“I couldn’t speak to him most of the time,” Karen says. “He slept practically all day, taking 12 to 13 pills a day. He’d be upset for stupid things, anything that irritated him. He didn’t go anywhere.”
Aguirre took medical retirement from the Marines in May 2011. The VA awarded him disability benefits. Florida International University offered him night classes so he could complete a degree in Spanish, which would facilitate his goal to be a social worker to Hispanic veterans with TBI. He has found part-time work at the university’s Office of Veterans Assistance, and makes a weekly session with a therapist at Veterans Link Up in Cutler Bay.
Silence, and then
Marine Cpl. Christopher Alban was operating in Helman province, Afghanistan, also known as “the most dangerous place on earth,” when the IED blasted his seven-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.
A bright, upwardly mobile young man who, as a kid, would pretend he was GI Joe, Alban served as a convoy driver and light machine gunner.
“I was pumped since the day [Jan. 15, 2010] I arrived,” he says. “I wasn’t scared. It was more of a rush.”
He remembers his first encounter with an IED all too well. His vehicle was second in a convoy of 30 headed for Marja. “It was a huge [IED] explosion that hit my side,” he says. Fortunately, the mine blew the underside of the [vehicle] and everyone was safe.
A subsequent IED blast during a later mission was far more traumatic. A 10-vehicle convoy of Marine trucks and vehicles loaded with troops from Georgia, the former Soviet republic, left Buji early in the morning. Alban drove the fifth truck, which carried fuel for a forward operating base (FOB) in Babaji, a ruthless insurgent stronghold, and another FOB down the line.
He remembers a wall of silence, and a cloud of dust kicking up around the truck.
The blast had taken out the vehicle’s communications and Alban tried to get out to stand on the side of the road and wave to the other trucks that everything was OK. But it wasn’t. His left leg gave off a vibrating sensation. He patted it, but the limb just dangled from the knee as if it were about to fall away from the socket.
“I never felt pain like that. It was hell.”
Alban says he couldn’t even cry, for the agony welling up in the leg. But he screamed, and cursed his luck, thinking he might be facing amputation. The Georgians fitted him with a temporary splint and his lieutenant called for a medevac chopper.
In the confusion, his injury was labeled “casual routine,” and Alban found himself low priority on the medevac schedule. Eventually, he was rushed to a Georgian forward operating base in Buji, from which he could be picked up by a chopper.
And then, more trouble: An enemy attack waylaid departure plans. Insurgents peppered the outpost with mortars and small arms fire. The Georgians countering with a consistent rat-a-tat of machine guns.
Alban got out of that hellhole at 5 a.m., bound for Camp Bastion, a British base. But medical staff there couldn’t operate on the leg for lack of equipment. Depression set in over the next two days.
He called his mom at midnight. His parents were shocked.
So was James McCarthy, a Marine corporal from Waterbury, Conn., who served in his unit.
“Chris is a great, hardworking guy who’d give the shirt off his back,” McCarthy said. “He sat there with a shattered leg for all those hours in the middle of the desert without complaining.”
Alban would eventually have five surgeries on the leg over the period of a month at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. A steel rod runs from the knee to the ankle, and a plate sits in the heel where an L-shaped scar remains. He walks with a limp.
“They said I got a couple more rods in my leg but I don’t even know where they’re at.”
His folks, Gustavo and Paulette, flew back and forth to Portsmouth during the ordeal. After eight months, Alban took his first step.
These days the news is good. Alban has returned to South Florida. Melinda Lopez, the Bronx girl he met at a restaurant in Virginia, is planning to relocate. His focus is on college and on her.
Aguirre is also doing better with the help of his wife, Karen.
When he becomes irritable, Karen says,. “I tell him, ‘Dont pull that I’m-the-sergeant line on me. I’m the general.’ ”