Iraq War Stories: Veteran Helps Others Heal

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Conversation reported and produced by Shanna Lewis.

Ian Newland says a friend may just be what gets you through battle. The retired Army Staff Sergeant survived an insurgent attack in Baghdad because of a friend’s heroism. Now Newland is a friend to other service members and veterans. He invites them to his family’s ranch near Kiowa-- on the eastern plains-- for a little rest and relaxation. Newland joins us to share his “Iraq War Story.” That’s our series that marks the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq. Ian Newland first deployed to Iraq six years ago with an infantry regiment. The situation was tense. It was even worse when he went back in 2006.

IAN NEWLAND, Retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant:

You go from spending 12 to 18 hours just driving around waiting for something to happen to being attacked all the time, losing your concept of time because you’re spending so much time under fire and engaging the enemy. So you would go out for a three-hour patrol and end up out there for two days.

Warner: And you are running on almost pure adrenaline at that point.

Newland: Absolutely, constantly. Yeah.

Warner: Do you have time to be afraid?

Newland: No. Honestly, I’ve been in engagements that lasted five to six hours and you’d feel like it was three minutes. You know, exactly from the adrenaline, from constant explosions. You know, a bullet whizzing by from this angle and then a hand grenade going off 10 feet to the right and then an RPG slamming behind you and that’s happening constantly, over and over and over and over again.

So it’s not until you get back to the FOB or to the house that we lived in to, you know, resupply and get more ammo that you’d actually realize how long of a fight you were just in.

Warner: You say FOB, the forward operating base.

Newland: Forward operating base.

Warner: When it finally calms down, what does it feel like? Is it just exhaustion? Is it--?

Newland: Yeah, absolutely. We were averaging 30-minute naps once during the day and then two hours of sleep at night and then you’re back out.

Warner: And were there moments when you thought, why did I sign up for this?

Newland: No.

Warner: No?

Newland: Not even when I was wounded. Absolutely not. I signed up because of 9-11. I signed because I didn’t want the fight to come here.

Warner: Let’s talk about when you were injured. December 4th?

Newland: December 4th, 2006.

Warner: We’re coming up on the anniversary.

Newland: Yeah, absolutely, four years ago. We were on a regular, everyday patrol. We were going out to look for spots to place large generators to supply the locals with more electricity.

Warner: What part of Iraq is this in?

Newland: This is Baghdad, northeast Baghdad, in the Adhamiyah District. It’s been in quite a few movies since then, actually. It’s one of the-- it was the worst spot at that time of anywhere in Iraq.

Warner: People were living without power?

Newland: No power. Raw sewage in the streets. No running water. Massive amounts of dead bodies on the streets from violence within each other, Sunni on Shia, Shia on Sunni and then both of them attacking us at the same time.

So that day we had a spot we picked out on the map pretty close to the mosque, the Abu Hanifa mosque. It’s a really large mosque. So, we headed out to patrol around the mosque and then head into the neighborhoods to find this area for this generator.

And I was the last vehicle in the convoy, so my gunner, Ross McGinnis, was facing 6 o’clock, the back of the truck. And as soon as we made a left hand turn, Ross yelled “Hand grenade” and started jumping around and at that time, I-- my heart rate didn’t even change, honestly. I’d seen so many hand grenades that it really didn’t even excite me or scare me, either way. I just got a little bit more vigilant, trying to figure out which direction it came from and trying to find the perp that threw it.

Warner: And this would have been thrown at the convoy?

Newland: Exactly. Well, it was actually thrown at Ross McGinnis directly. An insurgent was-- what I found out later, there was an insurgent on a third-story rooftop and he saw that my gunner was facing the opposite way and didn’t see the guy. So he actually threw the hand grenade and hit McGinnis right in the helmet. It bounced of McGinnis’ helmet and he tried to catch it and throw it and it fumbled between his hands and came straight down inside the truck and landed between the driver and the TC, the truck commander, and it kind of wedged in between the radios.

And in a split second, McGinnis, instead of jumping out of the truck, as we had trained them to do, he knew that we had just locked all the doors. When you-- In certain neighborhoods, we would combat lock the doors to prevent enemies-- high populated, like markets, guys can open your Humvee door and toss a hand grenade right in. So we have a triple lock system on the inside of the door. It also helps prevent accidental ejection if the vehicle hits an IED and you get-- you won’t be thrown from it.

So we had just locked the doors and McGinnis could have bailed right out of the top and instead he grabbed the hand grenade and stuffed it behind his back plate and laid down-- laid his back on it. And at that time, I realized what was about to happen. I dropped my rifle and raised my hands up and it exploded.

Killed him about two minutes later. He died-- the percussion blew him on top of me. I instantly tried to treat him, but I knew from my EMT training that his wound was so large that there was-- without being-- even if he was in a modern surgical table at that exact moment, there was nothing anybody could do.

Warner: You said that he put it under his back plate?

Newland: Yes. We wear bulletproof plates in the front and the back.

Warner: So he put the grenade between the plate and his own body?

Newland: He grabbed it and shoved it and went back on it.

Warner: Correct, knowing full well--

Newland: Absolutely. He didn’t just try to kick it down or like throw his helmet on it. He actually physically grabbed the hand grenade and laid back and stuffed it behind him.

And at first I was a little confused in what exactly he was doing until it detonated. So he died a couple minutes later. All the doors that we had combat locked were blown completely off the hinges. The hand grenade was improvised. They had stuffed other parts of explosives into this hand grenade. This one was about the size of a softball.

The shrapnel wounded everyone in the truck except for the medic. I took 20 pieces to my left thigh. I had a hole about the size of a pop can straight through my leg.

Warner: When you say pieces, you mean pieces of the grenade--

Newland: Of the grenade.

Newland: --that had exploded?

Newland: And also parts of the Humvee. I took another 19 to 20 pieces in my right leg, including my knee, six pieces through my left forearm, severe nerve damage. I’ve lost the use of my fingers in my left hand.

My right arm, as well, and then I took a 4-inch piece to the face. It broke my jaw and gave me a brain injury.

Warner: Were you conscious after--?

Newland: Initially, I was unconscious. The piece that hit me in the face actually knocked me out, but I wasn’t out very long. I was able to come to, realize I was on fire, put my-- my right shoulder was on fire. I was able to put the-- extinguish that, extinguish the fire that was taking place in the truck.

Warner: With an extinguisher?

Newland: No, I used an extra part of our gear, my doc’s medical bag. I just pounded the fire out and I heard a lot of shooting. We got ambushed directly after that. So I grabbed my rifle and went to exit the vehicle and that’s when I realized my legs weren’t working, looked down, saw the wounds and dropped my rifle and realized my arm was in bad shape, as well.

So I called for doc and looked to my right and he was actually completely delirious from the percussion and he was just walking down the street on his own.

The driver who sustained the head injury was also very discombobulated, confused, couldn’t figure out where we were, what we were doing. One of my friends tackled him. He was also on fire.

Another one of the NCOs came over to my side and basically decided that they needed to evac myself and the driver instantly.

Warner: So he called for a helicopter?

Newland: They couldn’t-- they did, but the helicopter couldn’t get to us because we were in the middle of a firefight. We were being engaged, so we actually had to-- they had-- another soldier jumped in the driver’s seat of the vehicle and drove us back.

Warner: The same vehicle?

Newland: The same vehicle. It was still smoldering. During the evac, I began to put tourniquets on my arms and legs and treat myself, passed out several times due to loss of blood.

I went directly into the OR in the Green Zone to remove the shrapnel from my jaw and to assess the nerve damage to my legs and my arm. Then I was flown to Germany, but en route, my heart stopped and they had to stop me in LSA Anaconda for another two days of operations where I was in a three-day coma. Came out of that and then relocated to Germany for six more operations.

Warner: Where is Anaconda?

Newland: It’s in Central Iraq, Balad.

Warner: How was Ross McGinnis. He was 19 at this point?

Newland: Correct.

Warner: How was Ross McGinnis recognized for what he did?

Newland: It didn’t take long for the paperwork to hit the Green Zone to the commanding general and they instantly put him in for the Silver Star, Purple Heart, but recommended him for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Within three weeks of being back at Germany, I was contacted by Congress asking questions of the exact details of what happened that day and a short time later, it was at the White House, we got a phone call that it was approved and his family would be presented the Medal of Honor in June of 2009.

Warner: With the anniversary coming up, do you recognize the day in a special way, or--?

Newland: I do. Every year I travel to Arlington and visit McGinnis’ grave with the guys that were in the vehicle, the other guys that he saved. Some of his family members come, his sisters and his mom and dad usually show up and then we visit the rest of our guys that were killed that are buried there, as well. And we lost a total of 47 soldiers from my battalion.

Warner: In what stretch of time?

Newland: Fifteen months.

Warner: What have been the lasting effects on you of what happened?

Newland: Well, physically, I’m 100% disabled now. I still retain over 40 pieces of the grenade in my body. I lost the use of my left hand and I’m very slow now with all the shrapnel in my legs.

Warner: You walk, we should say.

Newland: Yeah, I do. I walk. No running, no exercising or anything.

Warner: For as devastating as the wounds were to your, visibly--?

Newland: Plastic surgery.

Warner: They did a good job.

Newland: I got really lucky. I landed in Germany and this German doctor and two majors came in and introduced me to a renowned plastic surgeon that just happened to be in the hospital and he worked on my face three times.

Warner: What remains mentally?

Newland: Mentally, oh, geez. It’s an up and down roller coaster. You know, I still have nightmares, not just about that one attack but other things that had happened in Iraq.

Warner: Are the nightmares about battle?

Newland: Every night, yeah.

Warner: In other words, the specific images are the images of battle. It’s not metaphoric. It’s not--

Newland: No, it’s combat. It’s Iraq. I mean, the smells, the sights. It’s all like it just happened last night. This time of the year is a little hard. You know, we get a little depressed.

Warner: Around the anniversary.

Newland: I still deal with flashbacks. During the day I’ll have a flashback, every now and again.

Warner: What is a flashback like?

Newland: It depends. Sometimes a smell will just and all of a sudden you’re right back standing on the street of Iraq somewhere or I’ll sometimes get an overwhelming feeling that someone has me in their sights and then I’ll get a shooting pain through my thigh and start shaking and trembling and it’s like I’m right back in combat again.

Warner: A shooting pain where you were injured?

Newland: Injured, correct.

Warner: I have heard from vets that loud noises are very unsettling.

Newland: Yeah. Loud noises, flashes.

Warner: I mean, would you have a flashback in the middle of driving or in the middle of walking down the street?

Newland: I have. Yeah and there’s different levels of flashbacks. They’re not all visual to where, you know, you can’t tell what you’re doing or where you’re at.

I’ve been down the road and seen a car in the middle of the highway, off to the side, and instantly think there’s a car bomb. The next thing I know, I’m right in the middle of the last two lanes, swerving off the road.

I’ve seen wires hanging off the side of a culvert. It looks like there’s a bomb in there. Heart rate go up. You know, I don’t panic, but it does. And I’m sure I’ll deal with that forever. I’ve talked to Korean and World War II veterans that still deal with these things every day.

Warner: A lot of marriages break up because a spouse has PTSD. Was that ever a concern for you?

Newland: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. The first six months I was back, we were still taking casualties. I had a really, really tough time with anger. Every little thing just set me off, yelling all the time and, of course, my frustration was placed in the wrong spot. You know, I was angry at the fact that my soldiers were still dying in Iraq and it seemed that people just didn’t even fathom what was going on over there.

And, yeah, it really-- my wife came to me one day and she sat me down and she said, listen, if you don’t get a handle on this, I’m taking the kids and we’re leaving. And luckily, you know, she’s a strong woman and she was able to make that obvious to me, that, you know, things needed to change.

And, you know, it’s still a struggle. It’s always going to be a struggle. I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes and waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning to your husband shivering in the corner, screaming as loud as he can, or, you know, every December dealing with the depression again and the anger again and, you know, the guilt all over again.

Yeah, it’s a very tough thing for military families to deal with.

Warner: Our guest is retired Staff Sergeant Ian Newland of Kiowa, on the plains east of Castle Rock. We’re talking about his tours of duty in Iraq as part of our ongoing series, Iraq War Stories.

He talks about his life since he returned to the U.S. After a short break, we’ll learn about the ranch he runs in Colorado where service members and veterans, many who also suffer from PTSD can take some time to relax.

This is Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio.

(short break)

Warner: You’re tuned to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner. Today our series, Iraq War Stories, continues.

Retired Staff Sergeant Ian Newland is with us. He was wounded in Iraq when an insurgent threw a hand grenade into the Humvee he was in. That explosion killed his friend Ross McGinnis, who used his body to shield Newland and others in the vehicle.

Newland went through multiple surgeries and rehabilitation in Germany, where he and he and his family were stationed. A group that supports wounded vets, called Sentinels of Freedom, helped the family find housing in Colorado. They gave him a scholarship to business school, but Newland realized he wasn’t cut out for an office job.

Newland: One of my courses I had to write a pretty elaborate business plan and came up with the idea to start a veterans’ ranch, a horse therapy ranch. Everyone I talked to about it was just completely thrilled. They were like, you know, that’s something you should really look into doing.

So after talking with the wife we decided, yeah, you know what, that’s a great idea. We both animals. We grew up in the country. Why not? So we get in the market and started looking for houses.

Warner: This was in what year?

Newland: Just this last year.

Warner: Just this last year?

Newland: Yeah and we were in the market for a year, trying to find something, and then in March we found the ranch out by Kiowa.

Warner: This is on the eastern plains. How many acres?

Newland: Forty acres, but the thing is, we’re surrounded by cattle land. So it’s-- there’s nothing else out there.

The plan was, in 2011, we would start bringing guys in — any kind of soldier, whether he’s missing an arm or he’s severe post traumatic stress disorder, you know, nightmares and flashbacks — and the idea is just to get them out of the city, get some rest and relaxation and do some outdoor stuff and--

Warner: And, gosh, where there aren’t all these cues.

Newland: Yeah.

Warner: I mean, all those cues you were describing.

Newland: Yeah, exactly. Car doors slamming, you know, traffic lights. A lot of the guys that I served with had real bad anger issues and just driving to post every day and waiting in traffic can set them off. So get them out in a place where there is none of that, there’s no stressors.

You wake up in the morning to 30, 40 deer standing in the yard or pronghorn running through the front yard and within two weeks of moving into the ranch, we had our first soldier there. It was supposed to be a year, but we didn’t even have the boxes unpacked and I had 84 guys calling me every day, when can I come out? When is it ready? I’ve got to get out of Fort Bragg. I’ve got to get away from Fort Irwin. I’ve got to get out of California, when can I come see you?

Warner: They’d already heard about this?

Newland: Yeah, well, I shot the idea out to my soldiers the year before, just to see what they would-- you know, if guys would even be interested in that. And all of them were like wow and then told some of their friends and then it was all over Facebook and MySpace and then I’ve got soldiers calling me from Afghanistan wanting to know if they can come out for R&R to Colorado and hang out with me at the ranch.

And I’m like, well, you know, really we haven’t even unpacked everything yet. So we took guys in the first two weeks of being there and we’ve had probably close to 70 guys come out so far, since March.

Warner: They stay in the house?

Newland: Yeah, yeah-- we-- I dedicated the whole basement to them. So they’ve got their own bedroom, TVs and showers and I just got a grant from the VA and we’re going to make the ranch 100% handicap accessible.

So it came a lot faster, but also the benefit of that, I’ve been able to help out a lot of guys. I’ve had guys come out that hadn’t gone or done anything since they deployed. They’ve been sitting at home drinking heavily or just, you know, being really depressed or angry and now they’re not. Now they’re-- you know, they call me when they have issues. We talk together, just a couple of like-minded soldiers that went through the same thing.

Warner: What do they do? You said there’s horseback riding.

Newland: Yeah, it all depends. You know, I’ve got guys that are missing both legs and one arm that can’t really ride a horse that well, but we have adaptive four wheelers. So we have ATV-ing.

Some guys, they just don’t-- they just want to sit on the back deck and take all the quietness in or just watch the stars at night and listen to the coyotes howl and some guys want to go fishing or deer hunting and we make it all happen.

Warner: Does the ranch have a name?

Newland: Ross Ranch. I named it after Ross McGinnis, the soldier that jumped on the hand grenade.

Warner: How are you affording this?

Newland: I’m 100% disabled, so I use my disability money to put into the ranch, to buy guys plane tickets, to put the food on the table for them and my children. It’s difficult. Unfortunately, this happened really quickly, so we haven’t been able to do any fund raising or really get anything in order, so we’re trying to, after Christmas, New Year’s, take a little break so that we can try to set up some kind of fund raiser or something like that.

Warner: Are there months where it’s just hard to pay the bills?

Newland: Absolutely, every month. Absolutely. But, you know, if it comes down paying the phone bill or flying a private first class out from Fort Wherever that’s having a hard time, that’s a no-brainer for us.

Me and the wife will always do that and it seems to, by being-- you know, paying it forward, good things seem to happen.

Warner: Are you concerned, sometimes, about having soldiers in your home who are volatile, you know, who might be quick to anger, as you described or--?

Newland: No, I’m not afraid. Absolutely not, no.

The soldiers that are in that desperate of need, we get them that kind of mental help.

Warner: These would be like intensive mental health programs.

Newland: Exactly — suicidal, homicidal type soldiers. And I’ve had a couple of them that contacted me that, you know, I was able to address that they needed more help that I could provide them before they could take part in the ranch.

Warner: We are doing this series, Iraq War Stories, to mark the end of U.S. combat operations, officially, in Iraq. That doesn’t mean the end of combat, as we know. But what did that declaration mean to you?

Newland: Not much. Titles are titles. To be there on the streets is where it counts. For instance, the day that Saddam was sentenced, I read the Washington Post that said all’s quiet and celebrations are taking place across Iraq. We were in a nine-hour firefight that day.

So, you know, this thing that Iraq’s combat is over. It might be over for us, but I guarantee you, if you walk down some of the streets in Baghdad, the fighting’s still taking place.

It’s good that we’re done with it, but unfortunately, we have a lot of other combat in Afghanistan to deal with right now.

Warner: From your standpoint, was the Iraq War worth fighting?

Newland: Good thing about being an active duty soldier is you get orders and you follow them. No, I don’t think any of it is worth nay soldier’s life and to see so many soldiers fall horribly, no, I can’t say that anything would be worth that. Absolutely not.

Warner: Did you make a difference while you were there?

Newland: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, we did. We stopped a lot of bad people from doing a lot of bad things and people that were just trying to live in a horrible place. And we met a lot of really good Iraqi people, a lot of really good neighborhoods and children and families that were scared for their lives every single day and we really prevented a lot of, like I said, nasty people from doing nasty things over there.

Warner: Ian, thank you for being with us.

Newland: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Warner: Retired Staff Sergeant Ian Newland was wounded in Baghdad December 4th, 2006, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He now owns and operates the Ross Ranch near the town of Kiowa. It’s a place for other veterans to heal from their wounds. To get in touch with Newland, look for the Ross Ranch page on Facebook.