everything seemed normal,” said Soares. “We went to the second police station; we did some training and recruiting. We screened recruits to make sure they were not terrorists and that they were physically able to go to the Iraqi police academy.”
During this time the team received intelligence of suspected terrorist activity near the hospital in Hit, which is the only hospital in the area for Iraqi nationals.
Soares’ team was a part of a quick reaction force and would typically provide close-in direct support to different units two times a week. Being called for firefight support, aiding other U.S. military troops in direct combat with enemy forces, was not uncommon.
“We got there and nobody was around,” said Soares. “We did our standard clearing procedures then we got ambushed from four different positions by more than 40 personnel. There were only 20 of us and five to ten Iraqi police officers. We didn’t have good odds.”
Soares, the rest of the PTT, and the Iraqi police were pinned down, receiving fire from multiple angles. Their only cover was behind four Humvees, which made maneuvering out of their position difficult.
“I got a call through the radio that there was a man down,” said Soares. “I saw the guy who was down; he was in the middle of the firing line. He seemed conscious and awake, but he didn’t want to crawl to us because he seemed scared.”
The downed man was an Iraqi police lieutenant. He had been shot through his upper thigh. Disregarding enemy fire, Soares ran to the lieutenant. Dodging gunfire, he slid, head first, to the lieutenant.
“He had a single bullet wound to the butt area,” said Soares. “There was no life endangerment. I figured I would drag him back to the Humvees to finish patching him up.”
Soares grabbed the lieutenant by the shoulder straps of his flack jacket and began to drag him back to the relative safety of the Humvees, exposing them both to enemy fire. Soares himself became a target. He felt his left arm go weak, but he continued pulling the lieutenant to safety using the strength of his right arm alone.
“While I was pulling him, I felt my collarbone was out of place; it was burning. I thought I might have broken it when I slid next to the lieutenant. But we were still getting fire so I just kept on dragging him back until I got us behind the vehicle. My thought was to get him to safety. I was too focused to worry about myself,” said Soares.
With one last heave, Soares got the lieutenant behind the wheel of the Humvee. He finished bandaging the lieutenant and tried to help the Marines put the lieutenant in the Humvee.
“That’s when my gunny yelled at me to stay down,” said Soares. “He told me I’d been hit. When I realized I was hit everything went quiet. Everything moved in slow motion.”
Soares slid down the wheel of the Humvee onto the desert floor. He had been hit with a single round from an AK-47 while dragging the lieutenant to safety. The bullet pierced the back of his neck, cracked his C-7 vertebrae, shattered his left clavicle, passed through his shoulder, shattered his rotator cuff and exited through his upper left shoulder.
Soares now had to turn his corpsman skills onto himself.
“I couldn’t move my left arm,” said Soares. “I was looking for entrance and exit wounds, but I couldn’t feel much.”
Marine Cpl. Richard West, an infantrymen of Soares’ PTT, also began checking Soares.
“My buddy asked me to move my legs and I did,” said Soares. “Then he told me I wasn’t. I was in shock. I was in denial.”
Soares’ body went numb with the exception of his right arm.
“I rubbed my hand over my collarbone and my hand caught on something,” said Soares. “I saw blood on my hand. I found my collarbone was popped through the skin. I had to talk West through what to do.”
The gunfight did not stop while Soares lead West though the bandaging of his wounds. He was forced to lay there waiting for backup to arrive.
“All I heard was gunfire and screaming,” said Soares. “My team was trying to figure out how we were going to fight back. I heard another language, the Iraqi police talking to themselves, but I couldn’t focus on what anyone was saying. It was as if someone put a video on slow motion and everything was blurry, slowed down and drawn out.”
More than 30 minutes passed while Soares lay helpless. Somehow he remained calm.
Backup finally arrived. A junior Army medic immediately began looking over Soares.
“I felt he was freaking out due to the extent of my injuries,” said Soares. “I was worried he might do something wrong or not use good judgment. I had to keep myself up to talk him through the injury. I became comfortable only when I got to the hospital where there were doctors.”
The field hospital, similar to a battle dressing station on board Ford, was where doctors stabilized Soares. While at this hospital, the members of Soares’ PTT came to visit.
“I had mixed emotions,” said Soares. “I was mad my team was about to be without a corpsman, because I was their only corpsman. I didn’t want to leave them. I felt like the mission was incomplete.”
Soares’ team assured him they would be fine. They wanted him to take care of himself. The team then saw him off as he was transferred to a bigger hospital in the city of Balad.
The doctors in Balad initially thought Soares would be paralyzed. Further examination of his x-rays revealed Soares had spinal shock. With this diagnosis, Soares would eventually regain full feeling in all of his limbs.
Soon after his first surgery, Soares began to improve.
“I could see everybody running around in a controlled chaos,” said Soares. “I started to check myself again, everything below my chest was numb. I saw stitches over my clavicle. It felt the rough, like the feeling train tracks. I thought to myself, I’m going to have an ugly scar. Then the smell of iron hit me. I smelled blood and I felt the hemovacs underneath my skin.”
A hemovac is a drain placed underneath the skin that removes blood clots and fluid buildup post surgery.
With his immediate surgeries complete, Soares began his trip home.
He had to stop in Germany at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the closest, major military hospital for military personnel coming from Iraq. Here he had one more surgery. He was then flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, before arriving at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
It took 10 days to get home, where his girlfriend, mother, and sister were anxiously waiting for his return.
After another week, Soares was released from the hospital, but his visits to the doctor were far from over.
Physical therapy lasted six months, but Soares only took 30 days of convalescent leave.
“After convalescent leave I was put up for medical discharge,” said Soares. “I fought that process heavily. I got in contact with Lieutenant Bird, who was the physician assistant at China Lake. We made a deal that if I pass the PRT then he will help me stay in the Navy.”
Soares had three months to prepare for the March 2007 physical readiness test.
“I struggled with the pushups, but I fought to stay in,” said Soares. “I replayed the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in my head as my personal theme song. I struggled, but I felt invincible when I passed.”
Unfortunately, the feeling of invincibility faded. That same month Soares got word that a good friend from his PTT team, Marine Cpl. Trevor Roberts, had died.
“I was emotional because I wanted to be with my guys,” said Soares. “I kept to myself most of the time. I tried not to hang out with a lot of people because they didn’t know what I was going through. I didn’t feel understood at work or at home. My girlfriend didn’t understand where my mood swings and temper would come from.”
His girlfriend soon suggested that he see someone to talk about what he had gone through. Soares agreed to go to group therapy.
“I did group therapy with other wounded vets,” said Soares. “That worked out for me better, because I got to talk to a bunch of guys who knew exactly what I was going through who had the same type of feelings and emotions. It brought a lot of things back into perspective.”
Soares did group therapy for eight months, joined the Purple Heart Riders motorcycle club, and even married his girlfriend. Things were looking up. Then the other shoe came crashing down.
In December 2008, Soares was processed out the Navy due to high year tenure.
“I didn’t want to leave the Navy with an incomplete mission,” said Soares. “I wanted to go back and do a full deployment.”
Soares worked to become a Sailor again. In September 2009, Soares swore the oath yet again, joining the Navy Reserves. In 2013, Soares volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan as a member of the Fleet Surgical Team. He was able to complete the full deployment. He then got the call to come back to active duty, June 2014, as an interior communications electrician.
Soares has no intentions of getting out of the Navy before his 20 years.
“My goal is to make chief,” said Soares. “I also think about cross-rating to corpsman just shy of every day. I would love that opportunity again. The Navy will just have to kick me out again.”
Through the years, Soares has earned all types of decorations and accolades, from numerous bluejackets of the year to a Naval Commendation Medal with a Valor Device, but he says nothing holds the same distinction as his Purple Heart that he received for his injuries sustained in Iraq.
By U.S. Navy Seaman Apprentice Connor Loessin
Provided through DVIDS
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