JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq – Spc. Matthew Keeler, public affairs specialist with the 109th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, and a Ridley, Pa., native, received a Purple Heart award in a ceremony July 18 inside the Joint Operation Command, Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
Brig. Gen. Don S. Cornett Jr., commander of the 310th ESC and an Aurora, Neb. native, awarded Keeler the Purple Heart in the name of the president of the United States. for sustaining a shrapnel wound to his back and leg in the line of duty.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Keeler, “To think I’ve only been in the military for about two years, but I’ve achieved so much.”
Keeler added that, in addition to being a great honor shared by relatively few others; earning the Purple Heart reaffirmed his commitment to the military and gave him motivation to continue.
“When you’re in the Army, you’re always considering, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? What are the dangers?’ This opened my eyes to the dangers that are here,” said Keeler.
In Iraq, even late in 2011, danger can find you at any time, in the most unexpected locations. The shrapnel that tore into Keeler resulted from an indirect fire attack on JBB one afternoon, landing meters away from where he was located.
According to Sgt. Felicya Adams, public affairs specialist with the 310th ESC, and a Seattle native, that afternoon of was an ordinary day. She asked Keeler to accompany her to update the 310th ESC Facebook page. The attack came as Adams was leaving the building to rejoin Keeler, who was already in the vehicle.
“I heard the sirens go off and heard the ‘incoming, incoming, incoming’ and without even thinking I turned around and ran back inside, and right then I heard the detonation,” said Adams. “I knew he was outside so I was worried about him, but I didn’t think it hit where it did. I thought it hit the building because the whole building shook and rattled and debris fell from the ceiling.”
When Keeler heard the alarm, he dismounted the vehicle and got down in the prone position as per training.
“As I was getting down, the IDF impacted about 20 meters behind me,” he said. “My next move was to put the van between the impact and myself in case of another detonation. At that point I was able to feel what had occurred. I felt a pinch in my leg, [and] a pinch in my back, so I knew I was hurt.”
Keeler said he knew his injury wasn’t severe because he could walk and move freely. He assisted a civilian with more severe injuries before bringing his own wounds to the attention of the others and getting medical assistance.
By the time Adams arrived on the scene and tried to locate Keeler, he had already been moved to the hospital. Adams then went to the Public Affairs Shop, to alert the public affairs commander and noncommissioned officer-in-charge.
“All the worst thoughts were going through my mind because I didn’t see what happened and I didn’t see him,” said Adams. “I was really shaken up the rest of the day, until I actually got to go to the hospital and see him that evening.”
In the hospital, Keeler remained conscious throughout the experience while hospital staff applied a wet-to-dry dressing, gauze soaked in saline solution to fill the holes where the shrapnel entered, so the wounds could heal themselves from the inside out.
“I’ve never had so many people surround me at one time,” said Keeler. “To say it’s the best medical treatment I’ve gotten in my life would be an understatement.”
Keeler refused pain medication throughout the experience, saying he has never used them and doesn’t know how they would impact how he thinks or reacts.
“I got some really good support, not only from the 109th MPAD, my 1st Sgt., soldiers I work with on JBB, but also from Capt. Bibbee and 1st Sgt. Clayton, from the 310th ESC” said Keeler. “They told me, ‘even though I’m not directly one of their soldiers, because I help support their unit, they care about me. I’m always going to be one of their soldiers.’”
In addition to those who helped him recover from his injuries, Keeler credits the Army training he has received with taking fear out of the equation when the IDF hit, so he could react without thinking or hesitating. He added that when he is a leader, he will use the experience to help train junior soldiers.
“The Purple Heart represents healing, not only physical, but mental,” said Keeler, adding that it gives the recipient a chance to move on, and put what happened behind him.