FORT HOOD, Texas – On a cloudy and cold day at Fort Hood, Texas, a 1st Cavalry Division soldier walks up a set of stairs to his company, where he is accountable for more than 100 Troopers and several M1A2 Abrams tanks.
As he enters the building one of his soldiers yells out “At ease,” to signify that he has arrived for the day.
As a company first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Mark Tobey of Chaos Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Div. and spends his days taking care of soldiers and equipment.
Yet, several years before he was a first sergeant, Tobey endured a life-changing experience that has profoundly impacted how he leads soldiers today.
He was a platoon sergeant and on a foot patrol in Tarmiyah, Iraq, the day before Thanksgiving 2006. The patrol was meant to familiarize Tobey with the surrounding area, as he and his platoon were performing a relief-in-place with the outgoing platoon.
As the two squads entered a market place within the city, Tobey noticed a change in the atmosphere.
“It was pretty quiet and made things uneasy,” said the Gilbertsville, N.Y., native. “I walked over and told my platoon leader to keep a look out, because it was so quiet.”
Just as they exited the market Tobey heard a loud pop, felt his left leg lift up, and then felt nothing at all.
“I thought I had stepped on a mine,” he said. “I looked down. My foot was still there, so I’m good to go.”
Tobey tried to seek cover from the gunfire, but as he tried to stand, he fell and realized his leg was worse than he thought.
The two squads returned fire into the market to provide cover for him and to eliminate the sniper. He low crawled through the street to take cover and assess his wound, then the pain and anger and of the situation took over.
“I didn’t realize how angry I was until later on, because I had told myself that was one award I never wanted to get,” he said about the Purple Heart.
During the commotion of the firefight, the screaming and yelling of the other soldiers, and the gunfire, one of Tobey’s tank commanders ran out and dragged him behind a pile of gravel for better protection and so a medic could properly look him over.
“After looking at the blood trail to where I had been dragged, I got pretty mad at my tank commander,” Toby said. “But [tank commander] just smiled and said no problem.”
As the medic bandaged him up, a Humvee pulled up from the patrol base to evacuate him from the area to the safety of the base.
Tobey was flown via a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to Baghdad, where emergency room personnel waited for him.
Still awake and refusing medications, Tobey was carried into the emergency room, where a doctor approached him, handed him a cell phone and asked if there was anyone he would like to call.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to call my wife,’” he said.
While talking to his wife, Andrea, the hospital personnel were cutting off his Army Combat Uniform pants and preparing him for surgery.
Tobey woke up the following morning with his command sergeant major and colonel standing over him.
His command sergeant major told him that they had brought some Purple Heart medals with them but were not expecting to hand one out so early.
“They pinned it on me, and I believe it was that afternoon, they flew me to Landstuhl [Germany],” Tobey said. “I was there about a day and went back into surgery.”
The gunshot had caused significant damage to Tobey’s lower left leg. His ankle had been shattered and the two major bones in his lower leg, the tibia and fibula, had been separated.
Within a day or two of his second surgery, Tobey was flown home.
“I got home to Fort Hood, spent a couple of days in the hospital, and had a cast put on,” he said. “And the first day I saw the orthopedic surgeon I asked how long it was going to be before I can go back.”
“It’s going to be at least six weeks,” the surgeon said.
And every week, for those six weeks, the cast had to be replaced and his ankle and foot brought forward and reset.
For nearly a month following his final cast removal, he continued to use crutches, and he began attending physical therapy twice a week for roughly seven months.
“[The physical therapist] told me there would be days it was going to be painful - and it was,” Tobey said. “Physical therapy had me pushing,and sometimes it was worse than being shot.”
His eagerness to return to Iraq persisted as he asked his doctors if he could go back. Each one said yes, except the physical therapist.
“[The physical therapist] said ‘before I can let you go back, you have to hop on that leg 10 times,” he said. “And it wasn’t happening.”
Through perseverance, Tobey was able to complete the task six months later and was sent back to Iraq September 2007.
“I wanted to be able to show the young soldiers that it takes a lot of heart and hard work to go from where I was and come back -- and you never give up,” Tobey said. “I was a sergeant first class at the time, and I just wanted to be able to take care of guys.”
Seeing the wounded soldiers coming in from Iraq and Afghanistan also heightened his motivation.
“I’ve got to keep pushing myself, and I still have a lot of teaching and mentoring I want to give to the soldiers,” he said.
Just before returning to Iraq 2007, Tobey visited another physician to test the nerves in his foot. The doctor informed him he would probably never get the feeling back in his foot.
The physician told Tobey that his foot may tingle from time to time. However, the nerve damage is now so bad that the feeling will never return.
While in Iraq he had a severe limp and it took some time to adjust.
The only way he could feel that his foot was on the ground was from the pressure in his knee or if he was looking at it, he said.
In addition to adjusting to his injuries, he still had to maintain his platoon sergeant duties. It was not too long before he had to go on another foot patrol through a market.
“It was pretty nerve racking,” Tobey said. “But it got easier, and I’m glad I did go back.”
1st Sgt. Tobey returned from Iraq in 2008 and about a year later went back in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“He’s the epitome of a Soldier, he’s an example to every Soldier in formation that you can bounce back,” said 1st Sgt. Riley Flaherty, first sergeant for Company D, 3-8 Cav. “He sped up his recovery as best he could so he could get back out there to his platoon ... and soldiers. I don’t know what more you could ask out of a soldier, I mean that’s incredible.”
A permanent doctor’s order to run at his own pace and distance follows him now. And even though his ankle and foot swells, he continues to run with his soldiers as often as possible.
“He’s a really great leader, and it makes me proud to be a part of this company,” said Pfc. Corey Sens, a soldier of Tobey’s, and native of Golden, Colo. “Knowing that he is always willing to help out and see people succeed.”