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Afghan Minefield Transformed National Guard Sgt.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

To mark Veteran's Day, President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and he spoke at Arlington National Cemetery. And on this Monday, when many are observing the Veterans Day holiday, commemorations continue for veterans and their service. In a minute, we're going to bring you poetry from World War I.

First, we'll hear from a veteran of a current war. Commentator David Zeitz is a sergeant in the Army National Guard and he served in Afghanistan. Zeitz was a sapper there, an expert on clearing mines. And he says his days in the minefields transformed him.

SERGEANT DAVID ZEITZ: The untouched land between the fence posts of the abandoned Russian base was riddled with shrapnel, stray bullets and old ordinance. The landmines were everywhere. We found so many that the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team got tired of coming out every day. After a while, we started disarming and disassembling the landmines ourselves. I convinced myself I was immortal and untouchable. This was not the place for self-doubt.

One day like any other day, one hundred degrees or more, the sun scorching whatever skin was left uncovered by my mine suit, I heard an explosion and froze. I knew what that sound was. Most explosions in war zones come from mortars and rockets. Because landmines are buried, they have a very distinct muffled sound when they detonate.

I turned around to see one man standing in the lane next to mine, where there should have been two. My squad leader was already running across the minefield, and before I realized what I was doing, I was sprinting towards the medics' Humvee for the stretcher, ripping pieces of my mine suit off as I ran.

I saw who it was - a tall, lanky guy who was new to the platoon, a quiet guy who loved long distance running and always had an encouraging word, when life in Afghanistan had beaten us down.

Every second was vital. Open the stretcher, lay it beside him, roll him onto the stretcher, 3-2-1 lift. We began moving him out of the minefield, careful to keep the stretcher level while running down a meter-wide path. His hand clenched my wrist and forearm like a wrench.

I had seen countless men, women, and children with appendages blown off before. But he was one of us, one of the untouchables. It was like he was my first mine strike victim. Two days later, I visited him in the hospital. The surgeon had amputated his right foot just above the ankle. He looked sick and weak, but he still managed to crack a smile.

When he arrived in Germany, his leg had to be amputated about halfway to his knee due to infection. Upon arrival at Walter Reed Medical Center, they had to take it off again above his knee for the same reason - like his ticket home was paid with sections of his body.

Experiences like these define who I am today. Not all of them were terrible; in fact most of them involved the highest level of concentration and determination of my life, which I have yet to match.

I don't feel that I am any different from many people who are walking around carrying the burden of similar stories. They are my brothers and we all feel a connection to each other when we meet. The normal questions are: Who were you with and where did you go? And that is all we need to know. We don't pry into anything further because you never know what horrors you could uncover.

MONTAGNE: Commentator David Zeitz is a veteran of the War in Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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