[Written by: Kendra Clapp Olguín | Photos by: Mike Carroll]
“I immediately got goosebumps. I knew something bad was about to happen and I remember getting on the radio and was like, ‘Hey, I think we’re about to get ambushed.’”
U.S. Army Veteran Bobby Carrasquillo sits across from graphic designer Scott Brinkley in Charlotte’s downtown WeWork location. Having met just moments before, Bobby began with how he was injured while driving a humvee in Baghdad in 2003.
“The medical platoon asked me to drive. I’d just got off the phone with my dad and telling him that I’d just come off the front line, that I was going to work in the aid station and they were sending new guys out. I told him I was safe, that I wasn’t running out on all these crazy missions anymore, that I was going to be fine and was going to ride the rest of this deployment out. I literally hung up the phone and was on the phone with him an hour later telling him I was going into surgery, that I’d just got blown up.”
The medical platoon was on their way to the hospital to pick up supplies for an injured little girl. A cab pulled out in front of the humvee Bobby was driving and stopped. After someone fired a warning shot, the cab pulled out of the way and sped off. The platoon proceeded.
“I remember seeing this bag sticking out of a hole in the middle of the road and I knew instantly what it was.”
It was an IED. It’s the reason why many Veterans of the Afghanistan or Iraq wars are wary of trash or miscellaneous items on the sides of streets when they return home. They have been trained to assume the worst.
“We didn’t have doors on the Humvee and had I gone left or right, it would have killed one of us easily. I just straddled it and went right over it. The engine block took the majority of the blast and my driver’s side had been blown off. When I woke up, the guys that had ambushed us were shooting at us. I looked to my right and my TC, my friend I was driving with, was gone. I thought he had been killed but he was alive, he just ran out because the vehicle was on fire. I was stuck but I managed to free myself and fell into a ditch to take cover. We weren’t far from where our battalion headquarters were and they heard the blast. If there’s any place to get wounded, it’s in a medical convoy with a battalion surgeon in the vehicle behind you so that’s probably what saved my life. The doctor immediately began working on me. As soon as they laid down suppressive fire and got those guys, I was getting treated.”
Bobby takes a moment to elaborate on how he was feeling right before, how he could sense something was going to happen, and how his intuition had protected him by guiding him over the IED.
“My grandma was that way and I think I probably got it from her. Intuition, yeah, I listen to it. I knew I was going to get hurt at that moment. I felt it before it happened.”
We spend a moment reflecting on the symbolism of that moment that changed his life. While a natural reaction might be to flee, to resist, and distance oneself from a threat, Bobby’s decision at that moment was to go straight forward.
“It’s steering into the thing you’re afraid of,” Scott adds.
I elaborate further, “It’s amazing that you decided, and decided very quickly, that you just had to go head-on because left or right-“
“We were dead,” Bobby finalizes.
Bobby explained to us of the invisible force field he envisioned surrounding him and his battle buddies. “Nothing will penetrate this,” he would tell himself.
Almost like the presence of a guardian angel, on some level, Bobby felt and still feels something looks out for him.
“When I was out there, I prayed to everything, every higher being that I thought of. They say you’re an atheist until you’re in a foxhole. I believed in something. Something saved me, I could feel it. I could feel that even when I was bleeding out, I knew I was going to be OK.”
Although seriously injured, Bobby felt excited, understanding that he was going to go home.
“A part of me misses being in. I don’t miss people trying to kill me all the time, by any means, but everything is significant, every footstep you take, where you place your hand. I used to think of how my body was going to be positioned when sitting in a vehicle because this way gives me more protection from the outside and like I said, when I got hurt, it was just millimeters of this way and that way. I think about that all the time, that if I had just been chillin’ it could have been a totally different outcome.”
Yet, another part of him was incredibly sad he was leaving his friends.
“A lot of guys died after I left. Not that me being there could have done anything…” his voice trailed off for a bit. “But, yeah. It sucked. Sometimes I wish that I could bring them all back.”
Bobby sits silently for a moment. His face reddens and tears pool in his eyes.
“A lot of good guys. That’s what these are on my wrist, the guys that never came back.” He touches the bracelets on his wrist.
One by one, Bobby states their names.
- PFC Kyle Gilbert – KIA: August 6, 2003
- SSG Brian Hellerman – KIA: August 6, 2003
- SSF Jamie “Huggy Bear” Huggins – KIA: October 26, 2003
- PVT Joseph Guerrera – KIA: October 26, 2003
- SSG Zachary Wobler – KIA: February 6, 2005
“Five men and three separate instances, one was a friendly-fire incident that left a bad taste in my mouth because we all knew what happened and it wasn’t until the whole Pat Tillman thing that it came out. We were told to shut up, that we didn’t know anything, that we didn’t know what happened, but we knew. They [family] have to know the truth, now that we’re all out,” he says almost as if he was convincing himself. “It’s probably the reason why I got out. I saw how the higher-ups kind of swept things under the rug and I don’t think it was right at all. It messed with me.”
Understanding his frustration, Tyler adds, “When it’s like that and it’s protecting the system instead of the individual serving in it…“
“Yeah, Yeah,” Bobby agrees. “Like I sat there through their memorial ceremony and we’re listening to what this guy is reading and it’s not what happened, you know? There’s some truth to it but it’s not what happened. It’s because we were riding around in those civilian vehicles at the beginning. At night time and from a long distance, you can’t tell if that car is friendly or foe. A Humvee or a military vehicle you can see easily but we weren’t in military vehicles. Two platoons went out at night and one legitimately got ambushed but the guys popped some shots and ran off. Then once the other [platoon] heard the shooting, they were in the same area as the enemy was so they ran towards the gunfire and when they turned the corner, things got complicated. Eventually, they were like, ‘oh shit, you’re shooting at us? We’re shooting back!’ Bad things happened. So that’s one of the reasons why I left. I didn’t like that part. That’s the ugly. The good, the bad, and the ugly, that’s the ugly part.”
The pain and emotion was evident to us all but in particular, to Bobby’s service dog Daffy. Having been curled up near him under the table this whole time, she sits up and licks his hands.
“Aw, yeah. Give me love,” Bobby says to her.
“She knew to check on you,” I say.
“Thank you. I love you too,” he says to Daffy.
Daffy’s full name is Daffodil. She’s Bobby’s service dog from the program Stiggy’s Dogs, an organization started in Michigan by a woman whose nephew HM3 Benjamin “Doc Stiggy” Castiglione was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. The organization rescues dogs and has them trained by prisoners for Veterans with PTS.
“Daffy is a valedictorian graduate of that program,” Bobby says while looking at her admiringly. “I’ve only had her… three weeks? How long have you been with me, Daffy? I wish you could talk. She’s amazing. It’s like I got the Cadillac of dogs. She can go anywhere with me and she fits perfectly under the seat of a plane. She’s a good little battle buddy.”
“She loves you so much,” I say.
“Those eyes,” Bobby responds. “She does, she does.”
We break for lunch. Scott, the quintessential quiet creative time, closes his journal of doodles and notes and slips his pencils and pens into his burrito pouch.
“How’s it going down there?” Tyler asks him, understanding what he might be feeling as an artistic introvert himself. “Any thoughts?”
“A lot,” Scott responds, half-chuckling. “Just trying to listen and take it all in.”
Originally from California, Scott is the illustrator for Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, as well as a freelance artist. An outsider in Charlotte, he relates to Bobby who somewhat recently moved to Charlotte from New Orleans. We walk to the nearby Midnight Diner, Scott and Bobby ahead leading the way, Daffy at their side.
After digging into some diner eats and making our way back to WeWork Charlotte, Bobby shares of his life after the Army.
“When I got out, I had a lot of trouble. I got married and I got divorced. I had never had a panic attack in my life before and I didn’t know what they were. Then one day in college I was taking a test and all of a sudden my heart felt that it was jumping out of my chest and I was like, ‘Whoa! What’s going on?’ My palms got all clammy and sweaty and I felt like I was going to throw up right there. I got up, walked out, and called my friend that’s a nurse and told her my symptoms. She told me to go to the hospital right away so I went. They were telling me I was fine and I was telling them that I wasn’t, that something was definitely wrong and that they needed to run more tests. They ended up running every test there was and finally, this 79-year-old Cardiologist pulled me aside and was like, ‘Look, son, I hate to tell you this but it’s not your heart, it’s your head. I’m not telling you what you’re feeling isn’t real, but I’m telling you it’s not a cardiac thing. It’s a mental thing.’”
Turns out, the stress from a college test triggered his fight-or-flight response and he went into his combat mode.
“It was the same exact feeling of getting into a firefight,” he continues. “I’ve learned over the years to recognize the signs and conquer it but it took me probably until two years ago to finally get a grasp on it all, to understand what’s hitting me and breathe through it and let it ride. But, it doesn’t go away. It’s not something that will ever go away.”
The After the Impact Fund in particular has helped Bobby. Through a 45-day program, he began to understand and feel that the world isn’t as violent as he has been trained to believe. Instead, he began to focus on the positives.
According to their website, “After The Impact Fund (ATIF) facilitates custom treatment plans for Veterans and Athletes with traumatic injuries. Whether on the field of play or battlefield, every hit takes a toll and many end their careers suffering in silence. But through our vetted resources, ATIF provides a clear path to healing for these individuals and their families. Bringing these communities together, our solutions remove or reduce symptoms, help mend relationships and provide a renewed sense of purpose.”
“I was able to live on this ranch for 45 days and they had every type of therapy you could think of: group, psychological, physical, occupational, massage, recreational, every type. The whole experience was therapeutic but the thing that impacted me the most was sitting outside in the smoke-pit with these guys. Them telling their story, me telling my story, and while we have different experiences, the same emotions are involved, the same feelings. We created a bond together. It’s a brotherhood and it’s the first time since being in the military that I had that, ‘Wow. I love these guys,’ feeling. If you ask me the one thing I took away from it, it’s love.”
Flipping through his notes, Scott shares with Bobby some of the sketches he had done.
“I had this first one that’s a warrior but with a spraypaint style. You fight for your country, the people that you love, and the people you fight alongside, out of love. But that love doesn’t come without shedding tears for the ones you’ve lost or shedding your own blood,” Scott explains. “Or even afterwards, shedding the reality that others don’t know exists.”
Bobby reacts to Scott’s first sketch, “One of the hardest things to do is go to one of those memorial services, after somebody gets killed, and you’re sitting there and you have to go pay your respects, you cry, and then you put on your gear and go out on another mission. Literally, you leave the memorial service to go on a mission, thinking that could be me next or that could be my buddy. I don’t know how. Maybe I was just conditioned to do it. You do it because it’s your job, you don’t ask questions. You just make it happen. It’s crazy.”
Scott nods his head, thinking of something related to the uniqueness that is a soldier’s life. “I have this idea of a city but everyone is walking this way and then a warrior is walking that way. I want to show the feeling of isolation when you return home. When you said ‘the war in my head,’ I thought of the idea of a battle going on up in here,” he says pointing to his head. “I have a thing for skulls and stuff.
“Love, feeling, bleeding, and brotherhood are some words and themes that pop out,” Tyler notes.
“There’s something there,” Scott comments.
“My life was in shambles a couple months ago because I was losing my shit again. It happens to me every couple years,” Bobby says. “My buddy just randomly called me and plucked me out of the water. I needed a lifesaver and he threw this lifeline. I don’t know why he called me. He was like, ‘Do you want to come do this Spartan race with me?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ That one little thing changed the direction of my life to where I got out of New Orleans, I got out of being exposed to all of the violence in that town, I moved here, and I started helping people again which gave my life new value. Especially helping other Veterans, that in itself has been therapeutic for me. I don’t think that what’s going on upstairs will ever go away. I’ll always have my moments but this is definitely helping keep the demons at bay.”
Bobby now works at the Independence Fund whose mission is to “empower our severely wounded Veterans and their Caregivers to take control of their lives. We provide the resources and tools that enable Veterans to regain their independence, and fight for their ability to sustain it.” Tyler and I had visited him just a couple of days before where he introduced us to some of the all-terrain wheelchairs and mobility devices the Independence Fund grants to qualified injured Veterans. The devices allow the individuals to travel independently across all sorts of outdoor terrain.
Fueled by a passion to help and serve others, Bobby’s position in the Army as a Medic suited him. His profound love for his brothers motivated him to perform his best and their love for him rewards him to this day.
Recalling the first patient he tended to, Bobby explains a photograph he had taken afterward with three of his platoon leaders. “That moment in that picture was probably the best I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I haven’t had a kid yet but that moment thus far in my life was the best I’ve ever felt, the highest I’ve ever been because there were multiple facets to that. The guys I was a medic for, now they knew- they were like, ‘Shit, I hope you’re next to me if I get shot!’ You know what I’m saying? After that, that kind of eased everybody’s mind in the platoon. They were all like, ‘Doc’s all right. We got a good one.’ It made me feel so good because my guys trusted me.”
He didn’t know it then, but his work as an Army Medic would tether him to others that would return the help later on.
“A couple months ago, I was having a down day and feeling sorry for myself,” Bobby begins. “My buddy randomly messaged me and was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you realize this but it is 14 years ago that you saved my life and I just want to thank you. I have a beautiful wife and two kids and I wouldn’t have had that if you didn’t do what you did.’ Again, it made me feel the same as before. I was sad and it took me right out of that. I forgot that I did that. I forgot that that was what you call his ‘alive day.’”
“It is incredible the connection you guys have,” I state.
“I love them with the same amount of love that I have for anybody and it’s so deep. I could not talk to these guys for years and I was telling Scott, I ran into two guys who were also wounded right around the same time that I was, same company. I haven’t seen them in fourteen years or something like that, and we picked up right where we left off. And it was nice to hear that I wasn’t the only one who has struggled along the way. There’s something about the Purple Heart guys that have a little bit… I don’t know… the feeling of being spared. I definitely asked myself why I lived and why others didn’t. I guess it’s a question you can never really answer.”
In Bobby’s love for his brothers, there is an element of protection and awareness in his narrative that allows Bobby to differentiate variables included in his experience and war.
“Another reason I left was that of the political aspect of how we started to fight that war and our Commander after the first tour, the guy that led us into the Invasion of Iraq, was a soldier’s soldier, an awesome warrior. When he talked you were motivated and ready to go kick down doors. The guy that came after him ran our battalion like a politician and he ended up becoming one and I’m not a fan of politics, especially not in combat. There were some decisions that were made that got people hurt and I guess that’s the nature of combat, people are going to get hurt. I don’t know. I’m not the only one that felt that way so I don’t feel bad for saying what I’m saying now. I’m glad I served and I would it all over again.”
Never allowing himself to get lost in his anger of the politics in war, Bobby held onto his compassion. It’s a quality of his he feels he exercised as a medic.
“One thing that I never wanted to happen to me was to lose my humanity because I saw it happen to others. People lost their shit and everybody became the enemy, that all are bad. To me, somehow I tried to understand that maybe not everybody that was shooting at me was necessarily a bad person. I tried to think of it as, if someone came to my country, came to America, and was kicking in my door at 2 AM, like what would I do? There’s a human being on the other side of that rifle. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of assholes out there and definitely bad, bad, bad people but I don’t want to say that all of them are necessarily bad. Some of them are just doing what they’re told to do just like we were doing what we were told to do, you know? So like I said, I always wanted to have respect for my enemy, for the people I was fighting because to me, they were still human beings and my job as a medic was to save lives. It didn’t matter if you were good or you were bad. You had a life and I had to respect that and that was to keep you alive whether you were trying to kill me or not. Some people in my platoon didn’t understand. They called me a ‘hadji lover’ (hadji/hajji is a derogatory term or slur some US service members use to describe someone of Arab descent). They’d say, ‘What are you a hadji lover?’ I’d be like ‘This might be somebody’s dad, someone’s husband and you gotta respect that aspect of it.’ I never wanted to get to that place where I wasn’t human.”
Bobby falls silent. He had been on a roll for a few moments. I wondered when the last time he had shared this information with someone, or if he had shared it with anyone before at all. I could see he was unsure of whether he should have shared that all or not.
“I don’t know if other Veterans are going to see this…” he begins but then cuts himself off. “Well, this is my story. It’s mine.”
After lunchtime on the second day, the most finalized of Scott’s sketches from his leather journal included two soldiers, back-to-back, shielded by some sort of force in the shape of a heart. It was coming down to the wire and Scott was feeling the pressure to perform. The issue was finding something to symbolize the love Bobby was describing for his brothers. As a group we were elaborating on the themes of love, brotherhood, protection, and internal struggle. Eventually, Scott drew a pair of wings, symbolizing a combination of a guardian angel, the 325th Airborne Infantry, as well as the medical symbol of the caduceus.
“You know, the angel wings,” Bobby noted. “It kind of looks like a heart.”
“I feel like love would cover all of this, a higher power, your protection, the higher love for a person. Brotherhood is love for each other. Humanity and compassion are love. Your struggles are going to come out of the love that you had for everything. You wouldn’t be struggling if you didn’t have any love inside of you for people that you lost or what you did collectively. And Daffy is love,” Scott says while frantically sketching away.
“If there was a message I’d like for civilians to see and understand, it’s that type of love, that type of connection. If you think about it, there are not that many people that you’d die for, you know? But I know a lot of them and I’m lucky to know a lot of them like that,” Bobby responds.
“Reinventing what love can look like,” Scott laughs. “Let no one say what happened here was easy.”
And just like that, the pieces began falling into place.
The heart shape, representing the deep bond and love Bobby feels for his battle buddies as well as the Purple Heart he received, are made out of purple-colored wings with a skull in the center. Symbolizing the PTS and internal turmoil Bobby will have for the rest of his life, the skull also represented death, more specifically, a love willing to die for. The snakes, also inspired by the caduceus, face muskets pulled from the insignia of the 325th Airborne Infantry. Complementing the aesthetic of the skull and overall piece, the blood-red roses sit above five stars commemorating the five fallen soldiers Bobby carries with him on his wrist.
Although the design was being finalized, there seemed to be an element missing. Something that called upon the observer.
“This shirt is describing the unconditional love for another human being in the darkest of times,” Bobby says.
“For me, when you’re at your lowest, you’re in a pit that you can’t come out of. Then, there’s someone willing to crawl into it with you to help you to get you out,” Scott adds.
“The ‘great love hath no man’ saying is one that we see a lot,” Bobby says.
Tyler picks up his phone and looks up the complete saying. “So the greater love hath no man. It’s bible verse John 15: 13-17. ‘Greater love hath no man than this than man lay down his life for his friends…’ how can we make that our own but keep that message?”
“I like that it’s a question,” I say. “Or maybe we say ‘felt.’ Have you ever felt a love like this? It conveys a feeling.”
We all look at each other, smiling. Bobby looks content. He pets the back of Daffy’s neck affectionately.
We all agreed felt right.
Later that month, Tyler and I received a text. It was a photo of Scott, Bobby, and Daffy. They were celebrating New Year’s together with Scott’s family. Through it all, the good, the bad, and even the ugly, Bobby still opens his heart to love, to people, and to new friends.