News: Paratrooper finds resilience in face of deep wounds
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Jason Epperson
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - “One thing I wanted to do when I grew up was become one of the heroes out of the Marvel Universe.”
Like many young boys with active imaginations, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Saldivar, Dog Company, 2nd Platoon Sergeant, 3rd Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, envisioned being somewhat of a superhero.
“Growing up, the closest thing for me was either becoming a military soldier or a police officer, but as time went by and I matured, the idea being a protector for society is what appealed to me the most,” the San Antonio native said.
Saldivar explains that in our world, he sees different categories of people.
“You have your shepherds, sheep, wolves and then your sheepdogs,” Saldivar explains. “So with the military for me, that’s the small portion that help the shepherd protect the flock. For me, protecting the flock is part of the job of being in the military. Also, protecting civilians and making sure they have every right to do what they want in the United States, but in order to do that, you have to be willing to have someone to stand on the front lines and fight for that. Whenever any type of evil person or tyrant rises up, that calls for brave men and women to protect the world. That’s why I joined the military.”
Saldivar enlisted in the reserves when he was 18, coming straight out of Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio.
“Like most soldiers when they enlist, I thought everything in the Army was the same, so after a couple of years in the reserves, I realized that this isn’t what I needed to do,” he said. “I needed to be kicking down doors and fighting bad guys, so I saw the light and became an 11 Bravo (infantryman) and have never regretted it since. It’s been one of the most honorable jobs I have ever done and I would not take it back for anything.”
Saldivar has deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.
He was on his tour in Afghanistan’s hostile Paktya province, based out of Combat Outpost Zormat, when his platoon was called to patrol a small village nearby in support of a key leader engagement. His platoon was on a joint patrol with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Police when they came to a dangerous open area of terrain.
Saldivar described the events as they attempted to cross.
“I ended up jumping over a creek bed, heard a shot and then felt my left leg buckle,” Saldivar recalled. “I thought maybe I had set off some sort of dismounted IED. Before I could even think I heard a second shot and a second round went into my right side plate into my flank. At that point in time an ambush had been initiated by insurgents. My men ended up laying down suppressive fire. They laid it out like Predator. They were just going at it! Staff Sgt. Kenneth Sanchez, one of my squad leaders, pulled me to cover and my medic, Spc. Robert Burke immediately came to me and started working on me and all I could do was hold my M-4 and try to pull security. It was pretty excruciating. It was pretty ugly. The pain was just so unbearable. It was like getting stung in your stomach by a bunch of wasps, but you couldn’t shoo them away and it just kept getting worse and worse. My medic had his hand almost all the way inside my flank, putting in gauze and trying to control the bleeding. He was trying to work on my leg at the same time. All this is going on and the firefight is ensuing. My platoon leader, 1st Lt. Evan Malanga, had called up the medevac along with my medic.
“Being wounded downrange was definitely by far the single most physical painful anguish I’ve ever endured, that’s for sure,” he said.
After the medical helicopter picked Saldivar up, they took him to Forward Operating Base Sharana to do exploratory surgery due to his critical condition from the blood loss. After surgeons checked his organs, making sure nothing vital was damaged; he stayed overnight and then transferred to Bagram Air Field the following day.
After both a couple of days and surgeries, Saldivar continued to pass in and out of consciousness due to the morphine to control the pain. When he regained memorable consciousness he was aware that he had been sewn up and that there was blood bags on him, drawing out the poisons and puss that were still in his body.
Soon one of the doctors told him he was going to get a Purple Heart pinned on and asked if he had any objections to the president doing it.
“At the time it was not clicking that he was talking about the President of the United States,” Saldivar said. “I was in a room with five other injured soldiers from different parts of Afghanistan. They were all critically injured and had serious injuries from RPGs to dismounted IED. The nurses came through, cleared the room out. They put signs at the foot of each soldier’s bed [displaying the] injuries they had.”
Saldivar said that sometime the next morning President Obama was coming to Afghanistan to talk with President Karzai, stopping at BAF first to talk with all the wounded soldiers there.
There were three other soldiers there that he talked to in the hospital aside from the other four or five soldiers who were with him.
“President Obama came through with Secret Service, a photographer, and he went to each one of the soldiers’ bed and shook hands,” Saldivar said. “He then spent a moment talking with them and as he was going by each one of them, they read the orders for the Purple Heart as he pinned each soldier. That was definitely a humbling, honorable experience.”
Obama talked with Saldivar a few minutes asking how he was doing and where was he from.
“When I told him I was from San Antonio, Texas, he asked me how the San Antonio Spurs were doing. I told him that they were doing well and he asked me how I got injured. He said, ‘It’s going to take a long time to heal. Thank you for serving our country and you will get better.’ ”
Horror as therapy
As long as he can remember, Saldivar has always been a passionate horror movie fan. He has pictures of himself with famous directors, special-effects crews and actors displayed proudly throughout his home and office.
His interest in horror films inspired him to start creating special effects and masks. It has become more than just a hobby for him. He describes making gory effects and monsters as a kind of therapy.
“For whatever reason, it ended up being therapeutic and keeping me calm and suppressed my anger and I’ve been doing it now since right after my second tour ... so since 2007.”
While stationed as a live-fire observer/controller at the Joint-Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., in 2010, Saldivar was driving down a road off post and stopped his car after he saw a guy in a horror mask and a small film crew on the side of the road.
“I asked what was going on and they told me they were filming a horror movie,” Saldivar said. “I asked if they needed any help and told them I messed with special effects makeup as a hobby and I’d do it for free. They let me help out with the movie. One of the [actors] had previously lost his leg below his knee to a dismounted IED. He let me build him a prosthetic leg to get cut off in the movie, since amputees are big with horror movies. It was an independent film with a small budget, but you know what? I am so proud of that flick.”
Even though he had worked on the movie for free, the director of the 2011 release “Zydeco” had not forgotten him.
“I was on R&R from Afghanistan and the director had sent me an email and told me he had a copy for me and the guy I had done the prosthetic for his leg. I have a shelf at home with all these autographed DVDs from different horror actors and special-effects make-up artists. I put this movie on top and was going to sign it ‘From Anthony, Be Cool, Anthony’. I was going to sign it to myself. I walked around with that DVD for a day, I was so happy about that. It was shrink wrapped and everything, so it was legit!" he said. “I spent so much time on all the effects, then when you actually see the movie, it’s like a split second and you think [how much time it took], but then you get to see it all. Who cares? I still love it.”
After receiving his Purple Heart in Afghanistan, Saldivar was sent home early to recover from wounds received. After the brigade returned from deployment they anticipated block leave.
“On the 10th of December, we were just starting block leave,” he said. “I was in the process of trying to get myself strengthened up. Because of all the wounds, it took so long to heal up, so knowing I had 30 days, I joined a cross-fit gym.”
Struggling to save a life
“I was driving down Tudor and it was already night time and I see that there is a traffic jam at a dead stop. As I’m driving by I see a guy laid out in the middle of the road. As soon as I turned around, I saw one guy standing over him. I wasn’t sure if maybe he was drunk or passed out. No one was trying to help him or move him off the road. I [went back] to see if the guy needs help to get him off the road. Maybe he’s scared to touch him.
“I got my first aid kit and Naglite out of my Jeep and as I’m walking up there’s a group of people. I asked if the guy was dead or alive and everyone [said] ‘we don’t know’. I look over and the guy’s eyes are open, so I start doing heart compressions. The guy gasps and starts to breath. I asked if anyone had done CPR. They said ‘no’. I looked down and could see his mouth was full of vomit. I turned his head to the side and scooped it out like we’ve been taught by our medics, took a breath and [did CPR]. I was trying to keep his puke from going down my throat, but the guy was still warm and I didn’t know if he was dead or not. I stayed there until I heard the sirens. Within minutes, the police [arrived]. I continued giving CPR. The police started doing heart compressions. I told them what I’d been doing and at that point in time an ambulance rolled up. I saw a paramedic next to me, so I just gave it over to him. As the police and paramedic were working on him and I went straight to the snow to wash my mouth out because I was covered in vomit. I washed my mouth out and I looked back and saw the paramedic getting a white sheet out and putting it over the man that was on the street, so I assumed they announced he’s dead.”
Due to Saldivar’s exposure to a stranger’s fluid, he went to the JBER Emergency Room to get checked out and was cleared after a thorough examination.
Saldivar wondered if his reaction would have been the same if he hadn’t had his learning experiences in the Army.
“I’d like to think I would have, but who knows? After almost 16 years in the infantry the men look after each other like family. They watch over each other like brothers. You get used to not thinking. You always help them out regardless of what’s going on. Your brother’s down, you help them out.”
“After getting hit as bad as I got hit, twice, even with the fractured hip and the surgery it was nothing that wasn’t going to heal. Even though it was painful.
“The big thing that I’m so grateful for is I got the platoon back. That was huge. No one got hurt and when this unit redeployed it took a lot to get off of my [medical] profile. A lot! I was really trying to take care of myself, because if I hadn’t of gotten off of my profile, I’m not sure if I would have gotten my platoon sergeant [job] back. This platoon is everything for me. I have a real soft spot for these guys. I’m back on jump status and running. I mean I’m 37 with the regular infantry — wear and tear is there. It’s not like I’m spry like the rest of these [guys]. I can’t complain. I’m still fully functional with no permanent … I got cool scars!,” his eyes light up as he recounts, “and a picture!”, referring to the picture of President Obama pinning his Purple Heart. “Again, it was the right place, right time but in the end, this is what matters. I got these boys back, so that’s the end product of this. So yeah, it’s been a good year.”