From Summit County to Iraq and back
February 11, 2008
Sgt. Andrew Parmley couldn’t see who was firing at him and his platoon, but he’d been in Iraq long enough to know the AK-47 bullets whizzing around him weren’t just special effects.
“The only cover was a grove of date trees,” he said.
Parmley and his buddies scrambled behind the tree trunks for cover, and started returning fire in the general direction of the attack. They had no easy escape route.
“We had to stop the shooting before we could move,” he said.
Armed with an M-4 rifle, Parmley got on one knee beside a date palm and opened fire.
As the barrage continued, he felt his body forced backward and his left arm go numb.
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His weapon remained strapped to his chest in firing position, but in a split second, Parmley’s role had shifted from fighting soldier and combat medic to battlefield casualty.
He looked down at his useless left arm.
“My whole sleeve was bloody,” he said.
From ski country to war
It wasn’t easy to picture Parmley bleeding in that date grove outside Baghdad as he sat on an easy chair in the family room of his parents’ comfortable Summit Cove home and described his transition from Summit County teenager to U.S. Army infantryman.
A tiny woodpecker flitted through the snowy woods visible in the window behind his head while the soft-spoken 22 year-old told how he eventually ended up in the Iraqi town of Arab Jabour on that fateful morning.
The son of Lake Dillon Fire Rescue Authority Chief Dave Parmley and his wife Kathy, he might have had, on the surface at least, all that a Summit County childhood could offer.
It wasn’t enough, though, and Parmley disliked high school so much he left after two years ” eventually getting his diploma through an alternative route.
“I was that loner in high school,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot going for me.”
A self-described “adrenalin junkie,” he drove his snowmobile recklessly, skied at break-neck speeds, and partied.
Then the 2001 terrorist attacks changed everything.
“It really hit me at 9/11 that I wanted to do more than be here,” he said.
With his parents’ blessings, Parmley joined the Air Force hoping to see combat, but found himself pushing paper instead.
After three years, he took advantage of a downsizing period within the Air Force and transferred to the U.S. Army ” a decision he hasn’t regretted.
“It’s a lot better job,” he said. “There’s a lot more pride.”
And last May, the former Summit County party boy finally got his wish.
After training in Kentucky, Texas, and Georgia, he and his unit were deployed to Baghdad as part of the group of 28,000 additional U.S. troops commonly called “the surge.”
Life as a combat medic
Combat was always Parmley’s primary goal, but he credits exposure to his father’s firefighting world with influencing his decision to train as a medic.
“You’ve got to know how to save a life and shoot guns,” he said of the medic job.
As a combat medic in an active war, Parmley’s routine day at work included coming face to face with what weapons can do to the human body, and how little difference emergency medicine can make sometimes for victims of “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs).
“You do everything you can and it’s not enough,” he said.
Parmley’s voice grew softer as he described the first time he saw one of his buddies inadvertently detonate an IED.
“Boom! It happens, and they’re calling for the doc,” he said.
“I had four guys laying there, and they’re all really close to me.
I know their families and how many kids they have.”
On that occasion, despite his best efforts, one of the men did not survive.
Added to the nearly unimaginable stress of watching one’s friends be mortally wounded, the actual physical risk combat medics incur while on missions takes its own toll.
Being a medic is no protection against injury.
On leave, safe in Colorado’s ski country, Parmley acknowledged the psychological challenge of working in constant fear for one’s life.
“It’s tense,” he said. “I remember seeing a medic who’d had his face burnt in a Humvee explosion. I thought, ‘That could’ve been me.’ It made my stomach drop.”
Firefight in Arab Jabour
On that late December morning, Parmley and his platoon had been on a routine mission in the farming community of Arab Jabour ” an area south of Baghdad plagued with pockets of Al Qaeda militants.
They’d set up camp in an empty schoolhouse for what was originally planned as a two- to three-day task, but, more than two weeks later, the soldiers were still there – without showers, hot meals, or real beds.
That morning, Parmley’s platoon was charged with going through a strip of 14 homes along a street in Arab Jabour and looking for hidden weapons and/or “bad guys.”
The houses in question varied in size, but even the most luxurious were nothing like the average Summit County house, he explained.
“Some had dirt floors,” he said.
“And most had no indoor plumbing.”
Having started at 5 a.m., they accomplished the day’s mission before 9, which included checking the houses for doorways wired with explosives and possible bombs placed under carpets.
They were making their way back to the schoolhouse camp when they crossed the bridge into the date palm grove.
Once he was hit, Parmley’s first reaction was to shield his head behind a tree trunk and away from enemy fire.
Although the pain in his arm was “off the scale” and he wondered if it would eventually need to be amputated, he remembers feeling grateful to be alive.
“I knew it could’ve been a lot worse,” he said.
The bullet entered his upper arm and traveled through ” damaging his ulnar nerve but miraculously missing the bone.
As the platoon’s medic, Parmley carried all the necessary supplies in his 200-pound pack, but he only had one usable hand and he was trying not to look down at his bloody arm.
“I didn’t want to put myself into shock,” he said.
He verbally guided his buddies while they applied a tourniquet to the injured limb, gave him the morphine injection he’d managed to draw up with his good hand, and called for an evacuation helicopter.
Within a half hour, he was in flight, on his way to a combat support hospital in Baghdad, while his platoon subdued the source of the hostile fire.
When asked about what happened after he left the scene, Parmley hesitates for a moment.
“My buddies took care of it,” he eventually said in a quiet voice. “They told me not to worry about it.”
After the battle
In Baghdad, he had surgery almost immediately, received his Purple Heart while still in recovery, and was flown to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany that night.
After several days in Germany, he spent some time at a military hospital in Georgia before returning to Fort Stewart outside Savannah, the stateside home of his unit.
In Georgia, he’s been reunited with other wounded members of his unit. He participated in a memorial service for the buddy he saw killed back in November ” “Sgt. T.”
“We planted a tree for him,” he said. “His wife and two kids were there. I was part of his family that day.”
The contrast between his experiences in Iraq and life in Summit County presented Parmley with some emotional challenges during his recent 21-day leave.
“It’s good to see old friends and it’s beautiful here, but I feel really disconnected,” he said.
“I wake up every day thinking about my guys.”
He admits to occasional nightmares, but says he’s been told that’s normal for those returning from war.
Nearly two months after the firefight, Parmley’s arm is still not back to normal.
The outside edge of his left hand remains numb, and his grip isn’t strong enough yet to fire a gun.
As for the actual path of the bullet, both entrance and exit wounds have left soft mounds of pink scar tissue on either side of his triceps.
Healing is now his fulltime job, and, unless his recovery exceeds expectations, he doesn’t think he’ll be physically ready to go back to Iraq before July, when his unit is scheduled to return to Fort Stewart.
As it stands now, Parmley doesn’t intend to re-enlist after his tour is done next year.
Instead, he’d like to do something for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There are over 30,000 soldiers with devastating injuries,” he said.
“I want to start a ‘Hero House’ (in the Colorado mountains) and give them an opportunity to see the beauty here, and maybe learn to ski.”
Despite the painful events of the last few weeks, and the intense stress of his months in Iraq, Parmley emphasizes he will always be grateful to the army for teaching him what he wasn’t able to learn in Summit County.
“I’ve calmed down a lot,” he said. “The military showed me how much my worth could be. I don’t know if I would have found that out otherwise.”
Harriet Hamilton can be reached at (970) 668-4651, or at email@example.com.