12 August, 2007

Another Unknown Hero

Last weekend in San Antonio I had the honor of meeting a bona fide hero (and new Valour-IT recipient), Private First Class Matthew Zajak, U.S. Army Infantry. A typically unassuming soldier no older than perhaps 20 years of age, he had to be prompted to tell his story, which he did in an interview that will be broadcast later this month.

In May 2007, PFC Zajak had been in the army only a year and a half when he spotted an IED (likely remote-controlled) just moments before the Humvee he was driving would pass it. It was too late to avoid it, but Zajak thought fast. Knowing he had a bit more reinforcement on the driver's side, he quickly maneuvered the vehicle in an attempt to pass the IED on his own side.

He was only partially successful...

The IED exploded half underneath PFC Zajak and half alongside the Humvee. The vehicle emptied as the rest of the occupants immediately took up ambush-response positions, but Zajak laid partially outside the Humvee, severely wounded. He described his reactions: "I looked for my leg and I couldn't see the end of it trapped in the vehicle. Uh-oh, that's not good. I lifted up my right arm and the wrist was flopping around, bleeding. Oooh, that's REALLY not good!" In San Antonio, he recounted this with a voice of detached surprise, inducing laughter in his listeners.

As he laid there in Iraq, he realized he was bleeding out, but initially called to no one. "With an ambush, I didn't want anyone else getting hurt rescuing me. But then I noticed the vehicle was on fire and I didn't want it to blow up on everyone again."

Young PFC Zajak was soon rescued and shipped home. Today he is missing his right foot and his left leg above the knee. His hands are also severely damaged, and he currently sports an external fixator that extends from his right forearm into the middle of the back of his hand. "It's jelly in there," he says of his right palm/wrist.

But thanks to PFC Zajak's sacrificial driving, the other occupants of that Humvee walked away with minor scratches/bruises and concussions, and returned to duty. His actions are now being investigated with an eye to awarding a valorous medal.

When I met PFC Zajak last weekend, he was only three weeks removed from his hospital room (staying as an outpatient at one of the Fisher Houses). His extended hospital stay was obvious in his gaunt look, but not in his upbeat demeanor and the vigor with which he tackled everything he did.

On a whim, a Soldiers' Angel and musician (Jeff Bader) had brought a guitar with him to give to someone at the BAMC party. After meeting Zajak, Jeff knew exactly who should receive it. PFC Zajak's eyes just about popped out of his head when he saw the instrument. But even more touching was the joy on the face of his father, who stared with pride at his son's scarred fingers picking clumsily at the strings.

The young man took to it like a duck to water, commenting with enthusiasm that he used to know some guitar chords, "Now I have to learn them again." He father added that guitar playing would help improve the dexterity of his mangled fingers. Zajak replied with a grin, "Yup. I have a project. Gotta get healed enough to play this thing!"

He spent the rest of the party telling his friends about the guitar, and I never saw him take his hands off it the entire time he was there.

And what does PFC Zajak say about his injuries? He's excited to be receiving prosthetics soon. "I'll be getting those computerized legs, like Robocop," he explains with a grin. "It's just different. No big deal. I'll be able to walk again, use this hand again [he waves the fixator].... Yeah, I lost my legs. But nobody got killed. That's what's important."

[PFC Zajak's quotes are from notes/memory. I will link to the interview when it is broadcast later this month, and I'm awaiting some photos of him playing his guitar.]