U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Justin Mongold walks down a smoke-filled street in Ghazaliya, Iraq, during a combined cordon and search with the Iraqi army on March 24, 2007. The smoke is from a controlled detonation set by an explosive ordnance disposal team to destroy a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Courtesy photo
Army veteran Justin Mongold, of Edinburg, holds a pair of Purple Hearts he received during combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rich Cooley/Daily
The day Justin Mongold earned his first Purple Heart, his mother saw it on TV.
It was November 2003 and Mongold, then 22 and already a sergeant, was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army.
Mongold and several soldiers were sharing their Humvee with a crew from CBS's "60 Minutes II" and two New York Times staffers while on patrol, rolling through the Afghanistan desert at Shkin on the Lozano Ridge, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In the Humvee behind Mongold, Geraldo Rivera was tagging along as a Fox News correspondent.
"This was supposed to be a safe mission, and nothing was supposed to happen," Mongold said. "All I remember seeing is a flash and [the] hood [of the Humvee] went flying past my head."
It wasn't what Mongold envisioned when he signed up for the Army just two years before, on Aug. 18, 2001.<
A native of New Market and the son and grandson of Army soldiers, Mongold only decided to join the Army after attending Lord Fairfax Community College and finding it wasn't for him.
He needed direction, he said, and the Army recruiters were convincing. He chose the infantry, where his training would be to "shoot a gun and run." And he never expected there to be a war.
Mongold was still in the beginning stages of basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., on Sept. 11, 2001.
In an instant, his expectations for four years in the Army were shattered.
"They said everybody come watch TV," he said. "I thought, 'Oh God.'"
"Everybody kept telling me there's not gonna be a war ... they were wrong," he said, remembering thinking that day, "It's not gonna be like the recruiter said. I'm not going to sit around and play Xbox all day."
A mere five months later, Mongold was a well-prepared private heading to Afghanistan for the first time as part of Operation Anaconda. He was there for two months without much incident.
"I was young, wanted to fight, wanted to do what I was trained to do," he said. "I wanted medals. I got lucky that time."
It was not to be so the second time around.
The "60 Minutes II" footage from that day in November 2003 shows an overturned Humvee and officers shouting commands to shoot out into the desert. The show's correspondent, Laura Logan, hunkered in a foxhole, blood on her teeth from an injured lip, while gunfire rang out.
The network sent Mongold a DVD copy of the report, which aired days after the incident, he explained. He can only be seen briefly, before his vehicle ran over and set off two stacked anti-tank mines.
From the Humvee behind Mongold's, however, Rivera was able to send a report to Fox News that aired almost immediately, according to Mongold.
His mother happened to be watching and recognized her son despite the commotion.
"Moms know," he said.
Mongold was knocked unconscious by the explosion, and doesn't remember much after the Humvee's hood flew past him.
On awaking, he told the others he was OK. Two weren't as lucky: One lost a leg, the other had broken his back.
The blood on Mongold's body, he thought, was from the other injured, but back at the aid station he discovered he had shrapnel in his knee and elbow, in addition to a concussion.
Not wanting to "milk" his injuries, which were slight compared to what his two comrades had suffered, Mongold was patched up and back in the action within a week.
"I was young then," he said, though he is now only 27. "I healed faster."
"I set off metal detectors still," he added, flashing a smile.
In April 2004, Mongold and his unit returned stateside to Fort Drum, N.Y. In a matter of months, his enlistment would be over.
Mongold planned to return to Virginia and attend James Madison University, but two days before he would have been through with the Army, he was "stop lossed." New orders would prevent Mongold from leaving the Army.
Something he would not do, he said, was get back in a Humvee.
In December 2004, to circumvent the "stop loss," he instead re-enlisted with a different battalion, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Division, out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
He would still have to go to Iraq, but not for another year, and not in a Humvee. His new battalion used "Strykers" massive, eight-wheeled, armored vehicles.
"One way or another I would be going to Iraq," he said. "At least it was on my terms."
Worries that he would not be so lucky going out to war again that he would lose another friend, that he would lose one of his men weighed on Mongold's mind. It was July 2006, and this time it would be Iraq.
"You just got to push through it," he said.
Now he was 25, young by most standards, but in Iraq he would be a seasoned soldier, a sniper section leader in charge of a "small kill team."
He would lead his men in the urban setting of Baghdad, into houses, some occupied, some not, to perform surveillance, to watch for insurgents and attacks.
By then, "the city was kind of falling down around itself," he said, describing Baghdad as trashy, decaying, riddled with bullet holes, as if it had gone back in time.
On May 31, 2007, still in Iraq, Mongold once again re-enlisted, this time for six years in exchange for a hefty bonus.
The next day, he said, he was scheduled to return to the U.S.
Instead, a surge in troop levels announced by President Bush was extending his stay by four months.
So instead of being on his way home, on June 1, 2007, Mongold was standing in front of a large window inside a house in Baghdad, clearing out a cache of weapons that had been discovered. A sergeant from another platoon was just on the other side.
Then, like it had happened to Mongold nearly four years ago, a flash went off.
Mongold was again knocked out, but this time only briefly. He awoke quickly to the screams of the sergeant. The man was holding his legs and screaming, but good screaming, Mongold explained.
In combat there are two kinds of screaming, he said.
The bad screaming contributes to the panic, it's what the enemy wants, according to Mongold. It was that kind of screaming he had heard from the members of the media on the day he earned his first Purple Heart.
"They thought the world was coming to an end by the way they were acting," he said.
It was the kind of screaming that comes from 18-year-old rookie soldiers.
It was the kind of screaming that he knows would have come from his mother back in 2003, as she was watching what unfolded thousands of miles away and recognized her oldest son on TV.
But the sergeant, he was good screaming. Useful screaming. The sergeant lost both legs that day, but as he held onto them, he was not screaming in panic. He was calling out orders to the other men, Mongold said.
Mongold watched his helmet spinning on the floor. He felt blood running down the back of his neck. He saw the sergeant screaming.
He recovered his helmet and his gun, and found a buddy to tell he needed help. Then he lost consciousness.
This time it was over.
"You can kind of tell by the way the doctors talk," he said. "I knew I was coming home."
Metal from the blast had sliced through the back of Mongold's head and his left ear. The ACL in his left knee was torn. He had another concussion. Toes were broken, his hearing was permanently damaged, teeth were chipped.
"You chip a lot of teeth in the Army. Good thing they have good dental," he said, smiling again.
Back at home, Mongold displays his two Purple Hearts on his mantle, and he is still a soldier, receiving medical care at Fort Belvoir every week and awaiting the decision of a medical review board.
He anticipates medically retiring from the Army any day now.
The visible wounds he has suffered have faded, but the effects remain. He requires hearing aids. He suffers severe migraines and vertigo.
His post-concussion syndrome makes it take hours every morning to wake up and get oriented, he said, and occipital neuralgia, the result of nerve damage to his left side optical nerve, causes a constant, dull pain through his face and neck.
There is one clear physical marker of his time in the Army: A large tattoo on his forearm depicts a cross and the words "R.I.P. Soldier," in memory a close friend who did not make it home from Iraq.
Assuming the Army lets him go, he will have to find a job that will allow him to work around his medical conditions. He is taking classes again at Lord Fairfax, but this time for plumbing, heating and air conditioning repair and other trades. He hopes he can start his own business so he can be in charge of his own hours. He also teaches a handgun class at a store in Woodstock and is one of the Edinburg VFW's newest members.
He has nightmares of his time at war, but he does not talk about it, especially with his family.
"They wouldn't understand, and I don't expect them to," he said.
He does not even have to talk about it with his fellow VFW members. They get it without having to share wartime stories, according to Mongold.
"We just talk," he said. "You come back and it doesn't matter what war you've been in, a veteran's a veteran. All veterans have common ground."
His military experience was not what he expected and while Mongold supports the war in Afghanistan, he thinks that by being in Iraq the U.S. is in the middle of a fight that will go on regardless.
But he has no regrets, nor does he even consider himself unlucky.
"I'm glad I'm home. I just want to live a normal life," he said. "I'm lucky. Being hurt is just part of the job."
NEXT WEEK: Thomas Wilson's family soldiers on through their own grief and pain.
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