WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – In 2005, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Daniel Gilyeat was on his second tour of combat duty in Iraq when the day that would change his life forever arrived.
He had been having feelings for several months before that he was going to be mortally wounded in combat.
“I kept having this reoccurring vision that I was going to take a bullet to the chest. I knew that I was going to lay there and suck it up and I was either going to bleed to death or go into shock. I just knew that something traumatic was going to happen,” said Gilyeat, of the 24th Marines from Kansas City, Missouri.
On July 3, 2005, Gilyeat and four other Marines were driving in their Up Armored Humvee on a dusty battlefield near Haditha, Iraq, when they drove over a double-stacked anti-tank mine. Gilyeat lost his left leg in the blast. He laid on the ground for 30 minutes and told jokes to his crew to help them come out of the daze and shock of the explosion until help arrived. Medical personnel told him that his heart had actually stopped twice during the Blackhawk helicopter ride to the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base.
It was more than an hour before he received treatment there for the loss of his limb or his huge loss of blood, but he survived. Just 26 days after surgery, he was – to the amazement of his doctors and nurses, using his prosthetic leg and walking again. Two and a half months later, he had stopped taking all medication and was doing things people told him he would never be able to do again with a prosthetic leg.
Dr. Russell Turner, director of the Aerospace Medicine Primary course at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine here, invited Gilyeat to speak to the AMP students March 4 during a Wounded Warrior lecture. Turner was also commander of the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad when Gilyeat received treatment there.
“It’s hard to stay grounded to the real reason we’re here,” Turner told the students. “When I came in, we still had Vietnam veterans who grounded my generation of Air Force medics. Your generation of Air Force medics has its own set of heroes, and so we are honored to have Staff Sgt. Gilyeat here today to tell you about his experience going through the Air Force operational medical system.”
“We all think when we’re going through class that ‘this will never happen to me.’ Let me tell you that it will happen to you. This is about the wonderful men and women who have fought and gone the extra mile, and you – the men and women who go the extra mile for them,” Turner told the students as they welcomed Gilyeat to USAFSAM, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing.
“You folks are our angels when we first come off the battlefield. You are the ones that we first have an encounter with and what you do matters,” Gilyeat told the students. “I’m grateful for Dr. Charles Shurlow, of USAFSAM, for his involvement in getting me home from Iraq when he was the Theater Validating Flight Surgeon for USAFE, and for Pamela Honeycutt, an Aviation Resource Manager at USAFSAM, for connecting the dots and making my visit here today possible. My hope is to inspire and encourage those that may never see the results of their dedication as Air Force medics.”
“I would like to say thank you for your service and your sacrifice. I thank you for all of the things that you’ve had to witness and the things that you’ve had to do. Because of what you have done – those of you who have been in theater, who have experienced these things, you were our angels when we were coming off the battlefield. You were the first ones who took care of us, patched us up and sent us home to recover.”
Gilyeat then shared additional details of the incident that happened to him and his fellow Marines that swelteringly hot day on a dusty road in the Iraqi desert.
“My number one rule in Iraq was to never drive off of the asphalt because the enemy liked to place stuff [improvised explosive devices] in the dirt, but on this day I compromised, which ended up being a mistake,” he said.
Gilyeat and his team needed to have overview, so they wanted to get to the highest point where they could control the battlefield. They drove to the top of a mountain, which allowed them to do a roadside visual of a convoy. On their way back down, their vehicle drove over the mine. The pressure of the explosion tore off his left leg, knocked him unconscious for a short period, and blew all the windows out of their Humvee from the inside out.
“When I first woke up after the blast, I didn’t realize what had happened other than my ears were ringing, the vehicle was no longer vibrating, and it was dawning on me that we had just gotten blown up. During our training, we learned that the enemy would detonate a roadside bomb and when others in the area would help, they would detonate a second bomb killing everyone, so that was my first fear,” he said.
“Through all the dirt, dust and debris, I can see that my pantleg is shredded. I don’t know how bad my leg is damaged, but I realize it is possibly in pretty bad shape. I need to get out of this vehicle, but I don’t want to compromise anybody so I fell out on the ground and tried pushing myself away.”
The twisted metal carnage of the remains of his Humvee were not quite ready to let go of him. He realized that his right leg was stuck inside of the vehicle because a copper pipe from the vehicle’s heater coil had impaled his right calf, preventing him from falling completely out. His machine gunner jumped down from his position to apply a tourniquet to Gilyeat’s leg. Then, he watched as another Marine removed Gilyeat’s foot from the truck.
“I heard this voice and I believed it to be the voice of God, and it said, ‘Lay there, be calm, you’re not going to bleed to death.’” “Then my very next thought was that man, I’m not a lizard, that’s not going to grow back.”
He wanted to use humor to get his team to focus.
“There was something going on that day on the battlefield that I was concerned about. I was ok with my leg being gone – I knew what I had to do. I thought it was going to be a bullet hole to the chest, but now my leg is missing. What I wasn’t prepared for was my Marines standing around me, frozen – they were in shock. I needed to get them back in the game so they could carry me down the side of the mountain, because I wasn’t walking anywhere. As they started to laugh, reality began to kick in that they needed to get their heads back in the game.”
A Blackhawk helicopter arrived to medevac Gilyeat to the hospital at Balad. After surgery and three days at the Balad hospital, followed by another day and a half at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Ramstein AB, Germany, two weeks at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Maryland, and three months of physical therapy at Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, Gilyeat was well on his way to focus on a new mission of helping other wounded veterans.
He wanted to visit each service member and make sure they were doing all right. Although he had to work through some dark moments when he got home as the enemy was still whispering in his ear with negative thoughts, he was determined not to let the enemy win.
“I’m usually a very positive person, so sitting alone at night in the dark with my thoughts got old really quick. The enemy is a liar and I was done with it. I was not going to be another statistic and let the enemy win. I was looking for inspiration so I became the inspiration I was looking for. As survivors, we have received a second chance at life so every day is a gift. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here today.”