ST. LOUIS (NNPA) - The soldiers saw a flash, and then heavy smoke began to fill the tank. Through the fog, Aaron Johnson, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, looked around at his squad of seven soldiers, who were on a standard patrol in Iraq. Several were bleeding, and his gunner was the worst of all. Johnson feared he was dead.
Johnson, the squad leader, and others began to tie a tourniquet around the man's leg to stop the bleeding. Though they couldn't save his leg, they did save the soldier's life.
On November 19, all seven men were awarded the Purple Heart, a badge of military merit for those wounded or killed in combat.
Johnson's mother, Kathryn Hall, flew from St. Louis to the ceremony in Hawaii, where her son is stationed. At the award ceremony, Johnson's mother pinned the Purple Heart onto his uniform.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Taylor, also from St. Louis, was in the tank with Johnson and also received the Purple Heart that day.
The Purple Heart dates back to 1782, when George Washington gave medals to three soldiers who served with him.
"My family is proud of me, but as a soldier, it's an award you really don't want," Johnson said. "The Purple Heart comes with so many different sacrifices."
Johnson has been in the U.S. Army for 13 years. He started off as a parachuter stationed out of North Carolina, and then worked as a recruitment officer in Florissant for five years. After being stationed in Hawaii, he was deployed to Iraq for a 12-month tour in October 2008.
On Jan. 7, 2009, his vehicle was hit with a RKG, an anti-tank grenade.
His squad was on a patrol at 12:30 p.m., driving down the street in a four-vehicle convoy. His vehicle was the last one in the line. When his vehicle made the U-turn, someone tossed a grenade, he said.
"Through my military training, I immediately started calling up my casualty report to my leaders that were in the other vehicles," he said. "It all happened so fast."
When Johnson looked up, he saw the team's gunner was not responsive and covered in blood.
Among the combat fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most common causes of death have been bleeding from arms or legs that have been smashed or explosively amputated.
Since 2005, the Army's new recruits have received training in basic trauma medicine to control bleeding and clear the breathing passage of wounded soldiers.
The gunner had lost 70 percent of his blood. One of the vehicles in Johnson's platoon came back with security to get the most seriously injured man out.
At the time, Johnson didn't realize that his own arm also had shrapnel wounds.
"As a leader, you are trained to take care of your soldiers," he said. "I didn't have a clue that I was also hit."
Another vehicle towed the tank back to the base. Someone had to steer, so Johnson took the place of the wounded driver. After about 20 minutes they made it back to the base, where doctors cared for the soldiers.
"In my mind, everything happened in five minutes," he said.
"One thing about being deployed oversees in Iraq and Afghanistan, you don't know what's going to be happening. You have to be prepared for anything at a moment's notice."
A natural leader
Johnson said it was the most difficult situation he has experienced in the Army. Seeing the soldier lose his leg was particularly hard on him.
"I just want to continue to be a good leader and have my soldiers depend on me through any situation," he said. "That's my goal."
Johnson didn't really know much about the Army before he joined, he said. At the time, he was enrolled in St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. Johnson didn't think he would keep his focus if he stayed in St. Louis so he decided to take another route.
Early on, one of his commanders told him that he was a natural leader.
"The Army refined those leadership attributes to help me become a better leader, not only in the U.S. Army but as a husband, a father and a son," he said.
Johnson has five children: Aariona, 15, Alexus, 12, Haley, 9, Kayla, 5 and Aaron, 3. They all live in Hawaii with him and his wife, LaCresha. Johnson plans on completing 20 years in the Army to make a full career.
As a leader, Johnson said that "you have to understand where you came from." There are certain mistakes people will make, and leaders have to empathize. The job of a leader is to train the soldiers to take a leadership role themselves one day.
When soldiers thank him, Johnson tells them to thank him by doing the same thing for other soldiers when they become leaders.
"Whether they stay in the army for three years or make a career out of it, it will help the whole world," he said. "For the leadership attributes that they learn in the army, they will take with them."