Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Semper fidelis...

To any casual observer visiting the F-11A pistol and battlesight zero range here, 1st Lt. Charles E. Hayter, a 26-year-old native of Billings, Mont., looks like any run-of-the-mill platoon commander… standing, watching over his Marines as they zero their rifles before they deploy to Iraq.

A closer examination might reveal otherwise, but it would have to be a real close observation. The only telltale sign would be the tightness of one boot over the other and it’s rigid appearance, because inside that boot exists a prosthetic. Hayter, platoon commander for the Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, has no right foot.

On July 9, 2004, Weapons Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, led by then-2nd Lt. Hayter, left the perimeter at Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan, to investigate the sight where a U.S. Army patrol received fire the day prior.

“We moved about seven [kilometers] northeast of Bagram and established a [Vehicle Check Point] for a while, we then mounted up and moved to where the firefight took place,” said Hayter. At the supposed spot where the previous day’s fighting took place, they found what seemed to be a well-traveled foot trail, according to Hayter.

“We dismounted the Humvee’s and swept up the trail, four Marines on the left and four on the right. I made it about 15 feet and stepped on an Italian toe popper,” he said.

An Italian toe-popper is a small anti-personnel landmine. The mine shredded his foot and immediately cauterized the wound. “It hurt like you wouldn’t believe,” said Hayter. After the detonation, Hayter remained standing. He slowly turned around, sat down and gathered his wits about him. At this point, the Marines around him, though constantly vigil before the explosion, took control. The Marines in the patrol immediately established security and began clearing the way for mines to Hayter to get him medical attention and evacuate him. One of his lance corporals called in for the medical evacuation, or Medevac, according to Hayter. The whole process of getting Hayter back to Bagram Airbase was conducted professionally and quickly. According to Hayter, the 30-minute drive to get to where he was wounded took the Marines about eight minutes on the return trip.

“Things were done as they were supposed to be. My Marines did it right,” he said.Once back at Bagram, he immediately went in to surgery and soon after was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. “At Germany, I had some [camouflage utilities] with me and got a hold of some crutches and went and sought out other wounded Marines,” said Hayter. Meeting the wounded Marines, most coming out of Iraq, served as a huge element of motivation for Hayter, he said. After spending roughly four days in Germany, he was further evacuated to the United States, namely Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

He arrived back at Camp Lejeune soon after and was promoted to first lieutenant as well as received countless visits from various Marines aboard base including Brig. Gen. Mastin M. Robeson, currently the III Marine Expeditionary Force deputy commanding general. However, the newly promoted Hayter had a decision to make. “Everyone was talking to me about medical retirement and what my options are after the Marines Corps. At [Naval Medical Center Portsmouth] I met a Navy SEAL who had had a limb amputated but was working toward going back on full duty with a SEAL Team and deployed with them. That’s when I decided to stay in the Marines,” Hayter explained.

His foot, however, was still a concern. He still had his heel and after numerous reconstructive surgeries would still be able to keep his foot. The other option given to amputate his leg at mid-shin. The recovery time would be faster and would get him back to work just as fast. Hayter did what most people would abhor, he opted for amputation.

After spending only nine days at Portsmouth, he returned to Camp Lejeune and checked in to the 6th Marine Regimental Headquarters and immediately went to conducting his own physical training… getting back in shape. “When I would go to the gym, other Marines would come up to me and say I motivate them. To me, it was the other way around. It’s what’s instilled, the ability to adapt and overcome. I hope all Marines can do the same,” he said.

The regimental headquarters started a football team, knowing Hayter’s love for the game. Hayter had played during his days at Carroll College in Wisconsin. Three months after his amputation, he was back on the field. “No one felt sorry for me, they basically told me to ‘suck it up’ which really helped,” said Hayter.Lieutenant Col. Julian D. Alford, commanding officer, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, offered Hayter the command of a platoon in the battalion if he was able to get back on full duty status. Once Hayter felt he was able to return, he made the trip to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he was screened. “I met a lot of wounded Marines there who wanted to return to full duty. I drew strength from them,” he said.

At Walter Reed, they gave him the final stamp of approval to return to full duty as an amputee. He then took command of a platoon in 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines as promised, where he serves today. With his most recent run time of 26:40 on his Physical Fitness Test, he should have no problem staying in the Marine Corps as long as he’s needed. “When a Marine gets wounded, he doesn’t want to feel alienated, he wants to feel he still belongs and that he’s still able to be a value to the Marine Corps. The biggest thing we can do for our fallen is to take these guys in, not baby them, give them a challenge, and make them feel like Marines again,” Hayter said.