By Emily Baker
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – Spc. Nicholas Niewadomski prayed his wife and baby daughter would be all right without him. He didn't know if he would survive the attack.
Niewadomski watched the explosion from his seat in a Bradley fighting vehicle. He touched his face to make sure his eyes were not injured. His jaw began to swell, and that's when he noticed the blood spurting from his neck.
The check-point security swing shift began as a routine night mission in Baghdad, Iraq. Thermal sights that allow Niewadomski to see in the dark quit working. So, the soldiers in his Bradley began using spotlights to reveal threats.
Although it's unusual for roadside bombs to explode at night in Iraq, Niewadomski's Bradley rolled over one that did. Two pieces of shrapnel tore into Niewadomski's jaw and neck.
"I'm hit, I'm hit,'" the 4th Infantry Division soldier told his lieutenant, Niewadomski recalled after receiving a Purple Heart medal for his injuries in a ceremony Tuesday.
"My lieutenant looked at me and said, Oh my God, I mean, it's not bad. You'll be OK. It's just a flesh wound,'" Niewadomski said.
Niewadomski's carotid artery was severed, and he was bleeding profusely. His lieutenant helped him maintain pressure on his neck until the medevac helicopter arrived.
The thumping sound of rotor blades is the last thing Niewadomski remembers about that night. He woke up two days later in a hospital bed with respirator tubes inserted in his throat.
Doctors weren't sure how he was going to live, either. He guessed he was just lucky. Or blessed.
The shrapnel cut his carotid artery just above a fork where the artery divides to feed either his face or his brain. If the shrapnel had hit just millimeters lower, the vessel to his brain would have been cut.
"God's hand was on my Bradley that night," Niewadomski said.
Before he woke up in the hospital, the shrapnel was removed from his neck. His artery had been repaired, and two pints of blood replenished his body. A scar now extends between his right earlobe and his collar bone like a railroad track.
Before the breathing tube could be removed, Niewadomski filled four pieces of notebook paper – front and back – with questions.
"How's the lieutenant?" he wrote.
"Where am I?"
"Where's my wife?"
When the tubes were removed, Niewadomski called his family. He was back home at Fort Hood within a week of his May 3 injury– just in time to see his 6-month-old daughter crawl for the first time.
Niewadomski doesn't know if he'll return to Iraq, but said he would go without hesitation, if asked.
Similarly, Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Baetz can't wait to return to the battlefield. A roadside bomb explosion on Feb. 2 burned his arms and face. He also tore a muscle in his leg and suffered a shrapnel wound to his head.
Two other soldiers injured in the same explosion returned to the United States with Baetz. They were recovering from the attack at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and did not receive Purple Heart medals with Baetz on Tuesday.
Though Baetz hopes to return to Iraq within the next month, first he wants to see the two soldiers wounded with him receive their medals.
"I worked closely with both of them," Baetz said. "They are like brothers."
Baetz enjoys working with the soldiers in his platoon and misses being with them.
But Baetz and Niewadomski "are doing exactly what we expect you to do right now, which is recover," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., the 1st Cavalry Division's commander, after presenting the soldiers with their medals.
Also honored at Tuesday's ceremony were several volunteers: Margie Young, Mitzi Gomez and Elke Phillips of the 1st Brigade Combat Team; Susan Elledge, Debbie Young and Leslie Love of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team; Art Masters, Traci Cook and Joyel Graetz of the 4th Brigade Combat Team; and Stephanie Wheeler, Karin Greco and Stephanie Parker of the Combat Aviation Brigade.
Also honored were Ann Parker, Rebecca Tucker and Tammy Palmer of the Fires Brigade; Margaret Baczik, Stephanie Malley and Sara Scholtens of the Sustainment Brigade; Joann Hester, Teresa Pena and Rhoda Sowa of the Special Troops Battalion; Jocelyn Gilliam of the 502nd Personnel Services Battalion; and Melissa Oliver of the 230th Finance Battalion.
Contact Emily Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org