Many men have sacrificed for our efforts overseas. Here’s the story of one such man. Respect. Mad Duo
The Tale of a Wounded Warrior
Ben, a twenty-six year old Marine, was having a crappy day. He was down, bleeding and under fire. In the first moments of a Taliban ambush, an RPG had exploded close by and launched him through the air. The blast didn’t wound him, but small arms fire that followed the RPGs did. One bullet tore through his upper arm and a second barely missed, but still kicked up rocks that injured his face. He was in the open, unable to fire his FAMAS carbine at enemy who had already nearly killed him. He would likely die in the dirt, in the middle-of-nowhere Alasai Valley, Afghanistan.
Ben Itrac made it. August 3rd, 2009, is his “alive day”. He was a Marine infantry corpsman in Afghanistan then, and today is partially disabled but still serving. I recently had a phone conversation with him, after being introduced by a mutual friend.
Yes I said he was a Marine, and a Marine infantry corpsman, and carried a FAMAS. Those things don’t seem to go together, but in this case they do. Ben Itrac is a French Marine, formerly of the French army’s 3rd Marine battalion (Marine battalions are part of the French army, not a separate service). He was an infantryman who received additional medical training and became a “corpsman”, similar to a combat lifesaver.
Ben’s decision to serve his country almost cost his life. His sacrifice is emblematic of what men and women from many other nations have suffered, with us and for us. We should hear his story, because it’s also ours.
Ben’s battalion deployed to Kapisa Province, Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. His company was stationed at Firebase Kutschbach in the south end of the province. At that time I was stationed just north of him, at Firebase Morales-Frazier. Two French Marine companies from Ben’s battalion operated out of Morales-Frazier. While there I became close friends with a French Marine sniper nicknamed Zed, Ben’s close friend.
Four days after Ben was wounded I was in a firefight not far away, probably against the same Taliban who ambushed him. Our mixed Afghan and American force was in a valley, pinned down with four KIAs and one wounded. Zed and other French Marines were in overwatch positions in the mountains. Zed probably saved my life that day.
Six years later I’m still serving, counting the seconds to retirement and using my writing to combat the “French soldiers are cowards” myth in addition to the “all war veterans are screwed up with PTSD” lie. Zed is out of the French Army, living in California and married to a former US Marine he met in Afghanistan. Ben Itrac is in a French military Public Affairs unit, and recently competed in the Wounded Warrior Games at Camp Pendleton, California.
I took an immediate interest in Ben’s experience. Serving alongside French soldiers was one of the highlights of my life. I know French troops fought honorably in Afghanistan. Five were killed during missions I was on, others were wounded, and I saw French Marines and Mountain Troops kill a lot of Taliban. I want to share Ben’s story, to remind us that America and France share much in common as nations, just as individual American troops share much in common with their French counterparts.
Ben Itrac’s survival story began on August 2nd, 2009. That day Intelligence received a report of a buried Improvised Explosive Device (IED) at a bridge outside Jalokhel Village, in Kapisa’s Alasai District. Ben’s platoon and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team were sent to check it out the next morning.
EOD checked the bridge. The IED wasn’t there. In retrospect, maybe the false report was a clue as to what was about to happen.
The patrol was ordered to clear the entire main road through the village. Ben’s squad was on one side of the road, another squad on the other side, EOD in the middle. Ben walked slowly beside the road, looking for danger signs while an EOD soldier swept the road with a mine detector. They were in broad daylight, an obvious target in a hostile village.
The Taliban launched their ambush. Three RPGs impacted among the troops: one for each infantry squad, one for EOD. The Taliban gunner who targeted Ben’s squad missed him by about a meter; the blast threw him six feet. He landed on his face and frantically pushed himself up, trying to get back to his feet so he could engage with his carbine. A bullet punched through his upper left arm, tearing the brachial artery.
He fell again. A second bullet hit a rock just in front of his face. Rock chips sprayed him, hard enough to break teeth (eye protection saved his vision). He looked at his arm and realized he was losing a lot of blood. Enough to bleed out in minutes.
Rounds kept hitting around the patrol. Two Marines from his squad ran to him. They put a tourniquet on his arm, but couldn’t move him. “The Marines who came to help were the two smallest guys in my squad,” he laughed.
His squad set 360 security around him. Marines from the other squad lifted him onto a net and used it to drag him to what the French call a “wounded nest”, a spot behind cover where he could receive care. A medic treated him, then got him onto an engineer vehicle for evacuation back to Kutschbach. But the Taliban did a good job of screwing that plan up; so much fire was coming from each side of the road, infantry had to advance ahead and force the Taliban back. The usually-fifteen-minute ride from Jalokhel to Kutschbach took an hour. Ben had to lay helplessly in the back of the armored vehicle, in agony from the arm wound and chewing on bits of broken teeth, listening to the firefight rage outside.
At Kutschbach a medical team briefly worked on him. An American Blackhawk helicopter arrived and flew him to the big hospital at Bagram Air Base. “After I was shot, it took no more than two hours before I was in the operating room at Bagram,” he remembered.
At Bagram, Ben passed out. When he woke he saw that his arm was bandaged. But so was his thigh, for no reason he could think of. He was in a ward full of American patients and medical personnel, but no French soldiers were around. Ben’s English wasn’t very good and nobody spoke French. A doctor or medic tried to talk to him, but the only thing Ben understood was a question: “morphine?”
Ben said yes. The morphine knocked him out. When he woke again, a very friendly American was there. He couldn’t understand much of what the man said, but he appreciated how hard the man tried to raise his spirits. He still appreciates it.
The American was maybe forty-five years old, white, without facial hair. At one point he held up a syringe with clear liquid and said, “I hear you Frenchmen like champagne.”
Ben responded in broken English, “But I am a French Marine. We like red wine.”
The American smiled. “In that case, here’s some red wine.” And he injected Ben with whatever was in the syringe.
Ben passed out again. When he woke up, he had just had another surgery. Someone finally explained to him that a piece of vein had been removed from his thigh to repair his damaged brachial artery. After a night in Bagram a French helicopter flew him to a hospital in Kabul. The following day, August 5th, he was back in France and beginning his long rehabilitation. The damage was bad enough to force him out of the infantry, so the French military transferred him to their version of Public Affairs. He continued serving, and experienced something that should bother us all.
When he went out in public, an obviously wounded soldier in the country he almost died to defend, nobody seemed to care. “Maybe three or four people in France ever asked me how I was hurt,” Ben said. “And as soon as I said I was wounded in Afghanistan, they’d apologize for asking and walk away. The French public doesn’t know anything about the war, and doesn’t seem interested.”
But in 2010 Ben visited Zed in Texas, where Zed was living with his American fiancé. He and Zed, in their French Marine uniforms, went to the Marine Corps Ball in Fort Worth. American Marines at the ball were more than just friendly; some actually gave Ben medals from their own uniforms. Last year when Ben was in San Diego for his first Wounded Warrior Games, strangers asked where he was from. When he explained he was a French Marine who was wounded while serving alongside Americans in Afghanistan, the reaction was unlike anything he’d experienced before. Strangers paid for his meal, and kids gave him so many cupcakes to eat he nearly got sick. And more importantly, Americans sincerely thanked him for his service.
“This never happens in France,” Ben says. “It was amazing.”
Ben’s experience mirrors that of another French friend of mine. The first time he visited Texas he was amazed at how many American flags lined the roads, how many pro-military stickers he saw on cars, how many strangers shook his hand and thanked him when I told them we had served together in Afghanistan. We Americans make a great many mistakes, but the respect we show our troops isn’t one of them.
Because I’ve spent so much time fighting brainless anti-French “jokes” made by people who are either uninformed or flat-out stupid, I was worried Ben had been insulted about being a French soldier while visiting America. “In all the time I’ve spent in America, not one person has insulted me about being French,” Ben says. “Maybe they thought it, but nobody’s said it.”
And nobody should. Ben Itrac deserves as much honor and respect as any American wounded warrior. He volunteered to serve his country and fight our common enemy in Afghanistan. America is better because Ben and those like him came to our aid, when we needed it.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.