The short winter day was just about spent in the remote Afghan outpost of Kuhac when 20-year-old Pfc. Wade Christiansen of Red Lodge approached with a small force of American and Afghan soldiers.
Their mission on that day nearly three months ago was twofold — bring villagers money for a school and search for bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, reportedly hidden in the dusty hamlet rising on the edge of the Arghandab River valley.
“The village was too small for our vehicles, so we had to go in on foot,” said Christiansen, home on leave from the Army this month. “We were probably about 10 minutes in. We came to a wall that kind of curved around. The wall was a normal mud wall, about shoulder height.”
As they had been trained, the soldiers filed around the wall in a staggered line about 15 feet apart. With the troops now on both sides, six bombs hidden inside the wall exploded, detonated by someone who had been expecting visitors. A seventh IED, the one nearest Christiansen, failed. The devices had been planted by someone who knew how much distance troops kept when on patrol.
“These guys are good,” Christiansen said. “This was a very intricate ambush.”
Two Americans died and three were wounded, two of them critically, including Christiansen.
“I was thrown on my back and we started taking small-arms fire, and I shot back,” he remembered. “I tried to figure out what was going on. I looked at the wall and saw it was gone.”
His vision was clouded. His jaw was fractured and four teeth shattered. His arms, neck and face were peppered with shrapnel. Christiansen said he learned later that he had a collapsed lung, too. He doesn’t remember that it hurt — only that he was a little numb.
“Your adrenalin kind of keeps you out of pain,” he said.
Fear didn’t register much, either.
“It’s your job. It’s what you’re trained for,” he said.
Overhead, Kiowa helicopters moved in. Christiansen said they hunted down the fleeing insurgents and blew them apart as they tried to drive away. One of the Kiowas landed near Christiansen, who had no idea how badly he was injured.
“I knew I had all my limbs,” he said. “I walked to the chopper. I was holding my rifle.”
Kiowas are small helicopters, he said, and even in his confusion he wondered how it was going to work when it became clear that the pilot and co-pilot intended to rescue him.
He soon found out.
The pilot jumped out and helped Christiansen walk the rest of the way to the helicopter, then sat him in the pilot’s seat. The pilot strapped himself to the rocket pod outside the chopper and the co-pilot flew the short distance to the military base at Kandahar.
“They were very, very heroic,” Christiansen said. “This was very unconventional.”
When they landed, medics rushed to the airfield, and that’s the last thing Christiansen remembers for several days.
“I don’t know whether they gave me a shot of morphine or if I passed out,” he said.
He woke up at a hospital in Germany but isn’t sure how long he was there. Before he left Kandahar, surgeons had performed exploratory surgery on his jaw, cleaning out the wound.
The attacked happened on Jan. 19. By Jan. 23, he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Soon his parents, Lori and Lee Christiansen, were on their way to his side, along with his brother, Matt, 22. His dad stayed with him the entire time he was there, while his mom flew back and forth.
Christiansen was in and out of consciousness, and it was at least a week before he understood what was going on. He had lost vision in his left eye — probably for good. A titanium plate had been inserted into his fractured jaw. He’d had two surgeries on his wounded eye.
“I can kind of see light sometimes, but it’s like a darker shade of gray,” he said. “But so far I haven’t found it difficult to do anything. I can still drive. I still snowboard. Things like catching a ball might be more difficult.”
Christiansen, a prize-winning snowboarder, was back on the slopes at Red Lodge Mountain almost as soon as he got home.
“I got to snowboard the last 10 days the mountain was open,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to do that.”
It’s hard to tell by looking at him just how severe his injuries really were. It’s even harder to find traces of the emotional trauma. He acknowledges a few dark moments but quickly answers “no” when asked if he has any regrets.
“I got to do everything I wanted to do,” he said, and smiled.
What he wanted to do after he graduated from Red Lodge High School in 2008 was pretty ambitious.
“I wanted to do something important. I really wanted to jump out of planes. I wanted to experience combat. I got to do all that.”
On Aug. 8, 2008, he started basic and infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., then completed airborne training there, too. From Georgia he went to Fort Bragg, N.C., for more training. Then he was sent to Fort Polk, La., for joint readiness training, where the Army tried to simulate the conditions he would face in Afghanistan.
On Aug. 8, 2009, a year after Christiansen joined the Army, he was on his way into the war zone.
His first impression? “It was very, very hot. Really dry.”
But it was exciting, too, and he needed about a week to adjust to the culture shock.
“We got there during elections, so it was kind of intense,” he said.
Before long, his unit, the 82nd Airborne, was sent to the Arghandab valley, the gateway to Kandahar, one the country’s largest cities.
“It’s really important tactically for them and for us,” he said.
The soldiers lived in tents and slept in sleeping bags through the cold winter nights, which gave a guy raised in Montana a bit of an edge, he figures. About 100 Americans, 30 Canadians and 30 Afghan troops worked together trying to stabilize the valley and prevent Taliban infiltration.
A couple of Air Force bomb-removal specialists were assigned to help clear IEDs. They had a tricked-out Humvee specially designed to handle explosives. The only thing they didn’t have was a gunner. The gunner’s job was to ride in an exposed position, manning a machine gun to provide security. When the airmen asked for volunteer gunners, Christiansen always stepped up.
Christiansen seems to have enjoyed bouncing over the desert in the gun turret, the airmen trying to hit every mud hole to get him as dirty as possible, and then watching as they blew up devices designed to kill them. Behind the excitement, there was a very serious purpose.
“That’s what really saves lives over there,” he said. “It’s really important. Pretty much all the wounded are from IEDs.”
Now that he’s thousands of miles away, Christiansen keeps in touch with his unit by satellite phone. He has talked to nearly everyone from his platoon since he has been back. His platoon leader visited him at Walter Reed while on leave. The platoon is scheduled to return to Fort Bragg in August, but he suspects it may be sooner. He plans to be there when they arrive.
He keeps in touch on Facebook with the two pilots who rescued him.
“They are pretty good guys,” he said. “It’s a big relief having those guys hovering over you.”
As for his own future, he’s still in the Army for now. He has been promoted to specialist. He’ll be returning to Walter Reed when his leave ends April 29. Then his condition will be reassessed. Christiansen said he will probably go before a medical board and ask to be discharged with a disability. He doesn’t want to stay in the Army if he can’t be where the action is.
With disability benefits and the GI bill, he plans to go to college somewhere in the West, possibly Montana, to study photography, history or art. Many colleges also offer tuition waivers for Purple Heart recipients.
Oh, yeah, he almost forgot to mention that. On March 30, the medal finally caught up with him. He was visited by Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, and Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparotti, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Purple Hearts are usually awarded in the field, but Christiansen was moved out so quickly that wasn’t possible. The medal, he was told, was from the surplus inventory left over from World War II, when the government feared mass casualties in the event of an invasion of Japan, he said.
“I’m glad I got one of those,” he said. “It’s kind of a piece of history.”