September 13, 2009 — Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan - The soldiers in his New York-based combat unit call Staff Sgt. Brandon Camacho the "Bullet Magnet."
Camacho - either the luckiest or unluckiest soldier in Afghanistan - is on his second tour here with the Fort Drum-based 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
The reason for the nickname: He's just earned his fifth Purple Heart after being shot in the left knee in a firefight 100 miles south of Kabul, military officials said.
"One of my friends said, 'You're the luckiest unlucky person I know,'" said Camacho, 24, who grew up in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. "I don't know what to make of it."
Purple Hearts are awarded to soldiers wounded or killed in combat. It is the oldest of U.S. military decorations and was established by Gen. George Washington with an order from his upstate Newburgh headquarters on Aug. 7, 1782.
Washington wrote: "Let it be known that he who wears the military order of the Purple Heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen."
So, by Gen. Washington's standards, Camacho has earned reverence five times over.
Military officials could not immediately confirm if Camacho's five Purple Hearts were the most awarded to an individual since 9/11 for service in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they were in awe of his achievement.
If anybody else has five, "it would be an extreme rarity," a Pentagon spokesman said. Several soldiers and Marines earned eight Purple Hearts for service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Camacho's first Purple Heart came in 2004, after he was hit by shrapnel in the left knee when a mortar round hit his outpost in Iraq.
His second was earned two years later in Afghanistan. A bullet grazed his left knuckles as he peeked around a corner during a firefight. A few months later, he was hit in the left shoulder by a tracer round.
Camacho returned to Afghanistan in December. In May, he was again shot in the left shoulder, just inches from the last shot, during a close-range firefight in a wheat field.
"I lost a lot of blood," he said. "It missed my bone by a half inch."
On Sept. 8, Camacho was out on a recovery mission after two Apaches took out several insurgents who had attacked a local government center.
"We heard voices and I took a peek around the corner and a guy popped out about 5 feet in front of me," he said.
A round ricocheted and hit him in the left knee, not far from his earlier shrapnel wound.
"I don't know why it's always my left side," he said, laughing.
Retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, who served in Vietnam, said Camacho's dedication was emblematic of the valor and resilience of the new generation of soldiers and Marines.
"I'm amazed and humbled by how good these soldiers are," said Killebrew, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "Their equipment is wearing out, they're tired, but their resolve and courage just get stronger."
As for the Bullet Magnet, he's heading home, on crutches.
Amazingly, he hopes to come back to his unit before their deployment is over at the end of the year. "I absolutely do not want to go home," he said. "I want to stay and finish it up."Related: