Photo by Corinne Nicholson
COVINGTON -- A month after he was injured by a suicide bomber, life is returning to normal for Staff Sgt. Marty Brownlee.
He's preparing to coach a fastpitch girls' softball team, a hobby he's enjoyed for years. This week, he planned to visit his fellow officers at the Monticello Police Department. He's settled back in with his wife, Autumn, and their five kids, at their home on the Newton/Jasper/Butts county line. And he's counting the days until his buddies with Newnan-based Bravo Co. 2/121 Infantry of the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Brigade return safely home later this month.
Brownlee left Afghanistan early, after he was wounded by a suicide bomber on Feb. 11. He's had several surgeries for his injuries, but Brownlee knows it could have been much worse. The bomber detonated his device in the doorway of a building where the soldiers were staying -- had he made it a few feet farther into the building, Brownlee believes the damage would have been greater, maybe fatal.
Brownlee suspects the bomber was startled by barking dogs the soldiers had taken in -- an eyewitness reported one of the dogs was biting at the man's ankles -- as well the presence of Sgt. 1st Class Gary Ware, who was walking down the hallway as the bomber entered.
"He may not have expected that. I guess he just freaked out and detonated early," Brownlee said. "If he had been another 4 or 5 feet inside, it would have done some serious damage."
Brownlee had just hung up from a phone conversation with his wife and settled in for the night when he heard the explosion that blew through the steel reinforced door to his room. He looked down to see a piece of metal sticking out of his foot.
"I put my boots on, and that hurt like crap, to put boots on over metal that was stuck in bone," he said.
Initially, the soldiers thought it was a mortar attack. Once they realized it was a suicide bomber, they went into gear to prepare for another attack. Brownlee said suicide bombings often precede a larger attack.
At that point, Brownlee said adrenaline had taken over and though he knew he was injured, he could hardly feel the pain.
"My whole focus was, 'We're getting attacked. I'm not going to be in the medical center if we're getting attacked. I can still move. I'm still in the fight,'" he said.
Another attack never came; it was time to assess the damage. There were six casualties and only one fatality -- one of the stray dogs who had first spotted the bomber. Another dog was wounded but is on the mend.
Ware and Brownlee were the most seriously injured. Ware was hit by shrapnel in the eye and in the heart. Incredibly, he survived and is recovering.
Brownlee was hit in the foot, upper thigh and neck. A photo of his wound looks like a small crater -- the gash in his thigh was about 4 inches long, 2 inches wide and half an inch deep.
Brownlee was transported to several different medical centers where he underwent surgeries for his injuries. Along the way, he met some military top brass -- "They wanted to come see the idiot that survived a suicide bomber," he said with a grin -- and was presented with the Purple Heart.
"That's always been the one award I've tried to avoid getting. My dad was the same way. The Purple Heart is not one we want. I do get a free car tag for the rest of my life though," he said.
Brownlee was reunited with his family at Fort Benning on Feb. 15. It had been seven months since he'd embraced his wife. He came home briefly in August for his father's funeral. Autumn Brownlee said her primary emotion at seeing her husband was relief.
"It was a lot easier on me because I was able to speak to him (after the attack), but it's very scary. It makes you realize what they're doing over there," she said, adding that she was anxious to see for herself the extent of Brownlee's injuries since, "He always says everything's fine ... He's a tough guy."
Brownlee had a hero's welcome home, complete with a parade around the square in downtown Monticello.
He's eager for the day the rest of his unit will get its own celebration. He plans to be there when the unit arrives in Savannah later this month.
"I've got a platoon of kids I promised drinks to," he said.
Brownlee will continue to undergo treatment for his injuries for at least the next year and then may return to duty with the Monticello police. He has no plans to leave the National Guard, which he joined four years ago after a stint in the Army. Afghanistan was Brownlee's third deployment -- he's also served in Bosnia and Iraq.
"My intent was to stay for retirement. As long as they keep me in, I'll stay until I'm retired," he said.
Brownlee asked that anyone interested in supporting soldiers donate to Soldiers' Angels, a nonprofit organization that sends food and other items to deployed and wounded soldiers.
After he was wounded, Brownlee received clothes, blankets and pillows from the organization. The organization has also provided voice activated computers to soldiers who have lost use of their hands, he said.
"They make sure all soldiers are taken care of -- they treat them like kings," he said.
For more information, visit www.soldiersangels.org.