As part of Gaby Dunn’s ‘100 interviews’ project, she wanted to talk to someone who was awarded a Purple Heart. Here’s the story of Brian Scott.
Brian Scott felt uneasy.
Throughout his military career, he’d been taught to follow orders, but something just didn’t feel right. Brian was sitting in the passenger seat of a tank, with a driver beside him and his gunner, Specialist Michael Gonzalez, behind him, through the roof.
Recently, Brian and “Gonzo” had patched up some personal problems regarding Brian’s authority. Gonzalez was just twenty years old, a decade younger than Brian and, the two had only become close after hashing out Gonzalez’s feelings that Brian was treating him unfairly. They’d spent the past week discussing, among deeper topics, Gonzalez’s family, his girlfriend, his post-army goal of joining his local police force.
The row of four tanks, of which Brian’s was second, was headed to the Iraqi police station in East Baghdad where the US forces had been working. Waking up three hours before go-time every morning for weeks, the unit would fuel the tanks and practice emergency maneuvers. The tanks’ route to the police station changed every day because the army feared insurgents tracking the tanks’ routine and planting roadside bombs (IEDs). If they took a road too many times, terrorists could hide explosives along the route.
That morning, about a month and a half into their mission, Brian’s crew took a path they’d taken before, an unusual move for them. They’d gotten side-tracked with some other threats to the base and were in a rush to get to their mission at the police station.
“Too many times,” Brian says of that day’s route, shaking his head.
The tanks were about 300 meters from the police station when Brian heard the first loud blast. Dust covered the vehicle in front of them.
When it settled, Brian could see that the first tank had narrowly missed rolling over an IED. The explosion between Brian’s tank and back of the first kept the rest of the tanks at a standstill, while the people in command figured out what to do. If the tanks didn’t move, they were sitting ducks for snipers or worse. If they did move, they risked rolling over more IEDs hidden nearby.
Brian radioed ahead, calling for the Iraqi police, only five miles away, to come help the tanks.
“They were not doing their jobs,” he says. “They kept telling me they’d be there for help in 5 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes.”
A half hour went by.
Then, the call came over the radio. Brian’s tank was to back up and try to continue on to the station. Brian hesitated. Something in his gut told him that moving was a bad idea. He radioed back that he wasn’t sure. His superiors were insistent. Following army protocol, Brian told his driver to hit the gas and back up.
“I said, ‘Roger, sergeant. I know,’” Brian says. “And I knew. I knew this was a possibility.”
In a moment, the tank exploded. Brian blacked out for 30 seconds. When he came to, it was completely quiet except for a loud buzzing sound in his ears. Brian felt blood on his face and uniform and dust covered the still-upright vehicle. He turned his head and saw Gonzalez lying in the back of the tank. Brian reached out and grabbed his gunner’s wrist, feeling for a pulse. There was none. He lifted Gonzalez’s arm holding it up and dropping it down to see if his friend would react. It fell limp.
“He’s gone,” Brian remembers telling his driver, also injured beside him.
Brian looked around. The windshield of the tank was covered in blood. He couldn’t hear and so he tossed his headset to his driver to call for help. His whole front side was bloodied and he felt shrapnel piercing his skin in several places.
When the medics arrived for him, he remembers them asking about his unmoving gunner. Brian started yelling, “He’s gone!” and he started to cry.
“I lost it,” he says. “That’s when I noticed the shrapnel in my left temple.”
As he was airlifted to the hospital, he says he remembers thinking, “I’m gonna die.”
“I felt like I was going to slip away,” he says.
The helicopter took him to Germany and Brian spent four days there before being taken on a plane to the traumatic brain injury clinic at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. The shrapnel embedded in the bone of his temple was the size of a quarter, he says. He had fractures in his eyes and his lower back was injured. He couldn’t walk.
At 1369 Coffeehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Brian and I talk for a little over four hours. He is a sturdy, but not tall, 31-year-old guy (“Ugh,” he jokes) from the Boston area — Bellingham, Roxbury, South Boston and Charlestown, to be specific. He plays drums in a punk band, describing himself as having lived the “punk lifestyle” as a teenager, moving out of his parents house at 15 and in with friends. His arms are covered in tattoos, most of them commemorating his time in the military — a Purple Heart, a helmet, boots and gun with the name “Gonzo” under it.
Brian had always looked up to people in the army. He joined right out of high school in 1998, after he met a recruiter at a job fair.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” he says. Both of his grandfathers had served in World War II. “They’re the greatest generation. I always did my history reports on that era because they had such a sense of pride in the service. There was more unity back then, in our country, compared to now. Even families were different. Grandparents used to be respected more than anybody.”
“What about your parents?” I ask.
“My parents were hippies,” Brian laughs. “It skipped a generation. All my cousins joined the military and police and fire. We were rebelling rebellion.”
In 1999, Brian started basic training in Ft. Knox, Kentucky as an M1A1 Abrams tank mechanic, the job his initial recruiter had sold him on.
He then spent a year in South Korea in 2000 working on tanks before he was moved to Ft. Riley, Kansas near Kansas State University or as Brian puts it “in the middle of nowhere.”
“It was an anti-culture shock,” he says of going from Korea to Kansas. “My first time away from home was overseas in Asia and there was all that food and language. Everything was taken away in Kansas. By the end, I hated every minute of it.”
But just seven months out of the service, Brian started to miss the army. He was a single guy, working a day job and playing in bands. Not that he didn’t love his freedom, but he craved the service. He decided to join the army reserve, whose commitment was just one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
“You were in Kansas for 9/11,” I say and Brian nods.
“I woke up to the radio and was going back and forth to the TV between tank jobs,” he says. “I watched the second tower fall. I was speechless.”
The attacks also hit close to home because the father of one of Brian’s crew members was killing by falling debris. But more than that, Brian and his unit watched as they went from being in a peacetime army to being in a wartime army all too quickly.
Soon, Brian was in training and traveling in Germany, California, Texas, Wisconsin. He moved up in the ranks from private to specialist to corporal.
Brian was a sergeant by the time his unit received a warning order to deploy to Iraq in 2007. It was Brian’s job as the unit’s superior to call all 14 members and tell them they were going to war.
“People would break down crying because they weren’t expecting it,” Brian says. “I called some of them in the middle of dinner and they’d start crying. Reality really set in for people that this is something that could happen to us. For me, the army was just supposed to be an extra paycheck. It was a shock. I’d been in the army for 10 years by then. But I took a deep breath and I said, ‘This is my time’ and I started zeroing in on what I needed to do.”
Brian’s unit went to Baghdad in March of 2008. The Iraqi police station his tank was headed to the day he was injured was where the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army were working with the US military on security measures. Brian says it was a cooperative environment for the most part but there were the occasional, expected snags. The US army had to get tough on the wayward station commander at times and there was infighting between the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. These miscommunications and lack of willingness to work together is what ultimately led to Brian’s tank exploding en route. He tells me if the Iraqis had made more of an effort to assist after the first IED, his tank would never have had to move.
After Gonzalez’s funeral, Brian says he became close with his gunner’s family, who he still talks to. In Brian’s Walter Reed hospital room before the funeral, President George W. Bush spent 15 minutes with him, giving him a military coin for Gonzalez’s family. That day, at Arlington National Cemetery, was also the first day Brian walked, making his way to Gonzalez’s grave site with the help of a cane.
“When did you know you were getting the Purple Heart?” I ask.
“I knew instantly,” Brian says. “Any injury like that, in battle, you automatically get a Purple Heart.” In Germany, one of the soldiers had laid the medal on Brian’s heaving chest, pinning it to his hospital gown. He officially received the Purple Heart later, in a ceremony with two other soldiers in an auditorium at Walter Reed.
“It was really strange and humbling,” he says of the ceremony. “It’s the only medal you don’t want,” he pauses, looking down for a moment. “It’s weird because no one wants to congratulate you since you were wounded. It’s bittersweet.”
“Because of Gonzalez?” I ask gently.
Brian nods, “It was really uncomfortable because he lost his life. I don’t care about me. I want to honor him. I mean, there were guys at Walter Reed that lost their arms and legs and I was getting a medal?” He leans forward on his elbows and speaks clearly, “There was a guy who had no limbs and I’d go outside and light his cigarette for him. It was tough talking to these guys sometimes. He would say, ‘I’d use to be a player. What am I going to do?’ I’d say, ‘Someone’s gonna love you for you.’”
A week after Brian and I did this interview, I woke up to the news that my grandfather had passed away. A diligent doctor his whole life, he’d enlisted in the medic corp during both World War II and Korea.
My grandfather was not a boastful person and so he never talked about his time in the military, but at his funeral last Tuesday, the army showed up to do full honors.
My father had called only the day before to make the request, but when we got to the cemetery, there they were; three tall, serious men in military dress to lay a flag over my grandfather’s casket and fold it according to military protocol. On bended knee, one of the men presented the flag to my tearful grandmother, thanking her for the service of her loved one. The ceremony brought even more tears to my own eyes. It all seemed so honorable and dignified. I imagined my grandfather would have been beyond proud.
That week, Brian messages me on Facebook to tell me how much he enjoyed being interviewed. I reiterate something I’d said when we met: that if we’d become friends any other way, I would have thought it taboo to ask what had happened to him overseas, but since we did the interview, it gave him a chance to speak about something most people would be on eggshells about.
I tell him what happened to my grandfather and described the military honors to him, unsure if he even cares. I mention it made me think of him and my other “military interviewees” of which I include Joe, Daryl and Frank.
I was raised in a liberal family and grew up pretty sheltered. If I didn’t seek them out, I might never know anyone who was fighting for our country right now.
But the other part of this project is just to encourage people to talk to one another. Would it be seen as uncouth to ask Brian, if I were just a regular friend, about what led to him receiving a Purple Heart? Probably. But does pretending it never happened to someone you care about make it any better for either of you? How often do we ignore the ugly facts about the people around us because it’d be too “weird” to talk about it? Why don’t we talkabout it?
From his jacket pocket, Brian pulls out the actual medal he received at Walter Reed that day. I hold it delicately as I’ve never touched a Purple Heart before.
“I also hadn’t held one before but I looked up everything once I got it,” he smiles. “It was created by George Washington for merit in the Revolutionary War and it was called the Badge of Merit. Then, it became a medal for wounded soldiers in World War II and look,” he shows me, “it has the Washington family crest.”
It really is beautiful, and heavier than I expected. I flip the medal over in my hand.
“Do you have any residual…problems from what happened?” I ask. None seem outwardly apparent.
“Well, I found out the shrapnel was a centimeter away from killing me instantly,” Brian says. “I have word retrieval issues. It’s hard to notice it if you’re not me. But I stutter every once in a while and I go to speech therapy.” He explains that his speech patterns are also different since the explosion, and the effect on his brain seems to really bother him.
He tells me he also joined a post-traumatic stress disorder group since it’s the number one problem for members of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says some other lasting effects have been back pain and a bizarre hyper-vigilance. Brian says he had a hard time settling back into civilian life. So hard, in fact, that he as soon as he was released from medical hold in 2009, he enlisted back in the army reserve unit for another three years.
“I’m deploy-able,” he says. He had a warning to go back to Iraq in the past year but it was rescinded. “I am in the process of becoming a drill sergeant or a recruiter, something more stable where I can’t be deployed.”
At one point, Brian refers to his relationship to the military as “addicting.” I don’t contain my surprise at his decision to reenlist despite everything that happened to him overseas. Brian’s pride in his unit is more than apparent, but obviously, he isn’t unaffected by his gunner’s death.
Every Memorial Day, Brian tells me, he goes to Arlington National Cemetery and puts two medals, a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star (awarded for bravery), on Gonzalez’s grave.
See the complete list of Gaby Dunn’s 100 interviews here.