Although the force of the blast had pulverized the discs and vertebrae in his back leaving him unable to feel his legs, PFC Nick Keene fired 2,800 rounds into a group of Taliban fighters. Then he picked up a machine gun and emptied that. He put seven or eight clips into his own personal weapon and did the same until he finally lost consciousness.
Late summer 2011, in the Panjwayi District in Afghanistan with the 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry, 1st SBCT, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Wainwright:
He was driving an eight-wheeled Stryker armored combat vehicle, keeping watch while most of his unit surveyed a roadside ditch for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Suddenly a rocket hit below his vehicle. There was a moment of confusion and panic. What was that and where did it come from?
The second strike, a direct hit, answered those questions. Keene was blown from his seat into the side of the vehicle, crushing and breaking vertebrae in his back. In the next moments he took stock of his injuries as the gunfire continued: he thought his legs had been blown off despite the fact that he could see them beneath his pants. The crushed vertebra had damaged his nerves and he could not comprehend the new way his body felt.
Yet, there were other concerns. His gunner, the only other man in the vehicle, was imploring Keene to move so they could get in better position to defend soldiers who were now pinned down next to the road. Keene did all he could to drive the vehicle a few hundred yards before it succumbed to the damage of the rocket blast and could go no farther.
Their lieutenant, a recent graduate from West Point, lay injured in the road. Their gunner struggled with a rear weapon that had jammed. Since the vehicle was no longer operable, Keene crawled through it and took his position at one of the guns. It was painful and he could not stand. Yet, he soldiered on, unjammed the gun and took aim behind it. He fired on a group of about eight Taliban fighters who were moving to get a better angle on the pinned troops. Since his legs were not working, Keene had cinched himself in the hole that allowed him to rise out of the vehicle and operate the guns. He didn’t take his finger off the trigger until there were no more bullets left to fire.
His mother Brenda remembers getting the phone call.
“He was in shock I think, but they let him make a call,” said Brenda. She chokes up thinking about those moments, and contemplating how easily it could have been worse.
“At least I could hear his voice,” she said.
The recovery was difficult, both physically and practically.
He arrived back on base in Alaska without identification, wallet or credit card, and walking across campus was next to impossible. Yet he didn’t complain and didn’t ask for help.
“He’s not very aggressive as far as asserting things,” said Brenda.
Yet she doesn’t think that contradicts what he did that day in the desert, when lives depended on his actions, his ability to pull through pain and do what was required.
“He did what he was trained to do,” she said. “I’m not surprised he reacted the way he did. That’s just the way he is. If he didn’t do what he did, who knows how many would have died.”
You can read the full story here.
And here's a nice story about PFC Keene's return to Alaska, where he was welcomed by the 5-1 Cavalry FRG.