Capt. D.J. Skelton was blown up the night of Nov. 6, 2004.
Around 11 p.m., Skelton received a radio report from a patrol that had spotted something suspicious. After reports of explosions, Skelton told the team to wait where it was until he and another squad could get there in a Stryker armored vehicle.
As they moved closer to the location, Skelton and his team exited the Stryker. They heard gunshots, but kept on going with Skelton and radio operator Lt. Roy Rangel in the rear. Suddenly, the team was blitzed with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
An explosion knocked Rangel momentarily unconscious and shrapnel pierced his legs, but he resumed fighting.
Skelton, however, was badly wounded.
"I remember all my vision went out. I was completely blind. I felt no pain. It felt as if I was floating through the air on my back. My audio was still intact. ... I could hear the firefight and voices in the distance screaming, but could not make out the words. ... Then all of a sudden, I felt the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life," Skelton said.
"I wanted to die right then. I hear a voice yelling, 'Lieutenant ... Lieutenant ... oh my God ... I think the lieutenant is dead. ...' I remember being drug and put into a vehicle. ... I was screaming the whole time ... but with most of my face blown off and my mouth destroyed ... it came out as this ghostlike hollow sound ... not even human. The next thing I remember was waking up weeks later at Walter Reed Army Hospital in D.C."
A piece of shrapnel had entered Skelton's right cheek and exited his left eye socket, destroying his upper jaw and the roof of his mouth. He had taken an AK-47 round through his upper left arm and had a "shrapnel tunnel" through his left chest.
"My left arm was destroyed, but my hand was intact. I have no bone between my hand and elbow. My stomach and chest were split open where shrapnel and AK-47 rounds had shredded. My right leg had a fist-sized hole through the lower portion. All the bone was missing from my foot to my knee."
Six years have passed since that night. After more than 60 surgeries,Skelton, 33, is back on the battlefield.
Skelton said he is missing one eye, has partial use of his left arm, is missing the roof of his mouth and has limited mobility in one ankle. He cannot eat or drink without a custom prosthetic.
"Those are the details," he said. "The reality? I rock climb, run marathons, mountaineer, ice climb, pogo stick, hula hoop ... I just figure out new ways to do the old!"
What he will do, starting in a few weeks, is take command of 192 men from his previous unit, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, this time in heavily contested southern Afghanistan. Skelton is the Army's most seriously wounded soldier to return to combat command.
Those who know Skelton attribute his return to his incredible perserverance and strength of character.