By Army Spc. Matthew Leary
Task Force Fury Public Affairs Office
FORWARD OPERATING BASE BERMEL, Afghanistan - While conducting combat operations in Afghanistan, Soldiers may sustain various non-life threatening injuries that are easily treated by a medic on site. But when Army Sgt. Jose Pantoja received a gunshot wound to the head during a firefight near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan last summer, he was unable to turn to his platoon medic. He was the person his platoon turned to for help.
Pantoja had initially wanted to be an infantryman and looked into the possibility of joining the Army, he said. While in the recruiter’s office, the idea of being a medic was suggested and Pantoja became interested in the career field.
“I asked what kind of things I would be doing, and it sounded like I would like it,” Pantoja said.
In 2004, he enlisted in the Army as a medic.
Going through Basic Training at Fort Benning, Ga., and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Pantoja said he saw the role a combat medic plays in the field.
“I was fired up to be with the infantry,” Pantoja said.Pantoja was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, following his training.
“Medics belong to [2-87th Inf. Regt.], but when we deploy, we are attached to infantry units,” said Army Staff Sgt. Jason M. Morgan, Battalion Treatment non-commissioned officer in charge, for 2-87th Inf. Regt.
When 3rd BCT deployed to Afghanistan in January 2006, Pantoja was attached to Company B, 2-87th Inf. Regt., and got his wish of being officially attached to an infantry company. The assignment meant Pantoja’s role within the battalion would change dramatically.
Medics with infantry units have a unique relationship with their infantry counterparts, Morgan said. “When we go out with the platoons, we eat, sleep and pull security with them,” Morgan said.
So on June 10, 2006, when the Soldiers of 3rd Platoon, Co. B received direct fire from insurgent forces, Pantoja was right alongside his fellow Soldiers.
The platoon was positioned on a mountaintop observing a likely enemy movement point when the firefight broke out, said Army Pfc. Kyle A. Lewis, a M-240B machine gunner with 3rd Platoon.
“It was one of my first missions with the platoon,” said Lewis, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn. “It was quiet, and next thing I knew, 10 feet in front of my truck, a rocket propelled grenade hit and bullets started flying by.”
What ensued was one of the largest battles the 2-87th Inf. Regt. had been involved in during their deployment, said Pantoja.
“They had two squads of fire, and they were trying to maneuver on us,” said Spc. James N. Murray, a grenadier with 3rd Platoon. “It was a pretty well organized attack.”
Shortly after the start of the firefight, the platoon had sustained injuries, Pantoja said. “A gunner ran up to me and said two of our guys were hit.”
Pantoja ran up to the two injured troopers and began to administer aid. “I started to patch them up and to pull them over to cover,” Pantoja said. “The firing got more intense then.”
It was at this point, carrying the second Soldier to cover, that Pantoja sustained a gunshot wound to the face. “I just felt my head turn, but it didn’t want to turn. I thought I was dead,” he said. “I just finished carrying the second guy to cover, and kept on treating the guys.”
Lewis, who received shrapnel wounds to the hand during the attack, remembers Pantoja running up to treat him, showing signs of his injury. “He had blood all over his face and he ran up to treat my finger,” he said.
From then on, Pantoja would continue on with his mission injured.
“He was running around with a huge gash on his face, treating all the casualties,” said Murray. The Soldiers on the ground encouraged Pantoja to tend to himself and take cover, but Pantoja continued to administer aid to his injured platoon members. In all, 12 Soldiers were injured, three of them seriously.
As Pantoja helped carry the seriously injured to an incoming MEDEVAC helicopter, several servicemembers tried to evacuate him as well. Pantoja refused their suggestions that he leave.
“There was no other medic out there, so who else was going to help my guys?” Pantoja asked. “I didn’t want to leave them without a medic on the ground.”
When the firefight ended, the platoon took the remaining wounded and headed back to their base.
Pantoja finally sought medical attention for himself upon his return to base. “The bleeding had stopped, but there was blood all over his face,” Morgan said. “He was more worried about all the other Soldiers.”
It took 18 stitches to close the wound, and a small scar below his left eye can still be seen today.
Looking back on the incident, Pantoja still isn’t sure why he acted in the way he did. “I still don’t know why I did it, but they were my guys,” he said. “When you’re a medic you have a bond with these guys.”
Pantoja was awarded an Army Commendation Medal with a Valor Device and received the Purple Heart for his actions.
“He’s probably one of the best medics I’ve ever worked with in 13 years in the Army,” said Morgan. “And it’s one of the bravest acts I’ve seen in a long time.”