Wounded Marine inspires photographer's search

By Anja Niedringhaus

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Dec. 24 2011 6:53 p.m. MST

Wearing a helmet to protect his head, Cpl. Burness Britt walks on the grounds of the Hunter Holmes Medical Center in mid-December.

Associated Press

AP photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus has covered war and conflict for 20 years. She has received a Pulitzer Prize and the Courage in Journalism award for her work. She has spent considerable time covering the Afghan conflict and spent 21/2 weeks in June with the U.S. Army's "Dust Off" medevac unit in southwest Afghanistan.

RICHMOND, Va. — Inside the medevac helicopter in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Cpl. Burness Britt bleeds profusely from his neck. He and two other Marines have just been hit by shrapnel, with Britt's injuries the most serious. The medevac crew chief clutches one of Britt's blood-covered hands as he is given oxygen. I take hold of the other.

With my free hand, I lift my camera and take some pictures. I squeeze Britt's hand and he returns the gesture, gripping my palm tighter and tighter until he slips into unconsciousness. His shirt is ripped, but I notice a piece of wheat stuck to it. I pluck it off and tuck it away in the pocket of my body armor.

In my 20 years as a photographer, covering conflicts from Bosnia to Gaza to Iraq to Afghanistan, injured civilians and soldiers have passed through my life many times. None has left a greater impression on me than Britt.

I knew him only for a few minutes in that helicopter, but I believed we would meet again one day, and I hoped to give him that small, special piece of wheat.

As Britt underwent surgeries and painful rehabilitation, I returned to my job with The Associated Press, yet Britt was never far from my mind. I searched for him on the Internet. I called hospitals. I wondered if he remembered me.

It's been just over six months since that day in the wheat field not far from his small combat outpost "Kajaki Dam," named for a mammoth structure the U.S., British and NATO troops have been trying to protect and repair to help produce electricity.

Afghanistan was Britt's first combat deployment and he was in Sangin, a town in Afghanistan's southwest Helmand province that has seen some of the bloodiest fighting. He knew the mission was dangerous.

He was leading a group of 10 Marines through a wheat field when there was an explosion. He doesn't know how far away, maybe a few yards. He was thrown into the air, and landed with a thump in the field, a searing hot pain raging in his neck. He had been hit by a huge piece of shrapnel from a bomb and a major artery was cut. Britt believes the improvised explosive device was hidden and somebody triggered it from a distance, though he can't say for sure.

"My only thought was my wife," he said recently from his hospital bed in Richmond, Virginia, where the 22-year-old Marine has been recuperating and rebuilding his life and health.

His speech comes with a great deal of difficulty these days, and sometimes he is hard to understand. During the many surgeries that followed his injury, he had a major stroke and is partially paralyzed on his right side.

His smile, though, is unchanged. The nurses at the Hunter Holmes Medical Center in Richmond, where we met for the first time since the helicopter ride, call him "Sunshine" because their youngest patient is always joking and in a good mood.

It was his courage and smile I remember so vividly. After he was wounded, he smiled briefly when he reached the helicopter, as if to reassure us he would be OK.

It was June 4. I was embedded with the U.S. Army "Dust Off" medevac unit, a group that moves quickly, with little concern for their own safety. When the call came that Britt had been hit, the description of his wounds let everyone know it was serious. Within five minutes, the unit was at his side.

Marines from the 2nd Battalion 12th Marines, 3rd Marine Division rushed out of the nearby bushes carrying Britt. We were quickly airborne.

In the helicopter, the scene was one of quiet courage. No words were spoken, no screams of pain. Blood was everywhere.

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