HEARTS APART - Wounded during an enemy rocket attack in Afghanistan, a Purple Heart recipient talks about the day that almost kept him from ever returning to his young bride and 11-day-old daughter

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Capt. David Golden lay face down in the dirt. His head felt as though it had just been viciously kicked by a professional soccer player wearing a steel-toe boot. He reached up and touched his forehead. His hand came back covered in blood.

Dazed, he still retained enough of his senses to know an enemy rocket had just exploded nearly on top of him.

This wasn't how it was supposed to be. He was just a month shy of returning home from a sometimes brutal deployment on the front lines of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Eleven days ago his wife, Andrea, gave birth to their first child -- a beautiful baby girl they named Odessa.

He'd never revealed to Andrea how much danger he'd been in -- not the many ambushes, the enemy firefights, the death on both sides. She didn't need to know the frightening details while going through a pregnancy alone in San Antonio, where they had no family. She was a strong woman, but she didn't need that burden.

This entire combat tour strengthened his resolve to see his wife again and hold his little girl for the fist time. Up until now, when he was so close to that goal, he'd been lucky. ...

Golden heard desperate screams coming from inside a nearby bunker. He shoved himself off the dirt and ran for the shelter.

Golden, who was deployed from the 562nd Flying Training Squadron, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, at the time of the Sept. 28, 2008, enemy attack, had a 107 mm rocket explode only 8 feet from him. As he dove away from the blast, shrapnel glanced off his ballistic eyewear, and embedded in his forehead. While the metal fragment shattered the glasses, a flight surgeon would later tell Golden that his protective eyewear had not only saved his eyesight, but in all likelihood, it had saved his life.

"Anybody who ever doubts the benefits of personal protective equipment can come talk to me," the Louisiana native said. "Whether it's glasses, a helmet or a safety restraint, they are designed to protect you from injury and save your life."

The captain arrived in Afghanistan five months earlier in May 2008 to serve as an electronic warfare officer at Forward Operating Base Orgun-E in the eastern Paktika Province. He remembers reassuring his wife before he left for the deployment that 100 percent of the EWOs who had deployed returned home injury-free. Most never even sniffed the front lines, and spent their deployments safely behind a desk.

He quickly learned that would not be his wartime role.

Golden was assigned to an Army airborne infantry battalion. His job included maintaining combat-capable vehicles and training soldiers to use counter radio-controlled improvised explosive device electronic warfare equipment.

Not only was he serving on the front lines, but he found himself riding in military convoys that seemed to always stir a hornet's nest ... relentless ambushes by enemy forces.

"I admit, my first time outside the wire, I was nervous," the 29-year-old said. "We traveled down roads that weren't really roads, but more like dry river beds. They are a haven for anyone wanting to plant IEDs."

He rode with Army explosive ordnance disposal members in their intimidating rolling fortress, a heavily armored vehicle known as the JERV (joint EOD response vehicle).

"On my first convoy, we were ambushed twice," he said. "The opposition always let you leave the base, but often attacked on the return trip home."

During that initial outing July 2, 2008, he was traveling in the front of a convoy of 25 vehicles and 60 troops when insurgents launched a rocket propelled grenade attack ... an early fireworks show for the 4th of July.

"It was intense because it was a drawn out ambush area, and we were driving along a cliff that had a several hundred foot drop-off to the right," Golden said. "We pushed through it after four or five minutes, but that's four or five minutes with somebody shooting at you, which makes it seem much longer. You don't have time to get scared; your training kicks in and you just do. Our gunner was firing on enemy targets, while we kept feeding him ammunition."

When that attack was over, the gunner asked Golden to relieve him in the turret because he had something in his eye.

"It was my first time in the turret," the captain said of the armored perch. "I had training, but no real-life experience."

The convoy approached a village, and Golden waved to children in the street who were running around begging for candy.

"It was always a good sign to see kids playing outside," he said. "You'd seldom see an attack with children around. And you'd almost never get attacked on the same convoy twice."

But when an IED exploded in front of his vehicle, Golden knew "usual" wasn't going to play today. Terrified boys and girls scattered as another ambush began. Suddenly, he was thrust into the role of gunner, and began shooting at hostiles.

"I swiveled in the turret trying to find a target," he said. "I opened fire on the mountain ridges with an M240 machine gun. I saw a muzzle flash up on a hill and engaged an enemy machine gunner with 30 to 40 rounds. We saw the rounds impact and saw the gunner drop."

He also had to fire a grenade launcher after the M240 jammed. But shortly after that, Apache helicopters arrived on scene, and the ambush was officially over.

"It's a good feeling to be escorted by the Apaches," he said with a grin.

When they arrived back at Orgun-E, they found a big black scar on the JERV where an armor-piercing incendiary round hit less than a ruler's length under the turret where Golden had been.

"That was a little too close for comfort," he said with raised eyebrows.

As bad as the convoys were, traveling to a combat outpost in the small town of Zerok was even worse.

"Zerok was a fight from the day I got there until the day I left," Golden said. "The first time I went there, the enemy launched 11 rockets at us."

Living conditions there also weren't the best. They were somewhat austere like one might expect when fighting a war. Troops might get one hot meal a day, the showers seldom worked and most everyone had to hand wash their clothes in a bucket. While there, Golden's team slept in shifts in the JERV.

When the captain got one last call to go to Zerok to fix some equipment, he felt uneasy, like he was pushing his luck.

"I was a month from going home, my baby girl had just been born, and I was determined to get to see her," he said. "So it made me a little more nervous than usual."

His team was flown in by helicopter, and they fixed the antenna problem the first day. However, mechanical issues with the helicopter kept him at Zerok an extra 24 hours.

On that fateful second day, Golden had just put on all his personal protective gear simply to walk across the compound to use the latrine. It was a pain, but this was no place to get complacent. On his way to the latrine, he stopped by the mortar pit where the crew had been launching mortars all day. They were at about 90 launches, and they all shared a laugh when they realized they'd soon hit the century mark.

At that instant, Golden heard a slight whistle, and instinct took over. He dove as the enemy rocket hit with violent force.

Wounded, he ran into the bunker where he heard the screams.

"A lot of people assume I ran into the shelter to help the person hollering hysterically inside," he said. "But, no, I ran to it because it was a bunker. At the time, I was thinking more about self-preservation and taking cover."

Nevertheless, once in the bunker, he saw an Army specialist wildly yelling into a radio. Only, he wasn't holding the hand microphone. He clutched his right arm, which was drenched with spurting blood.

"I picked up the radio mic, and let them know that the mortar pit crew had been taken out, and that we had wounded that needed help," Golden said. "Then I went to the specialist and wrapped a tourniquet around his arm. It wasn't the prettiest job, and I didn't know if it would save the arm, but I felt it would save his life."

Tending to the wounded soldier actually calmed Golden. He had served as a volunteer firefighter for five years and was still one back home in Cibolo, Texas. He'd seen trauma worse than this before in car accidents, and his training just kicked in and allowed him to focus on the mangled, crimson mess.

"The whole time I'm putting the tourniquet on him, the soldier is yelling, 'I'm gonna die!' And then he'd beg God for forgiveness," the captain said solemnly. "I looked him in the eye and said, 'My name's Dave, and you're going to be OK.' "

But the fact is Golden wasn't at all sure of that. The soldier had an arterial wound and had lost enough blood to paint a desk. He was going into shock.

"So first I stopped the bleeding, then 
I talked to him to try to keep him from going into shock or passing out."

Golden was lottery-lucky that day. The injury to his head wasn't serious even though his face was covered with blood. But another soldier was even luckier. He had been only 2 feet from the explosion and came away with barely a scratch. The blast force went in the opposite direction and only knocked him down. Meanwhile, an army captain had one of his eyes dislodged, and an Afghan soldier sustained an injury to his knee. An Army sergeant, who got the worst of it, had severe wounds to his back. Miraculously all survived and eventually returned to duty.

"I realize how fortunate I was," Golden said. "The difference between being slightly wounded and being maimed or killed can come down to a fraction of an inch or a split second ... or the proper PPE."

Golden called his wife, Andrea, the night of the attack.

"I told her I got hurt," he said.

Then the phone went dead.

As Golden desperately tried to get reconnected, Andrea told her mother, who had come to visit for the birth of their baby, that David had been injured but she didn't know why or how badly.

"When I called her back to tell her I was OK, she was calm and collected, but I didn't know what she was thinking," he said.

That's because Andrea had gotten good about hiding negativity from her husband. Just like he protected her from the horrors of war because he didn't want her to stay up at nights worrying, she had kept things from him.

She wanted to protect him, too.

"While he was gone, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong," she said, shaking her head at the recollection.

San Antonio got hit by a tropical storm that blew off a section of their roof, knocked down a tree in the backyard and took out a portion of their fence.

"I was seven months pregnant outside in a storm at about 
11 at night hammering a section of our fence back up so our 
two dogs could go out to go to the bathroom," she said.

But those weren't her only challenges. Their air conditioning unit stopped working, and a faulty window on their house just shattered one day, almost as if it sought to test her resolve.

And there was more to come.

One of their two cars broke down on the highway with a fuel injector problem. When it was in the shop, everything of value inside, including a GPS unit, was stolen. Also, while it was still being repaired, Andrea went into labor. As she attempted to drive to the hospital, their second vehicle wouldn't start. While trying to get the engine to turn over, the battery exploded.

"I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. I can't believe this is happening.' It was just one fiasco after another," said Andrea, who was also juggling a full-time job as a design engineer and teaching six aerobics classes at Gold's Gym. "But there was no sense in telling Dave because he couldn't do anything about it, and he would just worry and stress over it."

She simply didn't want him to carry that kind of burden.

"I figured he had enough on his mind and enough to go through," she said.

"I had no idea how much Ande put up with," Golden said. "She's a strong woman -- always has been, always will be."

About a month after the attack, Golden finally got to hug his wife and his 6-week-old daughter, Odessa. They, along with his parents and his squadron commander and director of operations, greeted him at San Antonio International Airport.

"It was funny because I had just been responsible for taking care of a bunch of troops and been in firefights and ambushes, but meeting my daughter for the first time was much more frightening -- I had butterflies in my stomach," he said. "All the other things I was trained to do, but I didn't yet know how to be a father. I didn't know how to change a diaper or fix her milk. I was a nervous wreck."

Still, she received his palpitating heart instantly.

In an October ceremony in the Randolph base theater, Golden received a different kind of heart -- the Purple Heart, a medal bestowed on armed forces members who have been wounded or killed in the service of their country. He also earned the Combat Action Medal for the firefight in which he manned the turret during the ambush.

Golden moved to Naval Air Station Pensacola shortly after the Purple Heart ceremony to help stand up the new combat systems officer school. He is the commander of the aircrew flight equipment shop in the 479th Operation Support Squadron, which is attached to the 479th Flying Training Group.

Golden said he is humbled to garner the Purple Heart.

But it will always be secondary to earning the hearts of his two ladies ... no longer hearts apart.