A soldier's tale: Wounded in Iraq, struggling for a life

Miami HeraldJuly 12, 2008 

Victor Dominguez, burned over 82 percent of his body, said of his six-year-old son: 'I want him to always be able to count on his dad.'

JON VANBEEKUM / MIAMI HERALD

MIAMI &mdash: Staff Sgt. Victor Dominguez sat topside in the cramped turret of the Bradley, his men below bathed in the weak green glow of the instrument panel, the outside dead black, like most of Iraq at night.

His vehicle and the one behind drove slowly on this bad stretch of road in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. They were trying to draw enemy fire. In theory, the tank-like Bradleys' armor would absorb the hits, and the shooter, having revealed his position, would find himself on the receiving end of 400 high-explosive rounds a minute.

There was another reason they kept it slow: Any faster and they'd miss the seemingly random pile of litter that might conceal an improvised explosive device.

What Dominguez, a gifted soldier from Homestead, Fla., couldn't know was that just such a device lay a few hundred yards ahead, buried inches below the road.

It consisted of a battery, two barely separated wires for a trigger, and three antitank mines nestled in four monster artillery rounds, each about six inches wide and three feet long.

It was not yet midnight, July 13, 2006, and Dominguez was headed for hell at 25 miles per hour.

It had been a bad month: car bombs, small-arms fire, improvised explosive devices. ''It was just nonstop fighting, nonstop people getting hurt,'' said Gary Mette, who was commanding the Bradley behind Dominguez's.

But this mission was going well. The Bradleys had just inserted an eight-man hunter-killer team, already vanished into the darkness; soon they'd head back to base.

Dominguez was monitoring chatter over the company frequency. He spoke an occasional quiet word to his men. Garcia, his medic, was in back; Turner, his gunner, scanned the roadside on the thermal sight; Sigsbee, his driver, concentrated on the road.

Dominguez had promised himself that he wouldn't get close to these men. He had lost men before, and he didn't ever want to feel loss like that again. But after months in Iraq, he knew about kids, girlfriends, beloved motorcycles, money-making schemes and plans for the future. Life was getting in the way of his promise.

THE GOLDEN CHILD

He was good at this job, had been from the start. In boot camp, they called him the Golden Child. He ran the two-mile in 12:02, did 108 push-ups in two minutes, 30 pull-ups. He already knew how to drill, how to address an officer. He didn't just get by. He ate it up.

The nickname stuck through his first tour in Iraq and the elite Army Ranger School. He ate that up, too.

Before the Golden Child was golden, he was a B and C student at South Dade Senior High, the sort of kid who worked just hard enough to get by.

He drove to school in a fancy new pickup. His dad was the service manager at a car dealership; they lived in an upscale Homestead subdivision.

He was a bit of a wiseacre, which endeared him to girls but not to teachers of either gender. He was handsome and knew it -- vain about his strong-jawed face, his physical prowess, his style. He always wore a collared shirt, tucked in, or his Junior ROTC uniform.

ROTC was the one school activity he took seriously. He knew where he was going after high school, and it wasn't college or a job at a desk. He had known probably since first grade in Puerto Rico, when he saw his cousins in their military-school uniforms: He wanted to be a soldier and nothing else.

THE UNEXPECTED

In the Bradley turret, Dominguez picked up the hand-mic. ''All right,'' he started to say. ``Let's turn around and go home.''

Ooomph! was all he heard.

The weight of the Bradley pressed the explosive device's trigger wires together, completing the detonation circuit. The mines and the artillery rounds blasted straight up into the vehicle's underbelly.

The 25-ton Bradley rocked. Its fuel tank exploded, and a 20-foot fireball shot up into the black Iraqi sky.

Dominguez thought he saw the fire coming up through the Bradley's floor between him and Turner. Then for a while he saw nothing. He and Turner had been blasted out onto the road, coated in burning diesel fuel.

THE OTHER VEHICLE

Fifty yards back, Mette saw the fire and the inky diesel smoke rising. The Bradley was engulfed. He followed procedure and attempted to radio the burning vehicle.

No answer.

Disabled and sitting in the middle of the road, Dominguez's Bradley was a prime target for a secondary ambush. Mette had to respond deliberately or risk endangering his team as well.

He got on the company frequency and asked for everything he could get: the quick-reaction team from base, the hunter-killer team that had just been deployed, two Apache helicopters for firepower and two Black Hawk helicopters for immediate evacuation.

Then he ordered his Bradley forward, as close as possible to Dominguez's, to provide cover.

Something horrible was happening.

Turner, burning, stumbled into a roadside canal to extinguish his flames.

Dominguez was on fire on the side of the road, rolling on the ground.

Swaths of his skin dried, then ignited, layer by layer, down to the subcutaneous fat. Parts of his left foot burned down to the bone.

His Kevlar body armor was melting to his chest. His boots were melting to his feet. His fatigues were burned off. He reached for the pistol he kept in a shoulder holster, but his hand was too badly burned to grab it.

He didn't stop burning until his men covered him with a fire blanket. By the time Mette saw him, he was charred black.

Very little can be done for burn victims in the field, especially if the only qualified medic is injured, as Garcia was. You cover them with something clean to stave off hypothermia. You talk to them, to keep them conscious and alert. Then you wait.

It took 20 minutes for the medics to arrive and a few more minutes to ready the wounded for take-off.

EVACUATION BY AIR

In the helicopter, dosed with morphine, Dominguez lost consciousness. He was taken to a field hospital, stabilized, and flown on to a military base in Germany.

Turner didn't make it. Thomas Turner Jr. was 31, from the small northern California town of Cottonwood. He had recently sold his family's trucking business and enrolled at college to study political science and international relations. He left a wife and two young children.

A CALL IN THE NIGHT

"Is Victor OK?"

Dominguez's father, Tony Aponte, knew the answer even as he asked. His son's captain was calling in the middle of the night from the other side of the world. In no way was Victor Dominguez OK.

"There was an accident." the voice on the telephone said. "He's OK, he's alive, but he's in very critical condition."

Dominguez, 22 years old, was burned on 82 percent of his body.

When Aponte and his ex-wife Ivonne Dominguez saw their son, it was in the intensive-care unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, at 2 in the morning, two days after the attack. He was under a heat lamp, comatose and breathing through a ventilator.

Most of his body was covered with bandages, and the parts of him they could see were charred. His left ear was gone, and part of his lower lip, and parts of his eyelids, and parts of his legs. His left foot was burned down to the bone. Fluid had leaked into the burned tissue, causing his limbs and face to swell so badly that his skin had to be cut to relieve the pressure.

His face looked, Aponte would recall, "like a big balloon. . . . I didn't recognize my son."

He knew him by his toes. "He didn't have no shoes," Aponte said. "And I know those little toes."

It was days before Dominguez was conscious, weeks before he was lucid, months before he left the ICU.

He couldn't use his left hand and he could barely walk. Ivonne got a transfer to Texas from her Transportation Security Administration job in Fort Myers and moved into a room on the hospital grounds. She showed up most days to help her son wash, or to change his wound dressings.

"I'd never seen so many amputees, so many badly burnt people," she said.

After he emerged from the coma, Dominguez underwent two operations a week for six months. There were more after that, at longer intervals. In all, he would spend nearly two years at Brooke, with more operations to follow after he got out.

Diazepam, tramadol, gabapentin, hydrocodone: He took drugs for the baseline pain that never left and for the acute pain after each skin graft. When his dressings were changed, or dead skin was scrubbed off and the pain became unbearable, he sucked on a fentanyl lollipop, a sweetened lozenge on a stick that delivers an opioid 80 times more powerful than morphine.

He took antibiotics to kill the bacteria that attacked his mostly skinless body, a drug to clear blood clots, another to soften his stool. He took drugs to kill the anxiety and nightmares and put him to sleep, and one to prevent stomach ulcers from all the drugs he was taking.

Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, he would tense and give orders to men who weren't there.

"Move that truck!" he shouted once. "Mom? What are you doing here?"

The best thing to do when he got like this was to talk to him.

"Hey, you're here," Ivonne would say. "You're here with us."

And then, in a while, he was. Only he wasn't sure he wanted to be.

A SENSE OF MISSION

When an Army Ranger is in pain, he touches the Ranger patch on his left shoulder and keeps going. The mission — whatever it is — takes priority.

But by Christmas 2006, Dominguez could go no further. He weighed little more than 90 pounds. The only solid food he could eat was ramen, and he usually vomited the noodles up within minutes. Still, he wanted to get out of the hospital.

"I was begging, begging them to let me out," he said. They did. He lasted a week before the doctors persuaded him to return.

He ran through the attack constantly in his mind — the last few seconds, the last 20 feet. "What if we'd turned just a bit sooner?"

"At least you're alive," people told him. "It could have been worse."

They meant well but made him want to scream. How could they know? The only people who could even come close to knowing were laid out on painkillers next to him. Or they were still in Iraq, still fighting, still dying.

Dominguez had never felt so alone.

He had a failed marriage and a 4-year-old son, Victor Jr., he hadn't seen since his deployment in 2005. It wasn't the right time when Dominguez was fading in and out of consciousness. And Dominguez didn't want to see him now. Not when he looked like this.

Shortly before the attack, Dominguez had become involved with someone new. He loved her, but he was quickly, helplessly driving her away. They had known each other since high school and had gotten together when he was on leave in the spring of 2006. Things moved lightning-fast.

She had stuck with him after the attack — not all of them do — and they planned to marry at the old Versace mansion in Miami Beach.

And now it was going bad. Maybe she didn't want to live with a badly burned man. Gladys Velez, his best friend, thought that.

SELF-DOUBT SETS IN

Dominguez had a different take. It was his fault, he felt; they might still be together, but he got jealous, angry, suspicious. They argued.

"I was unsure of myself, ashamed of the way I looked," he said. "People always used to tell us we were a good-looking couple. After a while, I wondered why this girl who was so beautiful was still with me. I had no confidence. It was all gone, like ripped out of me. That caused a lot of problems for us."

She still lives in South Florida; he asked that her name not be used.

The breakup came last fall, a year and a half after Dominguez's injury, when he was still hospitalized. In some ways, he took it worse than the attack.

"He used to call me at 2, 3 in the morning, crying like crazy," his father said. "I was afraid because of the way he talked to me. I was very, very afraid he was going to kill himself. Because he was madly in love with her."

Aponte told his son what any father would: "It's going to take some time, Victor, a little time, maybe a lot of time, but it's going to be over. You're going to get over it. And you still have us."

At the time, it sounded hollow. Dominguez was angry at the world, at God, at whoever or whatever it was that allowed Turner to die and kept him living like this: "Why did I make it and he didn't? He was still married. He had a happy marriage. He didn't get to enjoy any time with his son."

And what about him? He didn't have the woman he loved, and he wasn't the father he wanted to be. How could he be? He'd spent years in a desert on the other side of the world, and now that he was back, he was . . . this.

How was he ever going to play with his son, or teach him anything? What kind of father could he be? He was angry at himself, his crying and his weakness. He stopped talking for weeks.

"When is this going to get better?" he wondered.

But it did, bit by bit. He stood up without help. He washed himself. He cooked a meal. Simple actions turned powerful. It was like touching the Ranger patch. He kept going.

BACK ON HIS FEET

In March of last year, Dominguez walked unassisted for the first time since the attack. It was at Brooke Army Medical Center, after a long night at a recognition ceremony with his parents.

"My dad was on my left, my mom was on my right," Dominguez said. "I was holding on to their shoulders. By the time I got to the door, I was only holding on to my dad. I took those last five steps on my own and flopped down on my bed."

That same month, he saw Victor Jr. — Little Victor, people call him — for the first time in more than a year. It was in a Starbucks at the San Antonio airport.

"I was worried he wouldn't recognize me because I knew I didn't look the same," he said. "And I didn't want him to be scared of me."

Dominguez waited in his wheelchair, so nervous that he was almost shaking.

"He walked up to me and said, 'Papi, you got burned bad.' I said, 'Yeah, baby.' "

Dominguez had been waiting for this, prayed for it, even, the first real prayer of his life.

"I love you," Little Victor said.

PLASTIC SURGERY

One day this spring, Dominguez put on his prosthetic ear and drove himself to the plastic surgeon's office. "I brought some pictures of me before, the way I looked before this happened," he said.

Seth Thaller, chief plastic surgeon at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, shuffled through the pictures. They showed Dominguez in Iraq, scowling for the camera, head shaved, jaw rectangular. Thaller called in an associate, Rajiv Iyer, who had served in the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Balad, not far from where Dominguez and his men were injured. They had passed through the field hospital where Iyer served.

"You might have worked on them: Sigsbee, Turner," Dominguez said. Iyer might have worked on Dominguez, for that matter. But Iyer wasn't sure. He had worked on a lot of people.

"I don't expect you to remember me," Dominguez said. "When we're burned, we all look the same."

When the chitchat was done, Thaller asked Dominguez what he wanted fixed. "The lip is a priority," Dominguez said. "And the rest of the face."

The lower lip was swollen fat. The right side was OK, but the left cheek and temple were finely pitted.

"I wonder if you could take a sander to my face, smooth it out like the right," he said. Also the scar on his chin, the partially reconstructed nose, the bald spot around the scar on the back of his skull.

Iyer leaned in so he could see the texture of the skin on the left side of Dominguez's face. "It's not that bad," he said. "But if you're conscious of it . . . ."

"I'm very conscious of it," Dominguez said.

Thaller told Dominguez to take his clothes off. Dominguez did and sat back in the examination chair, legs spread, arms at his side, while the doctors moved around him, talking about tissue expanders and prefab skin.

The Army surgeons had done a good job, but there was more work to be done, and it couldn't be done all at once, or even fast. It would be frustratingly slow and frequently interrupted because there wasn't enough tissue left for the surgeons to shape.

"This is going to be years," Thaller said, and Dominguez nodded.

FATHER AND SON

Summer has come. Six-year-old Little Victor is spending it with Big Victor in Homestead. Dominguez is no longer in the Army. He will never again be Staff Sgt. Victor Dominguez, Airborne Army Ranger, and that hurts. Maybe it always will.

He still loves the woman he came close to marrying. But she has moved on. He's OK with that.

He's not going to date anyone for a while. For this summer, at least, he's just going to be Dad. Dad has signed Little Victor up for sports camp and karate lessons, which is great except that Dad practically has a heart attack whenever Little Victor stubs his toe. Dad sneaks cigarettes on the porch and thinks Little Victor has no inkling. He doesn't curse around him, and hopes Little Victor won't ever.

"I don't want him to ever think his dad isn't a good person," Dominguez said. "I want him to always be able to count on his dad, think his dad is a respectable man. Because that's what I want him to grow up to be."

TIME FOR PLAY

There will be more surgeries, but he has put them off for the rest of the summer so he can spend more time with Little Victor.

Little Victor wants to play. He gets the short foam bat from his room, digs the big foam ball out from under the couch. He is wearing blue jeans, Air Jordans and a T-shirt; Dominguez is dressed much the same. The street outside is empty.

"Remember how to hold the bat? Show me. Elbows up, and turn your foot."

Little Victor doesn't pivot as hard as Dad would like. He chases pitches and swings wildly. But Dad tells him to tighten up a little, and it works: He smacks a drive that bounces and rolls into the neighbor's yard.

"Papi!" he shouts, and Dad gives him a cheer before limping off to get the ball.

It has been raining, and there are puddles on the street. But the sky has cleared, and there's macaroni and cheese for lunch. It looks as if it's going to be a pretty good day, actually.

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