By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
March 28, 2009
Melinda Heck couldn’t hide her smile last month as she walked side-by-side with Michael Beck. Inhibited by a rigid brace on one leg and still adjusting to a new prosthetic on the other, Beck could only hobble through the physical therapy center in Washington, D.C.
Heck didn’t mind the pace.
Just under a year ago in Iraq, Beck lay unconscious in her arms as his blood poured from him onto the desert soil. For the 21-year-old Rocky Mount native to walk at all, Heck said, seems a miracle.
“Seeing him helps me sleep a little bit better,” said Heck, who was one of the first Army medics to tend to Beck after a mortar blast ripped through his body last April at Forward Operating Base Rustamiyah in Baghdad.
Heck, a Vermont native whose U.S. Army National Guard battalion served alongside the Rocky Mount-based 1132nd Military Police Company in Iraq last year, has made it a point since returning to the states in November to visit as many wounded soldiers as possible. Reuniting with Beck was a thrill, she said.
“Sometimes I get angry because I didn’t get to save them all,” Heck said of the men and women she cared for during her 18-month deployment. “But people remind me; I helped save some of them. It’s still hard not to think about the ones who didn’t come back and think about what I could have done different, but it’s good to see guys like Michael doing well.”
Beck is one of more than 100 members of the 1132nd who will be recognized Tuesday during a community banquet organized by the Frederick E. Turnage Chapter of The American Red Cross.
Beck says he’s been honored by all the attention he and his company have received since returning from Iraq in June. Beck has exchanged handshakes with numerous celebrities and dignitaries, including former President George W. Bush.
Nothing, he said, has compared with meeting the men and women who fought to save him.
“It’s pretty nice getting to meet the person who saved my life,” said Beck , who returned to Rocky Mount this weekend to attend the ceremony. “I didn’t even know her before I got hurt, and I don’t remember her working on me. But since I’ve met her, we’ve become real close friends.”
Conversations with Heck have put his injuries into perspective, Beck said, and helped him come to terms with the loss of his friend, Sgt. Emanuel Pickett, who was killed in the same April mortar attack.
“Talking with (Heck) has been real good for Michael ,” said Beck ‘s mother, Lynn Beck . “She explained for him why Pickett didn’t make it and shared the story from her perspective. She’s been wonderful.”
The 1132nd lost five men in action in three attacks during its deployment last spring, all in less than a month. The unit was conducting the volatile work of training Iraqi police on the edge of the Baghdad slum called Sadr City, then a vast stronghold of anti-U.S. insurgents.
The 1132nd troops often were in the streets, supervising Iraqi officers and teaching them how to patrol. That left the unit vulnerable to attacks. No National Guard unit out of North Carolina has suffered more bloodshed.
The April 6 attack stands out in Heck’s mind.
“I love those guys with the 1132nd,” Heck said. “It was a rough time for them at the start of April. It was only a few weeks after the March 22 attack (that claimed the life of Sgt. Blake Williams and others).”
Heck was walking through base last April, her laundry slung over her shoulder, when she heard a distant explosion. The mortar alarm sounded, and Heck – a 29-year-old single mother of two in civilian life – dove for cover. A rocket exploded nearby. Then another and another, she said.
“Everything was happening so fast; there was a lot of confusion,” Heck said.
After taking cover for a moment, Heck followed screams to a smoky bunker. Sgt. Jerry Davis, an 1132nd soldier, already had begun pulling his fallen comrades out of the shelter.
First he carried out Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Spence, who despite taking shrapnel through his leg, ordered medics to focus on the other men. Beck was next out of the bunker.
“When Sgt. Davis pulled him out and laid him next to me, he was in and out of consciousness,” Heck said. ” Michael was talking but really not making much sense. But we tried to just keep him going. I knew I just had to keep him talking and keep him going.”
Heck and others worked to bandage gaping wounds in Beck ‘s stomach and legs before carrying him along with the other injured men to a truck. More explosions could be heard as the truck pulled away. Beck continued slipping in and out of consciousness as Heck worked to stop the bleeding.
“I just kept telling him to hold on,” Heck said. “I knew I had to keep talking.”
The medical team’s work to close Beck ‘s wounds were crucial in sparing him his life, Army medical records indicate.
More than 11 months later, the slender Beck has begun to put weight back on. Many of his wounds have closed, replaced now by scars.
It could be months still before he and his mother are able to leave the Army hospital and return to Rocky Mount for good, but Beck has made substantial progress in recent weeks. With a few more surgeries, he might be able to stand on his feet a little more regularly by the start of the summer, doctors said.
Beck hopes to walk out of Walter Reed by the end of the year.
Heck said she plans to join him, step for step.
“The last time I saw him, he wasn’t in very good shape,” Heck said, referring to the day of the attack. “It’s been so good to meet up with guys like Michael and see they are doing better, to see they are upbeat and in high spirits. I’m so glad he’s going to be OK.”