I have been anticipating this story for quite some time.
Welcome back Capt. Gilliam!
I know the men are happy to have you back with them in Iraq. Thank you Sgt. Yde for sharing the good news!
1st Cavalry News
Months of recovery, therapy lead to troop commanders return to Iraq
By Sgt. Robert Yde
2nd BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs
BAGHDAD – On a recent patrol through the Haifa Street area, Capt. John Gilliam was surprised at what he saw. The last time that he had been on Haifa Street was Feb. 3, and at that time, the area still had the notorious distinction of being known as one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
Today Haifa Street continues to show signs of new life as more and more businesses open and people continue to move back into the area daily. This was not the same place that Gilliam, the commander of Troop C, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment., 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, remembered.
“Haifa Street is a different place because when I left, you didn’t go into the alleyways unless you were going after somebody,” the Charlottesville, Va., native said. “Now, we were able to walk through the markets and walk through the alleyways, and there were kids playing everywhere, and there were people everywhere. There were businesses open and cars up and down the streets. It’s pretty amazing.”
The groundwork for much of the progress that Haifa Street has seen over the past several months is a direct result of the efforts that Gilliam’s troop put into ridding the area of anti-Iraqi forces earlier this year. Then, the neighborhood resembled a ghost town, and the only sounds that one heard were the daily fire fights and explosions.
Walking through the streets, Gilliam, 29, said that even though the area has completely turned around and is now one of the city’s safer areas, he couldn’t help but scan the rooftops and alleyways — something that was just second nature to him from his days of patrolling Haifa Street.
It’s a different place today, though, and Gilliam knows this as he points out that Coalition Forces have not received any enemy contact in the area since Feb. 3 – the night that Gilliam nearly lost his leg when a grenade exploded within just a few feet of him.
That night Gilliam’s Soldiers were on Haifa Street preparing for a raid to catch a sniper who had been operating in the area.
“We had gotten intelligence that there was a sniper operating out of one building, and we’d had a lot of sniper activity up there … a lot of very good snipers,” Gilliam explained. “So I pushed the platoon that was out there to do an initial cordon of the area, and I went out there with an additional platoon and moved to go hit the target building.”
After arriving to the vicinity of the building that they suspected the sniper was operating out of, Gilliam and his Soldiers quickly moved up and entered the building only to find it abandoned. They then searched the surrounding buildings, and while they discovered evidence of insurgent activity, they were unable to locate the individual they were after.
As they started moving back toward their vehicles, Gilliam received information from one of the helicopter crews that were on hand providing air support for the mission that there were seven individuals with AK-47s moving through one of the alleyways.
“We moved one of our vehicles up into a blocking position, and we started moving dismounts up through the alleyways toward the individuals to try to get into position to where we could engage or capture them,” he said. “We started taking pretty heavy small arms fire from down the alleyway, and we couldn’t get a clear shot because they we’re shielding themselves behind children.”
As one of his platoons continued to move down the alleyway, Gilliam and his radioman, Spc. Stephen Battisto, stopped about 20 yards behind the other Soldiers so that Gilliam could make a call on his radio.
In the moment that they knelt there, Battisto recalls sensing that something wasn’t right, and then hearing a noise that he described as a, “ting, ting, ting.”
The noise was the sound of a grenade hitting the ground beside them, and it was one that Battisto said he immediately recognized from his days in basic training.
“I had a drill sergeant who had a dummy grenade and everyday, at some point, he’d throw it, and you’d hear just a ‘ting, ting, ting’ on the floor. That’s what I remember,” the Chicago native explained. “I guess it was just instinct.”
The grenade, which the Soldiers suspect was thrown from one of the rooftops, landed about four feet from Battisto and Gilliam, and, acting on instinct, Battisto pushed Gilliam to the ground just as the grenade exploded.
“I immediately turned around and grabbed the back of his OTV (outer tactical vest) and pushed him and at that time it blew,” Battisto said. “I remember I felt like I got hit by a train, and I remember Capt. Gilliam screaming that he was hurt.”
The majority of the shrapnel from the blast lodged itself into Battisto’s radio pack, probably saving both Soldiers’ lives.
Battisto said he shook Gilliam and asked him if he was OK, to which Gilliam responded that his leg was hurt.
“I tried to help him up, but he couldn’t put pressure on one of his legs,” Battisto said.
Battisto, with the help of some other Soldiers, moved Gilliam back to one of their Bradley Fighting Vehicles to begin treating his wounds.
Initially, neither Gilliam nor his medics thought the wound to his leg was very serious, but what they didn’t know at the time was that a small piece of shrapnel had severed the main artery running through his calf.
“I didn’t think that I was that seriously wounded at the time, and I tried to stay out there and stay on the radio and keep the situation under control,” Gilliam said.
As his leg began to swell and lose feeling and his foot started to turn blue, even Gilliam could no longer deny that his injuries needed immediate medical attention and made the call to have himself evacuated to the combat support hospital located in the International Zone.
“They put me into a humvee, and I was at the CSH in five to 10 minutes,” Gilliam said. “Once we got to the CSH, they evaluated my leg, and as soon as they cut my pants off, they realized really quickly that I had some very serious internal bleeding – it’s called compartment syndrome.”
He said that by the time he reached the hospital his calf had swelled to the point where it was larger than his thigh. Within 10 minutes of arriving to the hospital, he was taken into surgery.
“They told my guys after I got in there that if it had probably been about thirty seconds later I would have lost my foot and a couple minutes later I’d have probably lost my leg, just based off the amount of bleeding,” Gilliam said.
That night at the CSH would begin a series of surgeries and physical therapy sessions that Gilliam would have to endure over the next several months.
“The main artery in your leg is right behind your knee and the piece of shrapnel literally went in and exploded that entire artery, so they took a vein out of my right, inner thigh and did what they call a double fasciotomy,” he explained. “They slit my leg down both sides and took the vein out of [my thigh] and completely repaired the artery.”
After two surgeries and several blood transfusions, the doctors decided Gilliam was stable enough to be moved back to Brooks Army Medical Center, located at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Accompanying Gilliam was his wife, Capt. Erin Gilliam, who at the time was the operations officer for the 15th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd BCT, based at FOB Falcon in south Baghdad.
“I was with him the entire way, which was a good thing because it helped put my nerves at ease a little bit,” she explained. “I didn’t expect it to be as severe as it was or as serious as it was. Then as time went on, I just didn’t know what to expect, but I was glad that I was able to be with him.”
During his first month at BAMC, Gilliam’s leg underwent eight more surgeries, including one to treat an infection that had developed.
“My leg got infected so they had to cut out all the tissue on the left, outside of my calf. They then had to take a skin graft from my upper thigh,” he said.
During his stay in the hospital, Gilliam said the one goal that never left his mind was returning to his Soldiers, even though doctors initially told him he may never return to Iraq.
“Their initial estimates were that I would never come back, but, to me, it just never was a question,” Gilliam said. “It was, ‘OK, I’m hurt more than I thought I was, but it doesn’t matter. Fix me so I can get back [to Iraq].’ That’s just all there was to it.”
Gilliam also had another reason for wanting to return to Iraq as soon as possible. While at BAMC, his wife’s unit had relocated to FOB Prosperity, and they would now be based together for the remainder of their deployment.
“Once my wife got back [to Iraq], then you’re talking my troop and my wife –there was really not much else for me at that point,” he said. “Everything that I cared about was [in Iraq], so mentally I was ready to come back.”
Gilliam said that it was right after his wife left BAMC to return to Iraq that his sole focus became rehabilitating his leg and returning to Iraq himself.
“My wife was great and got me through this whole experience. I couldn’t have done a single bit of it without her,” Gilliam said. “As soon as she left, there was nobody else there to baby me and cook me meals … so I put my crutches aside and decided that I didn’t care how much it hurt. I wasn’t using crutches anymore.”
After nearly a month and a half in the hospital, Gilliam was released to outpatient status, living in a guest house at BAMC and attending physical therapy sessions every day.
“I was doing therapy for probably four or five hours a day,” Gilliam explained. “One of the biggest problems I had in therapy was aimed at loosening up my Achilles tendon so I could walk with a normal gait and run.”
Gilliam said that his Achilles tendon had tightened during the month he was bed-ridden, making it difficult to walk.
“I started out very basic, just lots of stretches, and then moved to torture machines, essentially, which mechanically yank your foot up and down and left and right,” Gilliam said of his therapy. “I also jumped rope, did a lot of calf raises and lots of other things aimed at loosening my foot up.”
For Gilliam, the daily therapy sessions were exhausting.
“You go from lying flat on your back in a hospital bed to doing five hours of therapy a day so your body’s exhausted,” he explained. “From getting off of all the drugs your body’s been on, to just the flat-out blunt trauma of having a traumatic injury like that. It takes your body a long time to re-regulate itself.”
Throughout the daily therapy sessions, returning to the Soldiers who he had commanded for nearly the past 18 months remained Gilliam’s main motivation.
“The injury hurt; it definitely hurt – and the surgeries hurt, but the thought of not coming back to my Soldiers was far worse than anything that injury could have done to me,” he said.
“You train with these guys; you watch them grow and mature. You watch kids, who were privates (and) are now sergeants. You watch sergeants who are now staff sergeants. That’s been my whole life for 18 months. That was the worst part. Getting on a helicopter and leaving my guys was hands down the worst part of the entire experience and everything after that was, ‘OK, what’s next? What’s the next step in getting back here?’”
In early April, Gilliam said he was starting to feel that he was getting to the point, physically, where he could return to Iraq and started putting pressure on the doctors to clear him to return to duty.
“I was starting to try to get timelines and say, ‘Hey, I’m getting better, what is it going to take for me to get out of here? What are the milestones I need to reach?’” he recalled. “For me, from a mental stand point, I needed to be back [in Iraq]. I needed to be around my Soldiers and being at Brooke Army Medical Center anymore was just not where I wanted to be.”
Before he was released from the hospital, Gilliam had to demonstrate that he could run and had a certain degree of flexibility in his Achilles, among other things.
“The doctors had a whole slew of milestones that had to be met. Plus, just being verbally harassed by me on an almost daily basis about when I’m going to get out of there wore them down eventually, I think,” he said. “Honestly, I think they probably just got sick of hearing me.”
Although far from being in the same physical state he was before the injury, Gilliam was released from BAMC and returned to Iraq May 6.
“I was in pretty good shape before this, and actually, the doctors said that half the reason I recovered so well and was able to deal with the surgeries so well was because I was in really good shape,” he said. “It will be months before my leg is completely to where it used to be, if ever again, but it got to the point where it was what’s good enough versus what’s perfect.”
Although returning to his Soldiers had always remained in the forefront of his mind, as he prepared to leave BAMC, Gilliam understandably had some anxieties about his physical readiness.
“You’re afraid of what you’ve missed. These guys are at such a high standard on so many things physically. They’re at such a high state of readiness that you’re like, ‘OK, am I good enough? Am I going to be able to keep up with these guys?’” Gilliam explained.
Although he knew he would face some physical limitations, Gilliam said that mentally, he couldn’t have been more ready to return.
“I had been mentally preparing myself since the day that I got out of the hospital, because to me, mentally, my mind never left [Iraq],” he said.
Gilliam returned to FOB Prosperity to several changes, the biggest being his troops change in mission.
While he was gone, the surge had begun to be implemented and battle spaces and shifted. No longer were his Soldiers responsible for Haifa Street. Instead, their new mission has them manning the entry control points into and throughout the International Zone.
“It’s a bit of a different change of pace,” Gilliam said of his new mission. “Being on ECPs is not familiar to me. From a physical standpoint, it’s easier, of course — it’s much easier for me, but from a mental standpoint, I still want to be the guy out on Haifa Street every day.”
Although it’s no longer his troop’s responsibility, Gilliam was given the opportunity to return to Haifa Street on the second day he was back, when brigade commander, Col. Bryan Roberts invited Gilliam to accompany him on a patrol through the area.
During the four-hour patrol, Gilliam said he was surprised to see the progress that has been made in the area over the past several months.
“Walking there with Black Jack Six gave me an incredible sense of gratification knowing that the Soldiers and the troop did that,” Gilliam said. “They did a phenomenal job, and it made me feel good.”
Not only did the mission give Gilliam a chance to see some of the results of his Soldiers’ efforts on Haifa Street, but it also was an opportunity to test himself physically.
“I lost 25 pounds, so I’m not anywhere near the level of physical strength or endurance that I was before … and I hadn’t worn my body armor, and that’s a heavy set of equipment to get used to again, but it was fine, though,” he said. “You get tired a little bit easier, and I was starting to get tired at the end of it, but physically, I’d like to go out there and do it again. That’s what comes natural to me – being out there in sector is what I’m used to.”
As he prepared for that patrol, Gilliam also saw some of the effects on his equipment from the shrapnel for the first time.
“I thought it was only just the one piece of shrapnel, and it was only the one piece of shrapnel that physically affected my body, but when I came back and put all my equipment together to try to go out, my kneepads were shredded and fell apart as I tried to put them on because little pieces of shrapnel went through them,” he said. “My CamelBak – I poured water into it, and all the water poured right out the bottom of it because of the shrapnel up in it. My hand-mic was also completely shredded by the shrapnel.”
Seeing the damage to his equipment reaffirmed to Gilliam just how lucky he and his Soldiers were that no one else was injured that fateful day.
“We were very fortunate that nobody else got injured,” he said. “If one person had to get injured from this troop during a time when we’re doing combat operations, I’m glad it was me as opposed to anybody else. Nobody wants to see their Soldiers get injured.”
“Soldiers,” is the simple response Gilliam gives when asked about the most rewarding aspect of returning to Iraq.
“They give you the motivation to get out of bed each day. They surprise you at every turn. They make you proud with the things they have done and make you want to be better,” he said. “It’s like being back with family.”
Gilliam knows his time with this family is limited as he is scheduled to relinquish command of Troop C and take over his squadron’s Headquarters Troop soon. That’s why he said every day counted so much as he worked to get back to Iraq and his Soldiers.
“The earlier I was able to get back was one more day with these guys before I, unfortunately, hand the guideon to someone else,” he explained. “So, for a doctor to say you’re going to be here for one more month was a world of difference for me.”
His wife said that throughout it all Gilliam’s fear that he may not get back quickly enough to spend much time with his Soldiers was always in the back of his mind.
“I think the hardest thing for him was to leave his Soldiers behind,” she said. “I don’t think he’s felt closer to any organization that he’s been a part of, and I really feel that I can say that and mean that 100 percent. I know that not only does he care about them, but in turn, they care about him, too. I think that’s just the sign of a great troop — a great organization.”
As he enjoys his last few weeks with his Soldiers, Gilliam continues to work with a physical therapist toward rehabilitating his leg.
Currently, he is undergoing an eight-week program designed to help him get back to a physical state where he can run every day.
“I’ll be in therapy for the whole time we’re here,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to truly get to the point where I’m running the way I want to run, but I’d like to think that by the end of this deployment I’ll be back to where I was before.”
While he knows he still has many months of hard and sometimes painful therapy ahead of him, Gilliam said that right now he is just glad to be back, and that if it wasn’t for Battisto he might still be in the hospital now or worse.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for Spc. Battisto,” he said. “It’s so hard to express how much that means to me, and how much that means to my wife and my family.”
Battisto remains humble about the incident, though, maintaining that any member of his troop would have done the same thing and he just happened to be the one who was there.
“Not only is Capt. Gilliam a great leader, but he’s an amazing person and anyone of us in the entire troop would have done that for him,” Battisto said. “I was just in the right spot at the right time and did the right thing.”
Gilliam, however, does not downplay Battisto’s actions that day and does not hesitate to call him a hero.
“Battisto is a hero in every sense of the word, and what he did speaks volumes about the characters of the Soldiers in this troop because he’s not unique,” Gilliam said. “Anyone of the Soldiers in this troop would have done that, and I don’t mean for just me, but for anybody. In my eyes, they’re all heroes – all 104 of them Just being back here with them completely validates everything I have gone through over the last three months of my life. It just completely validates all the efforts to get back here and spend that last extra couple of weeks with my guys before I go across the street to HHT.”
Capt. John Gilliam, the commander of Troop C, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, speaks with a Red Crescent worker before a humanitarian mission on Haifa Street Jan. 29. This mission was a success, but five days later, Gilliam was injured by an explosion from a grenade while pursuing insurgents operating in the area. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Robert Yde, 2nd BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs)
A young Haifa Street resident shakes hands with Capt. John Gilliam, commander of Troop C, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, during a humanitarian aid mission Jan. 29. Gilliam’s troop operated on Baghdad’s Haifa Street for several months earlier this year. On Feb. 3, while pursuing insurgents in the area, Gilliam’s leg was severely injured by a grenade blast. He recently completed several months of recovery and physical therapy and returned to the Iraqi capital and his command May 6. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Robert Yde, 2nd BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs)