BAGHDAD, Iraq—Taylor Burk's friends told him over and over again: Don't come back. You've bled enough for your country. You've got nothing to prove.
But the 21-year-old medic from Amarillo, Texas, couldn't stand being away from his brothers-in-arms. So even though the gunshot wound he suffered while he was saving another soldier's life sometimes made walking painful, he pushed to leave Fort Hood in Texas and return to his unit in Iraq. When he got there, he finagled his way out of a headquarters job and into a front-line company.
Last Wednesday, Spc. Burk was driving the third Humvee in a three-vehicle convoy in southwest Baghdad when a powerful roadside bomb made from a 155 mm artillery shell exploded next to his armored Humvee.
A small piece of shrapnel ripped into him under his collarbone and severed major blood vessels, killing him, other soldiers were told. Two other men were seriously wounded—one hit in the head by shrapnel, the other with a broken arm. They'd been returning to their base from a routine patrol.
It was unclear how the shell had been detonated. The convoy was carrying a device designed to jam radio-detonated bombs, but the machines aren't foolproof. Neither is the armor on even the most heavily armored Humvees, the kind Burk was in.
His death was shattering for the soldiers in his battalion.
"We've got people who made it their mission not to leave this (base)," said Burk's squad leader, Sgt. Andrew Wintz, 40, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. "We've got people who went home on leave and never came back. He took a bullet and he came back.
"I want people to know that he was proud of what he did. He was proud of being a combat medic."
Burk was good at it, too. On April 4, during one of his first missions in Baghdad with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, which is part of the 1st Cavalry Division, a soldier in his Humvee was shot in the face and thigh during an ambush.
The shot to Pvt. Joseph Bridges' thigh hit an artery. Burk had begun to tie a tourniquet around it when he was hit by a rifle round that took a chunk out of his heel.
He kept treating his patient all the way to the combat hospital.
Bridges survived and is now in the United States.
Burk, too, was sent home to recover. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. When he was well enough to work, he was sent to his unit's base at Fort Hood, where he was given a rear echelon job.
He spent a lot of time chatting online with his buddies in Iraq. Almost immediately, he began pushing to get back to Baghdad.
"He said, `Hey, I didn't join the Army to cut grass,'" Wintz said. "`I joined the Army to be a combat medic.'"
When he returned to Iraq, Burk was given a job at battalion headquarters, one that didn't require him to leave the base often. That didn't suit him.
When a medic from Alpha Company was wounded, he begged to take that spot. He knew it would mean near-daily patrols into Baghdad's Doura district, where roadside bombs and small-arms attacks are routine.
"I would tell him all the time, you're a better man than me," said his roommate, Spc. Lamart Brown, 21, of Goldsboro, N.C.
Most of his fellow soldiers disagreed with Burk's decision to return to Iraq. But they were glad to have him around.
"When he came into the room, even if he was in a bad mood, he'd have you laughing and joking around," said a close friend, Pvt. Kirk Kelley, 24, of Nacogdoches, Texas.
Burk was a little nervous in his first few missions after he returned, but he settled quickly back into the routine, soldiers said. He didn't have occasion to treat another wounded American, but he treated plenty of Iraqis, they added. Army field medics in Iraq are constantly being beseeched by ailing civilians who can't find help in Iraq's decrepit health care system.
Like many soldiers, Burk wasn't sure whether the American mission in Iraq was succeeding, friends said. What he knew was that he wanted to be there to help his comrades.
Two nights before he died, Burk was sitting with a group of medics who were planning a post-deployment adventure. The unit is scheduled to leave Iraq in a month.
"He was talking about how he'd never been hunting, and we were talking about doing that when we got back," said Sgt. Bryan Hayes, 32, of Haughton, La.
"He was a great guy."
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-MEDIC