The last time he went to war, Capt. D.J. Skelton lasted only a few weeks.
Minutes into his first major firefight outside the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the young Army officer was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade. His face and body were mangled by shrapnel. One small metal shard caused the most damage: It tore through Skelton's right cheek, obliterated the roof of his mouth and exited through his left eye socket.
Six years have passed since that night in November 2004, on the eve of Operation Phantom Fury, the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war. But after more than 60 surgeries, Skelton is back on the battlefield, this time in Afghanistan, where he is believed to be the Army's most badly wounded soldier who has returned to command troops in combat.
Skelton has one eye, partial use of his left arm and right leg, and a golf-ball sized hole in his palate. Without a custom prosthetic, he cannot eat or drink. Nevertheless, Skelton flew to Afghanistan last week and is set to join his old unit, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, for which he will oversee 192 soldiers.
Army officials hesitate to compare the extent of one soldier's wounds to another's. Soldiers have returned to war with amputated limbs, and at least three Army officers who lost sight in both eyes in recent years have stayed on active duty in noncombat roles. But the Army could not identify anyone who suffered worse wounds than Skelton and has returned to combat command.
"It's inspiring, and it's emblematic of how the Army has learned to treat wounded warriors," said Mary Carstensen, a retired colonel who was formerly the director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program. "The measure isn't just the extent of the injuries. It's whether he or she can do their job, and whether he or she can lead."
"There's no doubt in my mind that he'll be a superb company commander," said Maj. Gen. Robert Brown of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., where Skelton recently graduated from an advanced infantry officer's course. "He'll be a terrific example for his soldiers, and he'll be able to do everything they need. He might not be the first guy through the door if they have to do a room clearance, but he shouldn't be doing that anyway as a company commander."
Skelton, 33, who grew up in rural South Dakota, has been in the Army nearly his entire adult life. He enlisted in 1997, aced the military's Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam and was selected to study Mandarin Chinese. Higher-ranking officers at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., urged him to apply to West Point, where he became known for rebelliousness and outrageous stunts. He was arrested for illegally BASE-jumping off a 900-foot bridge in West Virginia during his plebe year on spring break. Later, he was almost expelled after officials realized he'd been running a body-piercing business out of his barracks room.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, turned Skelton into a more serious soldier. He set his heart on serving in the infantry after graduation in 2003. Soldiers who served with him at Fort Lewis, Wash., recall a lieutenant who trained his platoon hard, but who also had a penchant for coming to off-duty meetings wearing SpongeBob SquarePants flip-flops.
"He was very motivated," recalled Maj. Ronald Schow, Skelton's former commander. But, Schow added, "He was very eccentric, and he kind of really reveled in it. He liked being different. That stands out in the Army."
Skelton led an infantry platoon that arrived in Iraq in October 2004, just ahead of the assault on Fallujah. His 50-man patrol with five Stryker armored vehicles was near an overpass the night of Nov. 6, tracking anyone entering or leaving the city. Skelton ordered one of his squads to move closer to investigate a car that drove under the overpass. He and Sgt. Roy Rangel, the radio-telephone operator, walked toward the vehicle.
Suddenly, they faced a barrage of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
"I remember seeing the RTO and Lt. Skelton fly through the air," said Alejandro Rodriguez, the platoon's medic. An RPG had exploded a concrete pylon, blasting Skelton's face and body with shrapnel and rock.
"Next thing I remember, I was completely blind," Skelton recalled. "I had no feeling whatsoever. My radio guy said he'd been shot, and then I heard a voice say, 'Oh, my God, the lieutenant's been hit! I think he's dead!' All of a sudden, there was a rush of feeling, which was probably the most intense pain I will ever in my entire life feel."
Skelton was then sprayed with several enemy AK-47 rounds as he was dragged out of the kill zone, his body armor stopping at least one bullet to the chest. But it was the shrapnel that did the most damage. He begged his men to leave him behind.
"He was screaming. ... His face was messed up. I could see his eye was not there. Being there on the ground next to the medic, helping out, I didn't think he was going to make it," recalled Sgt. 1st Class Patrick O'Brien. "He was just screaming, making this noise. That's about the only thing that messed me up. I kept hearing it in my sleep."