In last week’s column, I promised to tell you the story of Army Sgt. Robert Stucki from Clarksville, Ky. I interviewed the sergeant for this column 10 years ago when he was a patient, and I the chaplain, at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq.
Stucki, a member of the 194th Military Police Company from Fort Campbell, became a patient after he was hit leading a truck convoy out of Fallujah.
“I saw it coming,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
He held a finger at the corner of his eye to show me where he first noticed a teenager throwing an object off a balcony. The object made a long intentional arch toward him and deployed a ragged parachute.
His description reminded me of the parachutes I’d assembled from my mother’s kitchen towels and kite strings. I’d attach a rock and, through trial and error, eventually find the right weight ratio to parachute surface that would bring the rock to a soft landing.
But the parachute coming for Stucki didn’t have a rock. It held a Russian-made, armor-piercing hand grenade rather than a typical grenade that would be no match for the high-sided armored vehicle Stucki was commanding.
Stucki’s steel-clad chariot was a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, otherwise called the MRAP. The crew rides atop an elevated cabin with the bottom three-fourths of its height surrounded with thick, flat side armor. However, the soldiers love the MRAP best for what is underneath: a V-shaped hull that deflects roadside explosions originating below the vehicle, thereby greatly reducing passenger injuries.
Yet as our intelligence officer would tell me later, the boy wasn’t aiming for the underside of the MRAP. The insurgent took personal aim at Stucki where the grenade’s shaped charge would penetrate the window.
“I remember it looking like a welding arc," Stucki said, “shooting molten metal between my legs.”
With a casted arm and leg, Stucki continued, “All I could think about was that we've been hit! I started yelling for my driver to push through. I was praying the whole way for my gunner and my driver to be OK.”
Twenty minutes later, Stucki commanded the MRAP into his Battalion Aid station, 20 minutes by air from Balad. Only then, after Battalion Aid assured him that his crew suffered superficial injuries, did Stucki turn his attention to his own spiritual aid by requesting his Mormon Lay minister.
"I put my faith in the Lord," he told me. "I was just praying, 'Take care of my guys and help me with the pain.'" However, Stucki's injuries were serious enough for medics to transport him to our hospital. With helicopter rotors whirling a blend of sand and sweat, his minister administered a blessing just before takeoff.
Stucki described his injuries to me as being, "Minor compared to the potential of this attack.”
“What kind of potential?” I asked.
The 15-year veteran looked away, rubbing his eyes.
"Let's just say that with this type of attack, our survival was a testament to God watching out for us."
As he worked for composure, Stucki explained how his crew had traded their vulnerable Humvee for the MRAP two days before the attack. He reasoned that the Humvee, with its soft undercarriage, would have been low hanging fruit to the most rookie of insurgents.
"By the grace of God, we were in the MRAP, and the molten steel passed between my legs." He glanced at his legs, both intact. “All I need is a few surgeries with plates and screws."
Soon, his nurse came to the bedside and began pushing buttons and disconnecting wires. “You’re going home a hero, Sergeant,” she said.
His flight would be leaving for Germany in two hours. Then, in a few days, he’d fly home.
“Sounds like you’ll be taking the last plane to Clarksville and be home for Mother's Day.” I said.
The nurse groaned at my musical pun, but Stucki turned toward the nursing staff and gave his departing conclusion: "These guys are the real heroes!"
Stucki contacted me last week.
"Your story makes me sound better than than I remember being," he said. "After I left Germany, I spent a year getting 19 surgeries, two plates, 17 screws and some really cool scars. I was able to remain in active service for a few more years then transitioned to the Army Reserve and went to work for Hopkinsville Police Department.
"I still credit God for getting me through everything, including some very difficult rehab," Stucki said. "It is cool to see the hand of the Lord actively guiding events in my life, even in the blood and fire of combat. He continues to be there for me to this day as a police officer."
Editor's Note: Stucki’s story is excerpted from Norris’ book “Hero’s Highway.”