Local 2904 Firefighter Michael Kiernan injured in Afghanistan
Sniper's bullet spurs acts of bravery
By KIMBERLY HOUGHTON
Union Leader Correspondent
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Kiernan, who is recovering from a gunshot wound at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says it is his sense humor that has helped him get through a traumatic, yet strangely odd combat experience.
He even smiled when he was wheeled out of an ambush zone in an Afghani villager's wheelbarrow.
The platoon sergeant with Charlie Company had to leave Afghanistan a month early after a sniper hit him in the foot on Sept. 25 during a dismounted patrol operation. By telephone last week, Kiernan, of Merrimack, shared his unique story.
Kiernan said he and his men were forced to leave their vehicle behind and travel on foot during a joint operation with the Afghan National Army.
"We were doing a presence patrol, which shows the enemy that; Hey, we are here and we are not afraid of you,'" he said.
Merrimack firefighter Mike Kiernan was shot in the foot last month while on patrol in Afghanistan. He is now recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The New Hampshire soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, were analyzing previous ambush sites with the ANA when a sniper took fire on the group.
The crew's radio transmission operator stood up and took one or two shots under his arm, which was protected by a bullet-proof vest, according to Kiernan. Before the platoon had time to react to the situation, Kiernan said, he heard a "sonic crack," and a bullet instantly penetrated his left foot.
"I tried in my head to process it," Kiernan said. "I finally said out loud, 'I think I've just been shot,' and then I went down." Kiernan, a 39-year-old Merrimack firefighter, was carrying nearly 30 pounds of equipment, and was still in enemy fire when his fellow soldiers dragged him to a more protected area. In charge of the squad for the day, Kiernan temporarily removed his boot and performed a quick assessment of his injury before sending his men out to find the sniper.
The bullet, believed to be from a Dragunov Russian sniper rifle, entered the left side of Kiernan's foot, split his heel bone in half and then exited the other side.
"It was a clean shot, but I was definitely alert and conscious," he said. "I refused to take any meds because I wanted to keep my head straight and make good decisions. I was still in charge."
Kiernan's fellow soldiers took turns trying to carry him to cover, but the sergeant said the squad was struggling and needed another plan. His men pleaded with him to send for a medivac helicopter, but Kiernan said he wasn't going to give the sniper the satisfaction of knowing he was hit.
"It was a dangerous situation because we hadn't found the sniper yet, so it would have been considered a hot landing zone," said Kiernan. "I knew it was bad, and the pain was just unbelievable."
Soldier Dustin Rogers of Keene came up with an unusual escape plan. With just $10 in his pocket, Rogers was able to purchase a wheelbarrow from a villager that was then used to wheel Kiernan to safety.
"I had to laugh a little, or I would have gone crazy. It was pretty creative. I think I told the guys, 'I don't really remember learning this in our training,' and it was actually kind of funny, even at the moment," he said.
While Kiernan was being wheeled to a mine roller truck for pickup, the platoon was delayed when an improvised explosive device blocked the roadway.
A member of the ANA put his own life in danger and dug it up by hand so that Kiernan could seek medical attention, according to Kiernan. After being loaded on the truck, he said, it took more than three hours until he was able to receive medical care.
Then, he was flown by helicopter from Gardez to Salerno, where a trauma hospital is located.
There, X-rays determined that the bullet split the heel bone of his foot into his ankle. He was then taken to Bagram Airfield before being flown to Longstool Germany. Then, he finally arrived at Walter Reed on Oct. 1, several days after the shooting.
He has undergone four surgeries to help clean, stabilize and reconnect the bone, and is now wearing his sixth cast, which goes up to his knee.
"I can't walk on it at all. I'd hate to say that I would cry, but I know I'd cry," he said. Kiernan hopes to have his cast removed in a few weeks, and then expects about three months of recovery and rehabilitation before being able to walk again.
Kiernan is optimistic that some of his rehabilitation can be done at home in the coming weeks, adding he is eager to return to New Hampshire and go back to working at the fire station.
His wife, Cynthia, has been assigned as a non-medical assistant at Walter Reed, and hasn't left her husband's side since the accident.
"We are so fortunate. Many soldiers here have lost legs or arms, or both. We are really, really blessed," she said by telephone.
Cynthia Kiernan says her husband is in good spirits, and is recovering well.
She is helping him get to all of his medical appointments, monitoring his pain and reminding him to take his medications.
"She is the strong one, and she is the one that keeps me in line," Kiernan said of his wife of 12 years.
Kiernan admits that his life is often dramatic and that this shooting was no exception. He says he has a tendency to gravitate toward danger, as he was a logger for many years before becoming a firefighter and enrolling in the Army.
"All three of my jobs require a helmet. Maybe I am stupid, or maybe I just need to have things crazy in my life," he said.
Either way, the sniper attack on Kiernan was caught on film, as one of his men was able to capture the moment of him being wheeled to safety -- in that $10 wheelbarrow -- on camera.
The photograph now hangs on a bulletin board at the Merrimack Fire Department's headquarters.
Two other Merrimack firefighters are now in Afghanistan, including U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Marsella, an infantryman, and U.S. Army Capt. Dan L. Newman, a company commander.