Back from the Brink
Chris Simonds ’05 reflects on cheating death in one of the bloodiest months for U.S. troops.
by Greg Hardesty

Chris Simonds stood in the kitchen of his mother’s house, sunlight bouncing off the swimming pool and flooding through the windows.

A month before, more than 7,600 miles away, Simonds had been lying facedown in dirt — a bullet in his back.

As October 2006 — the bloodiest month in a year for U.S. troops in Iraq — wound down, Simonds, 24, was recuperating in Orange County, thankful he wasn’t among the nearly 100 soldiers and Marines to die in the previous four weeks. “The Wild West doesn’t have anything on (Iraq),” Simonds says. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”

The Army specialist took a month-long convalescence leave with his family after getting shot Sept. 28 while patrolling a village on the outskirts of Ramadi, a focal point of resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

He had been in Iraq only for about eight weeks.

Just a month after his injury, Simonds was able to walk, gingerly, in Yorba Linda’s Fiesta Days parade with members of Moms of Military, a group he credits with keeping his mother, step-mom and other relatives sane while he was in combat — and lying unconscious in a hospital.

“For those who know what’s going on over there, the support has been incredible,” says Simonds, whose injuries left him with a fresh, vivid pattern of scars across his back and side.

A Purple Heart sits on the counter — an award Simonds never wanted, but now cherishes.

As he recalls it, the single shot came from a clearing in the reeds.

Simonds and about 18 other infantry soldiers had been on patrol in a blazingly hot region where insurgents routinely blow up clinics and schools, and where 10-year-old boys who greet U.S. troops leave behind bombs.

Simonds heard the blast, and then his 220-pound, 6-foot-3 body — weighed down with 90 pounds of grenades, artillery rounds, body armor and a missile — fell to the ground. “Get up,” he thought. But he couldn’t.

Machine-gun fire erupted around him.

Simonds didn’t really feel pain, but it was harder to breathe. He didn’t know it at the time, but a bullet from a sniper’s rifle had hit him in the back from about 250 meters away. With a killing range of more than 1,000 meters, the 7.62-caliber bullet packed a punch. It tore through Simonds’ upper back, just above his body armor plate, barely missing his spine.

Moving downward, it slammed against his chest armor and then exploded into fragments, ricocheting through his insides. Pieces of the bullet severed a pulmonary artery, punctured a lung, pulverized one rib and fractured five others. A large piece of the bullet exited through his left side, about six inches below his armpit. Two other large pieces and about 30-odd shards found permanent homes in his bones and soft tissues.

“It was the most hopeless feeling,” Simonds recounted, as his mother, Sarah O’Neill, and step-mother, Diane Simonds, stood by him, at times fighting back tears. “I was on the ground, unable to move, bullets flying everywhere,” Simonds said. “After about a minute, blood starting coming out of my mouth. I knew I had gotten socked.

“Then, by the grace of God, I heard someone run up and grab me. It was our combat medic. He grabbed me by the back and dragged me out of there.” Breathing became more difficult. The medic tore off his shirt and put him on a stretcher. A patrol mission had turned into a rescue mission. Someone called for a helicopter.

“If you don’t land, he’s dead,” Simonds recalls hearing someone say. Minutes later, he heard the “beautiful sounds” of a copter slicing the air. Then, about 30 seconds into his flight, Simonds remembers trying to breathe, “and then I just couldn’t.” Then he passed out.

Simonds spent 24 hours in emergency surgery in Balad, Iraq, before he was flown to a hospital in Germany and, finally, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

He was on a ventilator for five to six days and, for four days, coughed up blood and dead tissue from his collapsed left lung.

Each cough caused extreme pain because of his injured ribs.

“What I was not prepared for was witnessing my only child struggling for every breath to live,” said Sarah O’Neill, who visited her son at Walter Reed. Simonds arrived back at his Orange County home in mid-October.

Assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Baumholder, Germany, he reported back to duty in mid-November, but is unclear if his injuries will ultimately leave him medically unfit to serve.

The USD alumnus, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in history, signed up for the Army for three years, inspired by the examples of three uncles who have served and a grandfather, a Korean War veteran with two Purple Hearts. If all goes well, he’s due to get out of the Army in June 2009, after which he plans to pursue a master’s degree and go into politics.

For now, Simonds is mending and keeps his wounds in perspective.

“I couldn’t feel sorry for myself when I was at Walter Reed,” he said. “I’d walk outside, and I’d see guys with one arm. I’m lucky.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Orange County Register.