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Interview with Paul Franklin Mercer [11/20/2010]

Tanner Russo:

The date is November 20th, 2010. My name is Tanner Russo, intern at the Old Jail Museum in Fauquier County, Virginia. I'm here with Iraq War veteran Paul Mercer, who is known to everyone as Trey. Trey's mother is a colleague of my father. Trey was born on September 29th, 1982 and has graciously agreed to grant this interview about his military service for the United States spanning from May 2005 to November 2007. Thanks for agreeing to speak with me, Trey, and let's get started. Could you state for the recording, Trey, what war and branch of service you served in?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

The Iraq War, Operation Iraqi Freedom; the US Army

Tanner Russo:

What was your highest rank?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Sergeant E-5

Tanner Russo:

Ok, and where specifically in Iraq did you serve?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Baghdad. We were stationed at Camp Liberty, which was connected with the Baghdad International Airport along with Camp Victory so it was about five miles within the Green Zone - away from the Green Zone - so it was west of the city.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and I'd like, before we delve further into your time of service, I'd just like to get a little bit of biographical information about you. Could you tell me about where you were born and brought up, and a little about your parents and any siblings that you have?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I was born September of 1982 in Warrenton, Virginia at Fauquier Hospital. I was raised in Fauquier County. I attended essentially all the public schools in the county from, you know, elementary school on up through Fauquier High School until my graduation in June of 2001. In August of 2001, I matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute, where I was a part of the army ROTC program and studied psychology and I minored in philosophy. And I graduated in May of 2005 and a couple weeks later, you know, joined the army.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and so in high school were you involved with JROTC and ROTC?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

No.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and so it wasn't until college that you were involved with those organizations?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Correct.

Tanner Russo:

What was your experience like at VMI? I mean, was it a part of your decision, you know you'd been thinking of joining the service, obviously.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

[nod]

Tanner Russo:

Ok. So when did you first envision joining the service?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I would say my senior year of high school. Obviously, I took a - actually, it was toward the end of my junior year of high school, because I took an open house kind of recruiting trip to VMI spring of my junior year in high school. I really enjoyed it. I got to stay a night in the barracks, saw the campus, the core cadets, all that stuff, the pageantry of parades and all that. So, I saw it and then it was the only school I had applied to. I was also looking at Texas A and M because of their core cadets. So, really, I knew pretty much when I first visited VMI that I wanted to be a part of a core cadet at a university -

Tanner Russo:

Ok.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

VMI being the first choice, because it's in state and only two hours away.

Tanner Russo:

Alright. Can you talk a little bit about once you got to VMI, what your experience was like there and how did it prepare you for your future service?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um, well, it was definitely unique. Obviously, coming from, you know, playing sports and stuff in high school, and having, of course, a group of friends which, you know, they all went to other universities and they had different college experiences. But I met a lot of new guys. You know, I've been to couple of weddings of friends that I've met through VMI, so, I've made some good, lasting relationships. My roommate, he is still in the service with the 3rd infantry division. So, you know, I met a lot of other, you know, like-minded individuals which I wouldn't have met, you know, even [within] my core group of friends here in the county, because, you know, they really didn't have a military interest or if I had gone to a state university that's not known for its military training. So being in that environment for four years plus, you know, the pressure of doing college academics, which is a different load, you know, obviously from the high school level. So you try to balance your military duties, then along with athletic duties, which we also had personal workout things that we had to do, along with the academics and the military. So, really it taught me how to manage time, which is essential in the service. Time is a luxury you don't have, especially once you've deployed. Its go, go, go. [You're] always on the go. So, yeah, I'd say it really prepared me in ways - now, looking in hind sight, I can really see how, but of course at the time I was at VMI, I was like 'Why am I doing this? You know, this is ridiculous.' It really did prepare me and gave me the leadership aspect of, you know, being a sergeant.

Tanner Russo:

What was it particularly about the service that appealed to you? You spoke a little bit about going to VMI, but before you actually enlisted, what was it that was sort of driving you forward and that made you keep being in the service as a goal?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, I liked one, the opportunity, the traveling aspect of it, to, you know, see different places. And also, there was something about it - I liked the idea of joining like a combat unit. I had read some books, seen some - read some literature, seen some movies out there about other, the combat units and it's kind of like a, I thought it was kind of a, there was a mystique, a gentleman's side of it that I can't, couldn't put into words, but I knew it was something that I would like to be a part of.

Tanner Russo:

So you finish college and basically immediately enlist?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right. Actually, of course, with going through ROTC and, uh, you know, I thought, I looked briefly at graduate school, which is why I kind of got away from maybe commissioning. But I always kept in me to go into the army. Obviously, I ended up doing that, but enlisting, not going in as a commissioned officer. Um, so really, you know, it's kind of funny, the commissioned officer or enlisting part of it, I never really looked at that. I just wanted to get into the army. If I hadn't gotten into VMI or A and M, if I had applied there, I would have enlisted. So really I just wanted to be in, not so much as what rank. Obviously, if I hadn't been injured or if I was still in till this day, I would have gone through with [?] and probably commissioned. But, really, I just wanted to be in and just serve, so I kind of - you know, college, you kind of go through a bunch of different things trying to find what you want to do. And 18, 19, 20 years old you think you know what you want to do, but all the while, I knew the military was the right thing, it was just 'What am going in [for]? What do you I want to train to be?' That whole 'Do I want to do a career? Do I want to do, you know, just only through contract?'

Tanner Russo:

Right. And so at the point of your enlistment, how old were you?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I was 23.

Tanner Russo:

And do you remember, sort of what was going on in Iraq at the time of your enlistment?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Actually, you see, we had combat forces in Iraq starting, I think, March of 2003. At this point, we - when I was there, part of 2006, [into] 2007, this was the famous surge. First Cav was a part of that surge with General Petraeus, the counterinsurgency operations. So really before that, I guess during that brief time period of that initial invasion, getting into Baghdad, overthrowing the regime, we were following that, not really close enough to really see or really know what was lying ahead with the insurgency. But yeah, we, I had taken a few classes - being at a military school during a time of war, I mean, it's kind of as unique as you hear. A lot of professors are veterans themselves, you know, so we would either follow CNN or the Update each day in various classes. So we would, we knew the invasion had started, knew this was the progress they had made, they're this far from Baghdad, now they're this close, and, next thing you know, they're in the city, everything's secured. So, I guess, the general news media we kept up with, but not really the maybe the grandeur aspects of what was going on and of what was taking place.

Tanner Russo:

I'm curious to know, I guess, what your personal impressions of the war were and how it, you know, knowing that as you came to enlist that that's where you were going to be and having followed the conflict, how did that affect just your thoughts about what was coming ahead? Did it make you nervous every time you heard something about it?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

About the - being in school and knowing about Iraq?

Tanner Russo:

Right, and knowing that that was probably where you might end up?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right, well, knowing - you wanted to go, because at this point I had been at VMI for a couple years, since August 2001 before the invasion in 2003. So I'd known some people that graduated, who were seniors when I was a freshman, who were already deployed. And then, you know, you want to be part of that and every other person who's been to VMI and served in every foreign war. So, you know, there was that aspect, you know, you want to get right in. The feelings were really apolitical. Again, I didn't really know, didn't really study military tactics at that level. I was just trying to get my degree. I didn't really look at it from a political or a tactical standpoint or whether, you know, the intelligence aspect of what all went into Iraq. So really [I was] just kind of just neutral about all that. I just saw it as, you know, Saddam Hussein, a regime there, you know, looking at the American aspect of it that we were doing a good thing, not necessarily the political or the tactical, military, intelligence side of things.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and so, I guess, another question would be why you chose the army over the other branches of service.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, VMI predominately is, with the army ROTC, most of the people who commission from VMI do go into the Army, as opposed to the Marine Corps or Navy. Also, too, I just liked the army, the tactics, of course, the Rangers, all the infantry side of what the US Army offers.

Tanner Russo:

Can you describe the actual moment of enlistment? Was it a particularly momentous occasion?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I was excited. Um, I knew that it was ... at the time, it was right, now, it was right. I'm still very glad that I had the opportunity to raise my right hand to go and to serve in uniform. I was really excited. It was a good time, because I was within a month and half of graduating from VMI, getting a college degree, and I was going into the service, so I knew what I was doing after, you know, college. So, yeah, I was excited.

Tanner Russo:

So after enlisting, how long did you have to prepare for basic training?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, really I had prepared for basic for four years at VMI. You know, what's known as your rat year - it's essentially you learning a lot of the drill, the formations, all the military protocol for four years. And then doing physical training (PT) and being in army ROTC - after all that, four years.

Tanner Russo:

Right, but in terms of time, you enlist and then what's the gap in time between enlistment and deporting for basic training?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I guess. .. it was about mid April, I officially signed the paperwork, and then I left for basic training ... I want to say the 25th of May. This is 2005.

Tanner Russo:

Ok, so fairly soon?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right. It was soon, yeah.

Tanner Russo:

Ok, and you're training took place-

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I'd say about a month.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and so where exactly did your training take place and how long were you in training?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Fort Knox, which was a 16 week training cycle, all there at one station at Fort Knox. I got out of there ... I don't remember the exact what day in October, but it was around early to mid - maybe the second week of October 2005 that I got out of training.

Tanner Russo:

Can you delve into the details of what life is like for someone who's in training? Obviously, as you said, you were pretty prepared for it, just having gone to VMI, but what happens day to day when you're in training?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Routine, routine, and more routine. Just like at VMI. And it's just drilled into you, it's routine. Then, when you don't think you can learn anymore, you just re-learn.

Tanner Russo:

[Laughter] What was the hardest thing about training? I know, as you said, that were fairly well adjusted, but were there any things in training that took you by surprise? Or was there a shift in attitude perhaps?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

No, really for me, because of being a little bit older, a little bit more mature, having a bachelor's degree, a four year college degree, a lot of the other guys who went in, with the exceptionnthere were only three other individuals who went into that training cycle who also had four year degrees. So, I related more with them, because they were about my age at the time, as opposed to the, about the 18-20 year old range. So there was that aspect of it - the social aspect of being four years in college, you know, that, how you really blossom socially and mature and, of course, intellectually as well.

Tanner Russo:

And so, I guess, socially, that's a good point. Did you know anyone that you were in basic training with or was it sort of blindly going into it socially?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Oh, no, just blindly going in.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. So you're in training. You get out of training and then sort of walk me through the weeks leading up to your deployment in October of 2006. What was the gap in time between basic training and your actual deployment?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um, I - about a year, because I finished up, I got out of basic training early to mid-October 2006. And I deployed for Kuwait at the end of October 2006. I finished basic training in October 2005. So, yeah, about a year actually - so about a year at Ford Hood to really get involved, build cohesion, you know, with my platoon and then we all, you know, deployed at the end of October 2006.

Tanner Russo:

Ok, so you're saying that you were at Fort Knox for training and then you were at Fort Hood?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes. My basic training site was at Fort Knox. My home station with my unit, 2-5 Cav, that was at Fort Hood.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so what sort of things would you do at Fort Hood on a day-to-day basis, like you said to build cohesion between you and the unit, [within] the entire unit?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, the most important thing obviously is the physical training in the morning - the runs, the pushups, whatever, the station training, you know, whatever physical activity you have in the morning for PT. That's where really, you know, you're running that last leg of the mile, you know, you're winded, you're tired, you're cramping up. You kind of just push each other along. So the physical part, you know, with the running and everything - that's really where you get to know the guys well. You know, really it wasn't until- you know we would do, you know, of course, we would go, we would have to re-qualify, you know, being in the Scout sniper platoon, we'd have to qualify pretty often on M-4s at the range. So, you know, keep the weapons clean, all of our equipment. So there was that, you know, general maintenance and just, you know, your duties as a soldier. Really it wasn't until, you know, we really ramped up, it was July of 2006 when we officially received orders that we would be deploying, then we were going out to mountainsides which were like small-scale cities. We would go, we'd do movements in, drive Humvee's, Bradley's, individual room clearing movements, you know, really preparing us for deployment.

Tanner Russo:

You know, I have to tell you, for me, I really cannot imagine what it would be like to leave the country, to fly to a war-torn place, basically, away from your family, away from your friends. Is leaving for war, preparing to leave for war, is it as dramatic and daunting a task as it sounds to people who haven't done it?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes. I would say, by far, I think in anything ... ifI had one thing that would be the most difficult thing. I tell myself now, if I'm tired or I just feel, you know, worn out from doing school and work and everything. And even no matter what the future holds, I don't think anything would be, you know, more difficult as it was that Sunday in October 2006, when I said goodbye, you know, to my parents and my sister, because, you know, I had the last few phone calls, before I turned my cell phone back over, to my close friends - because of course I didn't take my cell phone with me - and that was, by far, definitely to this point in my life, the most difficult thing. I think it probably will be the most difficult thing, you know, that I will ever do.

Tanner Russo:

What sorts of things go through your mind, if you don't mind me asking, as you prepare to go to war? What was on your mind in those weeks leading up [to deployment]?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um - well, really, you get the orders, you're excited. You want to go, you want to get in the fight. So, you know, you're excited about that. You train up, you feel like you know everything, you've trained, you become reactive on certain things, so you know you're ready as much as you'll, you can prepare. You prepare as much as you can. You're ready just to go, to really get involved. You know the guys, you trust the guys with you, so you know each other well. You're just ready to do it. But then, then as we were putting things and, uh, packing things up and then as things started to slow down - you know, we had all our equipment shipped away, the last week or so we just kind of really just waiting, you know, for our time to really get on the plane. Then, again that last weekend, you know, my parents came down to visit. That Saturday night, you know, it kind of hit that like, you know, we all went out to dinner, but like -you never want to think, you never know what's going to happen. So, yeah, I guess, you train so much for what could happen, but it's just that aspect of you never know what'll happen that, you know, is always kind of really always on the horizon, you know.

Tanner Russo:

What was the dynamic within your family as you prepared to go to Iraq - were they proud, obviously concerned - probably a little bit of both ... or a lot of both?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, I would say a lot of both. Really, uh, they knew that being in the service [?] ... they knew, of course, the country was fighting a war on two fronts, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq, so it was inevitable, especially when you know you want to do that ... So really, it was just a matter of time. So they knew. You knew signing up. You knew when you were signing the papers that you had a 100 percent chance of going somewhere. So they were for it and, you know, were proud ... and really just, you know, obviously nervous too, but also pride and joy too.

Tanner Russo:

Right. And so what was the exact date of your deployment?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

[pause] The 29th of October, 2006.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. You know, I'm getting ready to go to college next fall and so I mentally know that I have to go to college, but I don't think it's really going to hit me until I'm packing up the car to leave. And I think, as you just said, that's kind of, on a much smaller scale, what I'm feeling about college is kind of the same thing. Did it really hit you that day: "Oh my goodness. I've got to go."

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, well, I would say it still- you know, being through VMI and knowing people who deployed, I always wanted to go. It wasn't like 'Oh man, I'm actually leaving now.' It wasn't like a surprise or a shock or a realization. At the time, again, it was more of like that last, that afternoon when my parents had to go back to the regional airport there in [?] to fly back to Dallas to fly back to DC. When my family left, that's when it hit the hardest. Not so much 'Ok, well, you know, I'm going, getting ready to do a tour in Iraq', it was, you know, again, saying goodbye to family and friends that really hit the hardest. You knew, since 2001, I had always, because a month after I started college, September 11th happened. So being at a military school you really train, you get fired up, you really want to get in and get in the fight as quick as you can.

Tanner Russo:

And it's curious that you bring up 9/11 because I think for so many people, they connect 9/11 with Iraq and they're not technically related. For you, as you prepared to go to war, how cognizant of9/11 were you? Was it something that you thought about, did it contribute to your sense of patriotism while you were over there?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Really, this - yeah, that because I was - it was a little bit of that - but, again, by the time I had graduated I was almost, the country was four years removed. Because this was September 2001, I graduated in May 2005. So, that was, and this was a different front really from the NATO, Afghan conflict. This, you know, this was, you know - I guess there was some of that. It was a little bit, too, of a different mentality of ... in Iraq, really, it was more of a - as opposed to - it was really an unfinished business. I guess from the Gulf War mentality of going in and finishing this up. Because when I was over there, of course, that's when they had the Saddam Hussein trial. December 2006, I was there, in the country at the time. So, yeah, this was 'finish that job' in Iraq, as opposed to, you know, it's a different front, different mission with Afghanistan.

Tanner Russo:

Alright, I do want to pause real quick as we shift into your actual time in Iraq to check my recording. [Pause to check recording device] And it looks like everything is fine on that front. So you get to Iraq. Remind me again exactly where in the country you were stationed and how near that was to the Green Zone.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Camp Liberty, which is there in Baghdad, I guess a little west of the city. Again, it was connected with the Baghdad International Airport. And, although I never went to the Green Zone, it was roughly about five miles maybe from Camp Liberty, from the Green Zone. We operated really, it was on the outskirts, west of the city.

Tanner Russo:

What were your living conditions like in Camp Liberty?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Pretty good. When we were out on a mission, you know, the de fac or, you know, the chow hall, the food was good. Of course, we had access to hot showers, um, you know, toilets, all the modern things -

Tanner Russo:

Right. Basic hygiene.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Hygiene, all that, yeah. So we were in a two person, like, almost like trailers, but you know, they had AIC, full beds in them and closets and everything. So it was, for being in that type of country, it was actually fairly comfortable.

Tanner Russo:

And so, initially, I guess I kind of want to get into what exactly you were doing in Iraq. So kind of describe your role and, I guess, going back to my college analogy, you spent a lot of time preparing to get there and so, once you were actually there, was it as you had envisioned it would be?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes. All of our platoon convoys - riding out, you know, really, like being with the scout platoon, we would really go out and find informants around the city that would either lead us to weapons caches or maybe the residence of someone who initiated, created IEDs or, you know, any other nefarious activity, insurgents around the cities. So really we were able to go out and mainly talk with the local people, again all part of the actual counterinsurgency operation, really getting imbedded with the people. Again, this was November, December of 2006, so very early on in the surge, because the surge, maybe in 2007 or 2008, you really started to see the change in the culture with the US military personnel and then, you know, Iraqi nationals really started to build cohesion. This was early on and so a lot of what you'll read and study about counterinsurgency we were doing - going out, really getting to, trying to make a bond or connect with individuals where we were working in our area, trying to, again, find weapons caches, [figure out] who's doing this, or if an IED went off a couple days ago, do you know when it was planted, who did it, who's supplying them, all that. Really just trying to work with, as opposed to working, being secular as just the US military, actually more, we really started to reach out. So there was more collaboration, I guess, with the Iraqi Nationals then what we had initially trained for, because I guess all the counterinsurgency book, while we were preparing to go and then early 2006 and during our time at Ford Hood, all of this was still being formulated, you know, I guess by army intelligence officers.

Tanner Russo:

And so what were your impressions ofIraq as a country and ofIraqis as a people?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Again, pretty neutral. We had our job, really riding around the city. We had ... there would be interaction, you know, we would really ... you know, being a sergeant, never really being like a captain or a commissioned officer, who with the interpreters would do most of the speaking to people, but we would provide the security around the area, just kind of keep an eye out while the lieutenant colonel or whoever would speak, do the talking. We would, of course, kick the soccer ball back and forth with the little kids there around Baghdad, so really, yeah, from my view we were here to help and that's the job and for however long I'm there as Sergeant Mercer, I wanted to do my mission and help a people and along with, along with our platoon mission.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. Did you feel from the people that they wanted help? What was there reaction to these American soldiers?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes, again, but this was before - urn - a lot, because early 2006, you had a lot of the bombing, there was almost talk of a civil war within the country early on that year. So really toward the end of 2006, there was really starting to get, there was that divide with the US military, the Sunni, the Shi'a, the Kurds. The whole country was really ... on the brink, for a lack of a better statement of it, but by this time, redirecting our policy, I think with really working directly with them and really kind of putting them at the lead, putting them on point, saying 'You know, this is really what we need and this will help improve our community at a granular level and then we'll build the city that way.' So I think by helping the towns house-by-house and street-by-street, block-by-block, building it that way, we really started to build things up from what I'd read, what I knew about, what I read in literature today about how in early 2006, really with the split with the religious divisions within the country.

Tanner Russo:

So describe for me what a day in Iraq was like for you, just an average day, if there was such a thing?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, it was, of course, times for the mission would vary. Sometimes it would be really early in the morning, other times it would be say around, after lunch time, you know, we would head out or even sometimes it would be in the evenings. But mostly we would head out of the gate in the evenings. We would grab a quick bite to eat and then head out. It was mostly go and patrol an area, kind of sit, post up, and just observe at night using different optical devices, you know, night vision and stuff and other things, other types of technology, just kind of like scan the area at night to see off in the distance what's going on in a certain area. Really, again, just policing and patrolling areas at night. And then, of course, in the day is when we would do the weapons cache searches obviously because of visibility.

Tanner Russo:

Right. And so, I guess just an average encounter with the, as you said, average citizens, trying to figure out if an IED had been planted, what they knew about it. I mean - what is the process for getting people to talk? How do you get people to reveal information that they probably know ... urn ... Was there any sort of leverage offered?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, because - me, being a sergeant, I wasn't involved like a captain or a lieutenant or sometimes a lieutenant colonel in negotiations or in the -

Tanner Russo:

So you were fairly removed from the inner workings of how they got that information.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah ... and sometimes actually, a couple times, maybe like just ... more of like a ... a motivation of patriotism they would, you know, kind of volunteer information. Say 'hey, if you check over here.' You know, we have [an] occasional someone who kind of, more or less, walk up and just kind of volunteer some information to us as well.

Tanner Russo:

Right. Were there ever any instances where someone, where there were consequences for any information given?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

... Not that we ever ... not that we ever knew about.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. I would imagine just as a soldier, internally, you would almost be constantly on edge. Perhaps I'm wrong about that.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes. And actually it's funny because uh - along patrols or sometimes on a mission, ten, twelve hour, you know, thirteen hour missions, you are on edge, but then also too when you're just riding around or with the heat over there or riding on Humvees or having all the body armor, it's very easy to become complacent too.

Tanner Russo:

Right.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

You know, because you go around, you're out for five hours, you hear nothing. Well, you know, for five hours doesn't mean what could happen in a split second. I mean, yeah, it is easy. You are on edge, but also too it's very easy to let your guard down. Like when you ride around, really just start conversations with people, you know, other soldiers in the Humvee with you as opposed to being more vigilant than what you should. There is that.

Tanner Russo:

So you would - how many ... I guess you would set out in a vehicle, like you said, in the evening. How many - just one vehicle? How many vehicles?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Oh no. Usually, minimum of three. Never just one vehicle because in case that vehicle was hit with an IED you could easily be outnumbered, overrun, you know, get killed, captured, if you're captured you're ultimately, you get killed. So always at least, you know, three, three Humvees, at least.

Tanner Russo:

And so how many people are we talking about per Humvee?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

On average four. Sometimes there was one vehicle also that had three soldiers plus one interpreter. We would always have an interpreter.

Tanner Russo:

Alright. And so what was your biggest worry, I guess?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

[Pause] Um ... well, letting my guard down and having someone else get hurt for just, uh, for lack of being vigilant on my end. That was my biggest worry. Obviously, it never happened. None ofthe guys that were over there - any action that someone did never resulted in a fellow soldier getting hurt. But that's always the biggest worry, is something, you know, you don't do that could lead to the injury or worse of someone else. Or even an Iraqi ally, for instance, if one of their police force or something of that nature or someone who genuinely wants to help the US military cause plus, you know, the Iraqi cause. You know, doing something to put them in danger as well. That's always your biggest worry.

Tanner Russo:

And so, how quickly ... well I guess, the people that you were with you had gotten to know at Fort Hood. So you knew, you were already quite bonded with these people.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, one of them who lives in Tusan now, I still keep in touch with him regularly. Unfortunately, uh, another I became really good friends with him, he ... was killed in March over there. But, yeah, I got to know them, everyone got to know each other really well. And actually, the platoon, actually we cut the platoon size down before deployment by six people, we sent them to other battalions within the unit because really that's like a move on the leadership part of really getting the most cohesive guys, because you always have two or three that want to do their own thing so to speak and that had attitudes, you know, so, but they went off, so really we went over there ... for the personnel that we had for that platoon, it was the, you know, we had the best people for that platoon at that time at Fort Hood.

Tanner Russo:

And so what is - is there a difference when you're in Fort Hood to then being in Baghdad in terms of your relationship with these other guys and-

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um-

Tanner Russo:

Any women?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

No, this was a combat unit. So only in the - uh - like the support companies ofthe unit, with support as in the, uh, the logistics or something of that nature, the finance part, really you find women, but nothing on the combat lines. The front line, the combat units, all male.

Tanner Russo:

So, again, is there a difference between, you know, sitting in Fort Hood - well, not sitting in Fort Hood - but being in Fort Hood and then being in Baghdad, riding on the roads, talking to people, talking to Iraqis? What's the - is there a shift in your relationship with these guys when you're out there?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, because the very nature of the environment itself is a shift. I mean, at Fort Hood some of the guys would go home to their wife or back wherever, on the weekends some would go to San Antonio, some of us would go to Dallas, so you kind of do your own thing. But, you know, but there you don't have that option. Once you go on a mission, you're right back, you're all up in the same area, ate in the same place. So we -luckily, we all got along and there wasn't really a wedge or something to divide anybody, so we really got along which was really, which was great, but yeah it's just all proximity over there. It's, you know, who you're over with and it's who you're with the whole time.

Tanner Russo:

Now I have to ask about some of the things that you have might have seen during your time in Iraq. I think for a lot of people back home when they think of war, they think of, you know, soldiers bleeding, and rubble, and all kinds of destruction going on. Do you mind me asking if you witnessed anything that perhaps struck you emotionally that you'd like to share, you know, some of the things that were tough for you?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Ultimately, the loss of the guys I got to know really well, who are killed in action soldiers. The individual I was with in my vehicle the day I was injured who was within, you know, really a couple feet of me there in the vehicle. So, there is that shock. And then, of course, when I was at Walter Reed recovering and back at Fort Hood, the army hospital, Darnall Center down there. You know, then you receive word that there's someone else you know who had been killed. So really, that was the hardest part is the people that - not really, you know, seeing an unknown Iraqi on the side of the road who had been maybe taken in the night and killed by insurgents because he gave up some information or for whatever reason. We saw once or twice, you know, a body out on the side of the road, so, but that is, you know, the nature of that, that environment, that conflict. But it was, it's the people that you get to know and who you served with and who wore the same uniform as you who don't come back. That's the most shocking thing to deal with.

Tanner Russo:

And how many people that you were close with were killed?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Five.

Tanner Russo:

How many of those, I guess, were while you were actually serving or have some ofthose resulted after your time of service ended?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, our deployment was five. There was another individual who was in the sniper platoon who, it was late 2008 or 2009, who was on another redeployment, I think his third deployment to Iraq and he was killed. But this was a different, you know, different deployment. But I did know him from my previous time, from a previous deployment.

Tanner Russo:

And so, I mean, how does a unit deal with that? When you lose someone, but you still have to get up the next morning and go about the day's business? How, as a unit, do you get through that?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, actually, my injury and the other soldier who was killed the day I was injured, on the 25th of January, 2007, we were the first casualties of the platoon. We had - there was a soldier from Bravo Company who had been killed in action in December, but we didn't know him directly but he was in the unit. But not in the platoon, so we don't know, we kind of knew the name, but didn't, we didn't serve with him directly. But the day I was injured was the first time we, the platoon took casualties, so after that I wasn't really, I wasn't in the country then for the subsequent injuries and our KIAs after that so I really can't fully answer that. I can only know that it was very difficult, you know, hearing of the news back at Fort Hood recovering, going through physical therapy and all of the other therapy sessions that I was doing for my elbow and knee. But, uh, yeah, it was very difficult then, but like to get up really, you know, the next day to go back out on the mission or to get back out, out there, I didn't really experience it, because, like I said, I was the first-

Tanner Russo:

Right. How did you stay in touch with your friends and family? I would imagine that you probably carried the weight of your family's concern with you while you were over there, which probably made getting on with everyday responsibilities that much harder.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Obviously, the main method of communication was e-mail. Uh, and at this time I had Facebook and MySpace account, because I had Facebook from being at college at VMI so I still had that, which those accounts I don't have any more, but that was the biggest way to keep in touch with my friends back here. Facebook, really through friends. I actually had another guy, a good buddy I went to high school with, who was in Afghanistan with the 10lh Mountain Division at the same time I was in Iraq with the 1st Cav. So, I would keep in touch with him through MySpace. Most of the other guys, really through, guys at VMI, I'd keep in touch with them through Facebook. And then with my parents, it was eemails. E-mails and occasionally, I would try to at least once a week to have a phone call, to get a phone call back here and talk to people.

Tanner Russo:

And so, how did those communications affect you? Does it keep you going in a way, hearing from people back home?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Oh, it definitely gives you something to look forward to. Kind of like receiving a care package or something, like it used to be in previous wars before e-mail and instant communication, you know, this was something to look forward to, because, you know, you get done with a mission, you take care of your equipment and you get something to eat and then you kind oflike have some down time, you'd look forward to seeing who you got e-mails from, what's going on, what happened with this. And, obviously, the constant communication and contact and just seeing what's going on back here, it gives you always something to look forward to. Because you always, you never know who you here from. I was, once I was injured, I was receiving messages and things on Facebook from people I'd been to high school with, I hadn't even spoken to since June 2001.

Tanner Russo:

[Laughter]

Paul Franklin Mercer:

People would say 'Hey, we heard you were injured' or 'We heard you were overseas. How are things? Hope all is well.' So really, you find people that go way back from a long time. So that's surprising. It lets you know that people remember who you are and understand what you're doing over there.

Tanner Russo:

And so when you weren't on duty, how would you relax? What was there at the facility that you would do after a day's work?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Lift. At the time, lift more often, actually lift all the time, really more than I do now because of my elbow. And we would, my buddy I mentioned who lives out in Tusan, we would go lift. And we had, there on the base, of course, they have a couple basketball courts. Even though we there in the November, December, January timeframes, obviously it's warm enough to play. Basketball and a couple of time we would have some pick up football games. Things like that. You know, like you said, once you get off work here in the States, maybe you go have a pickup basketball game with people from work or a rec league or something like that. We would continue to do the same things. Work out, lift weights, play sports. One of the guys brought his X-Box over so we would play X-Box, football games, went out and saw Rambo 6, stuff like that.

Tanner Russo:

Right. Now, during your time of service, the criticism of the United States' engagement in Iraq really peaked. And I know you said that, you know, you kind of kept a neutral mindset to it, but were you and your fellow soldiers, were you even aware of all of that that was going on, all that angst going on back home?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um ... yeah, there is an awareness of it, but, again, you don't uh ... you know, you can't get really get involved or dive into it, one because locality you really can't. You're there in country and it's not like you can really - you have orders and you're sworn to uphold those orders and to carry them out. Really there is ... you don't really have that luxury of-

Tanner Russo:

The luxury of being partial.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

- to speak your mind. Everyone over there, obviously, who I served with, they wouldn't have had really a negative opinion about it anyway because of the nature of our job. It's just we're in uniform and you don't speak out. Sometimes you'd get on a mission and, you know, you'd be like 'Well, we've been out here for ten hours, you know. Why are we still riding around and nothing's going on out here?' You have that, that's just normal, but never really questioning the mission as a whole or, you know, what, not really saying like, you know, never asking 'why are we here?' Never that.

Tanner Russo:

But was there ever any, I guess, anger that you witnessed about people reacting to other people's anger, not necessarily their own opinion about the conflict, but mad that people were made about something that they probably didn't really understand?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

No. Because, again, like being over there you're just so separated and detached from that. It's not, really not existent.

Tanner Russo:

So aware of it, but not ...

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right. I guess there would be, different people because of, you know, no matter what they would think or, you know, who they came in touch with back home, I guess different divisions had a different awareness or outlook, but nothing ever really outspoken about it or projected on anybody.

Tanner Russo:

Right. Now during your time in Iraq, did your basic activities, day-to-day activities, did they sort of remain the same? You know, you were still going out, talking to people, engaging people about things that had happened? Did your role ever change?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

No, it was pretty much, when I was in-country, it was, urn, the patrol would go out, try to find or locate insurgents who were doing something, any nefarious activity, uh, trying to find that, again, trying to build cohesion with the locals. So really, no, it pretty much just stayed the same. The mission didn't really differ, really.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. Now I want to tum to your injury. I know you were injured by, as you've already referenced, by an improvised explosive device, more commonly known as an IED. Had you or anyone well, you've already answered that. No one had actually been hit by an IED before, had they?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Uh, yes. No -

Tanner Russo:

So they had? But not, no fatal ...

Paul Franklin Mercer:

We were on a mission in mid-December. We were actually checking out the area I had mentioned before about the soldier from Bravo Company who was killed in the unit, we were actually, we went out there to check it out. Turned out there was another from where that explosion, because you could see the crater there on the road, but underneath of that, which the first vehicle when the IED went off initially, Bravo company, it didn't, there was another IED there. Our vehicle then hit it and it was a pressure plate. We set it off, but really it just more or less did a little bit. .. I mean, the vehicle was still operable, it was able to run, but really it just kind of hit, like blew a couple engine parts out, but nothing, uh, no casualties, just kind of a little scratched up Humvee, but that was the first encounter with it, with the IED.

Tanner Russo:

And so I guess you leave the gate to go wherever you're going, to talk to whoever you're talking to. I guess you're on sort of unchartered territory, little back dirt roads.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes.

Tanner Russo:

So what's the terrain like that you're going through?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, initially, leaving the camp, being there in the city there was a paved road, it was asphalt, but then as, you know, we would go on out to where our area of operation, that was all, that was all dirt road, pretty rough, I would imagine like a lot of country roads here in the county are smoother, a lot of gravel roads if you were to go in different parts of this county or west of here in Virginia, it would be smoother. So it was essentially, it was very dry, rocky terrain roads.

Tanner Russo:

And so, you've been hit by an IED before. I would imagine that every time you're out driving it's going through your head, that, you know, 'I could be hit by an IED today.' Is that accurate?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, urn, but really, you know, there was, it was pretty quiet from that one incident in December when we hit the pressure plate and when we had no one killed, you're kind of like 'Well, that was an IED. Ok, that's what it is.' But now it's urn - and then there was a gap in between of really, you know, things were pretty quiet up through maybe even, again, through, up till January. So almost a month - things were pretty quiet, nothing happened, you never really hear any gunshots or never really get hit, no IEDs, or no explosions. We had spotted a couple IEDs obviously before we approached them and then secured the area and had the EOD personnel come out and then they did their thing, I guess, so more or less deactivated the IED or, you know, and blew it up with C-4. So we were able to spot some, but never actually to get hit with them until we were hit with the big one that, you know, I was involved in.

Tanner Russo:

And so going on these little back roads and stuff, were you ever engaged with, I guess the insurgents would be the term for them. Is that when you're most vulnerable, in terms of being ambushed?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, really with IEDs though, not with small arms. Because being in a Humvee, either with, you know, 50 caliber weapons or you know 2 foot Bravo machine guns, [?] grenade launchers, obviously we had superior fire power. So there would never be direct, you know, their small arms versus ours. It just - they didn't do it. And really in an insurgency, you know, it wouldn't be direct anyway, it would just be a couple pops here, an IED, and then fleeing the scene. So, yeah, nothing ever really sustained or drawn out, you know, straight like firefight so to speak. It was just a different type of environment.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so, I mean, it has to be frustrating that these guys don't have to come out in the light of day.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes.

Tanner Russo:

They're coming out at night, they're putting these IEDs. It's nothing like the army has seen before. And so how frustrating is that for, I guess, you while you were over there, just knowing that the people who you're fighting don't even have to show their faces?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right, yeah. It's very frustrating, urn, you know, because you lose soldiers and equipment. It really disrupts what you're trying to do when really it's not fighting at all. It's just, again, it's just more shadow fighting, shadow boxing really, as opposed to direct more blow-for-blow. Yeah, it's very frustrating.

Tanner Russo:

Now I do want to get to the day of your injury. I think you said that that was the 25th of January, 2007. Is that correct?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes.

Tanner Russo:

Can youjust tell me what you remember about the day of your injury? What had you done? Did you go out in the evening, was it a typical -

Paul Franklin Mercer:

It was, uh, it was an early morning mission. We had gone out early in the morning, we had picked up an informant who showed us, who was, you know, where a weapons cache, where it had been planted, where they were hiding IEDs, magazines, small arms, AK-47s, things of that nature. And then, uh, we dropped him back off and we were headed back to the base. The mission was done, we were all headed back. And it was on a dirt road and that was when we got hit. I was in the third vehicle in the convoy so, you know, we, they hit the last vehicle.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so there had been really nothing to suggest that this was going to be any different than any other day?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right. Yeah, we took that same route out that morning to pick the guy up, to go ride around. Then we dropped him off and we went back the same way and, you know, it was smooth that morning going out. The mission itself was a success. We got the information we needed, we dropped the guy back off and then we were going back and that's, on the way back, that's when we were hit. I want to say it was around maybe 11 :30 a.m. Baghdad time on the 25th of January, again, because it was an early morning mission so it's about, yeah, noon that we were headed back.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so how likely was it that someone saw you going through, planted it and then you come back-

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Very likely. You know, it's speculation in hind sight, you know, but it's something that I've had to think about. Maybe even the individual we picked up, was he part of a larger cell, you know, that more or less, you know ... I like to think so, because, you know, he did show us some things that day so I don't know if really the double agent aspect of helping us out, plus being a [?] member, I don't know. Again, I never will know, but maybe someone else knew he was going out or the path we were taking because we went over that same road on the way back and that's when we got hit. So, again, it's speculation, but-

Tanner Russo:

Likely.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

It is likely, yeah.

Tanner Russo:

And so the IED goes off. Do you remember the actual explosion?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. What - can you describe what it's like when one of these things goes off?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um - it was almost instantaneous, but I knew, I was, because I was the last vehicle in the [?] position so I was facing to the rear, so I was looking back at wide open area. I remember the driver, who was killed, I was actually in conversation with him at the time we were hit. It was just small talk, nothing, you know, passing time when you're driving down the road. But it was nothing, because it was on a dirt road and it was so, it was planted so deep that nothing could have been seen. And actually that road was, if you look at the surrounding terrain, actually the road was elevated. So any like wires or cable, you know, connected with the IED that would have like gone out it would have been very, actually impossible, to spot because of it being elevated above everything else. You just wouldn't have seen it coming out of the side of the road.

Tanner Russo:

Right.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um - but yeah, I remember, it was an explosion and then the first like, almost like a shock or a thud, was the explosion itself, the IED. The second, it seemed like, you know, although it was probably with ballistics and physics instantaneous, it seemed like a gap in between then. I felt a second, like third or fourth, that was then the vehicle landing back down because it hit the, I guess, on the driver's side front wheel well and the engine block, which it blew the engine block out and, actually, what it did, when I was finally craw ling out of the vehicle I remember looking back - of course, I had eyeglasses, but those were gone - so, you know, I couldn't really see too much at the time without glasses and my vision was pretty poor. I remember looking at the vehicle and the vehicle was flipped upside down with no engine block in it, so really it was just a cabin of a Humvee. But at the first, you know, explosion force was the explosion, the IED, the second then was the vehicle then coming back down, landing on its top, flipped completely upside down. And I remember knowing then once the vehicle landed, I knew, of course, you can smell all different kinds of odors from the explosion itself, stuff from the engine, fluids, oil, all that. And I remember looking, there was a small, a very, very, very small fire like kind of, sort of in the cabin, but it was able to be, threw some dirt on it quickly, but that was very worrisome, obviously, because at the time I was really stuck in the vehicle. I could move, I knew, one, I was still alive because I was thinking, I could see what was going on around me. I knew - I didn't know the vehicle was upside down but I knew the vehicle was probably in pretty bad shape because I was really crunched in. And I remember looking down - see that scar right there [points] - I remember I could peel that back. And I was like, ok, but then I knew right away 'Ok, we've been hit with an IED.' The second thing is, I was like 'Ok, well I know, I can see myself, I'm moving my hands, I'm still fine, as far as I can see, I'm fine. I don't feel pain,' until eventually I did. But that first few minutes, you know, you're just like, you're just going, adrenalin or whatever, fight or flight, whatever it is, the psychological aspect of it, it's just in full swing. So and I remember, I didn't really hear, you know, anything being, anybody else, but then I started to hear some voices and stuff, so 'Ok, other people are coming to now.' The soldiers from the second vehicle then came back and I remember looking up and they were, you know, pulling the twisted metal and stuff, getting it out of the way, working a way out. They were able to throw some dirt on this little small fire that had started. So they extinguished that, they put that out. They eventually, I'd say maybe after we were hit, within, again I don't know the exact time, but it felt like maybe five minutes or so, I was able to finally make my through and out of the vehicle, you know, crawl out. My weapon and stuff, they said they found it I don't know how many yards, because it had been blown out from the vehicle. I guess my M-4, they say had been bent, again stuff that I had been told, because I never saw the stuff, because they moved us out to the, us, the ones in the vehicles, including the body of the driver, they moved us to the side and then called in Medevac. I remember looking back and sort of seeing the crater, you know, but I didn't walk back over there, obviously, I was still shaken. You know, I remember looking back, crawling out, you could see the vehicle was completely destroyed. And, and then I was eventually, they walked us all over to the side, sat us down and that's when I saw. I was standing next to the guy in the passenger's seat, he was the truck commander, he was speaking with the soldier who ... was dying at the time. So, seeing that, that was shocking ... and then I remember it was maybe ten minutes after or so, I know the helicopter was on the way. That's when things, you know, I guess adrenaline had worn off and now I really started to feel the shooting pain, the scar here on my elbow. That's when another individual had asked about it, I said 'Can you check my elbow out?' Obviously, my arm, I could sort of bend it, you know, I was moving my hands, so obviously my arm was attached. So it's not like I had lost any limbs or anything, but he looked up and like the, my ACU top, it was like a little thing right here, it had cut it, and just blood came down from my arms, my elbows, which was when they saw that it was all, it had been hit with shrapnel and stuff. That's when it really hit me, that like, that pain, waiting, you know, for the Medevac to come.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so then the injuries - you said you had an injury to the knee as well?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, the shrapnel from the side. Because it had, because I was facing toward the rear, so the explosion happened over here so it was my right side, knee, and elbow, because your elbow was kind of down like this so it kind of hit. The shrapnel and debris coming up went into my right side.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so your - you crawl out of the vehicle, so you're able to walk ... or no?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes, I guess ... Yeah, I was able to walk. It wasn't until my knee really and my leg really tightened up, it was after when the helicopter arrived, I get to the hospital from the Medevac was when I tried to get out of the helicopter and my knee really then had swollen and was in bad shape then. Initially, after it happened it was more or less open and cut. I could still walk ... but, yeah, I remember then after the flight back and getting into the hospital, before laying down on the table there, because they remove your clothes to see where all you're hit and do all the necessary initial medical treatment and all that. So, urn, the answer would be fifteen minutes or so afterwards I had trouble walking really with my right knee, almost like keeping it straight, almost, just kind of, you know, making my way into, you know, the hospital.

Tanner Russo:

And so were you - I know you were aware that the driver of the vehicle, had he died at that point?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. So you were aware that he had been killed. Were there any other injuries in the vehicle?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yes, another soldier who was the platoon medic, he was injured, he survived. He was Medevaced back to the States with me. Actually, I went to Walter Reed, he went back to Fort Hood, maybe because he was married, his wife was living at Fort Hood so they sent him back to the hospital there at Fort Hood. So two of us were Medevaced back here to the States. The platoon sergeant, he stayed in country, I think he had a, was concussed, I believe, and a couple scratches, but not anything requiring surgery or, you know, extended medical attention or treatment.

Tanner Russo:

And so you were, you know like you said, you were aware of everything that was going on. You were, you know, lucid the entire time?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I knew, I said, you know, once after that second, when the vehicle came back down on its top, and I felt like the second force of like it crushing it again, I knew right away, I've been hit with an IED, but again too, because I realized that I knew, well, I was still alive, too, because you just knew, you're processing what's happening, you're thinking, yeah. Yep.

Tanner Russo:

Was there ever a moment when you thought, in that initial moment after the hit, you know, 'I might not be alive. I might not make it out of here.' Or even once you were conscious of the fact that you were still alive, how afraid were you, just being in that car, not knowing the real nature of your injuries at that point?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um, never really thought that I wasn't alive, because I wouldn't know what that, up to that, wouldn't know what that, if it's possible to think that, you know, that you're not alive. But I knew because of the explosion and knowing the first force and the second force being the vehicle coming back down on its top, and feeling that and then looking down and seeing my hand, I knew that, uh, never had a moment ever that I thought that I might not be alive. I knew, you just kind of know the entire time, because, you know, you're thinking. So never, I knew the whole time that I was alive. And actually I remember kind of, because I could also move this hand up, so it was almost instantaneously I thought 'Ok, well, I have both arms. And I'm moving my hands.' Within maybe twenty seconds, a half a minute after-

Tanner Russo:

So fairly quickly you were hopeful-

Paul Franklin Mercer:

You could smell all the odors so you knew that you were -

Tanner Russo:

- that you were going to be ok -

Paul Franklin Mercer:

- that you were there. Yeah. And not really having, uh, you know, being concussed or having any shock wave to the brain or anything, again, because my senses were all there. It was heightened. My sense of sight, although disabled a little bit because I lost my glasses, but I could still see moving my hands and I could feel -

Tanner Russo:

So it would be fair to say that you almost felt more alive than -

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I felt more alive -

Tanner Russo:

- than you had ever felt.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah. Yeah.

Tanner Russo:

How quickly did it take that plane, or helicopter, or whatever to get there? And then where were you taken directly from the site of the explosion?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I want to say, urn, which felt like, because of, urn, once I really started to feel the pain of my elbow, it felt like an eternity, but I think, realistically, probably ten minutes maybe. Because the longest part is, uh, they radioed right away that they had casualties and they would need a Medevac. The most important thing is, though, securing the area because to make the helicopter doesn't come and then the helicopter getting attacked. That was the most important thing, aside from getting the soldiers medical attention to make sure nothing happens to the rescue helicopter and everything, you know, that comes with it. So, that was probably what took the longest, to make sure there were no other IEDs in the area, to make sure that that wasn't one of maybe two or three IEDs that had been set up, you know, a daisy chain, trying to set you up for something. Yeah, really securing the area and making sure it was safe for the Medevac, that was what felt like an eternity, probably maybe ten or fifteen minutes.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so from that site you're taken where?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

To the hospital. To the Baghdad, to the army section, you know, urn, the bi-op, I guess the hospital there by the airport.

Tanner Russo:

OK. And so how long - I guess kind of take me through your recovery process, where you were taken, how long you stayed -

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Actually, no, 1 was not, 1 apologize, it wasn't bi-op, it was the hospital on the Green Zone. It was not at the airport, I'm sorry, it was a hospital at the Green Zone, where we were flying to. And what was your question?

Tanner Russo:

Just walk me through the recovery process and sort of, you know, you went from point A to point B and how long you were in each place.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I want to say I was at the hospital in Baghdad in the Green Zone maybe ... twenty four hours and then I was then Medevaced to, I want to say it was the Balad Airfield Hospital and then from there, again, because this is, you know, with, you know, still in shock and having the injuries like that, and medication, I don't know exactly how long I was in Balad or anything. But then, I know from there I went to Germany. And it was from Germany, I want to say I was in Germany two days, maybe three days, and then I was on the Medevac back to, you know, Walter Reed, on the flight.

Tanner Russo:

And so when were you able to make contact with people back home, with your family?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um, actually it was that next day in Baghdad, I got one phone call, because, of course, they would be getting a call from the army saying, you know, 'Your son has been injured, but he is alive.' But I wanted to call, I called, tried to call my parents, couldn't get a hold ofthem, but at the time my grandmother was still alive, who lived here. I was able to get a hold of her and just told her, hey, you know, obviously I had been injured but I was ok, because I was able to calm her down by saying 'I'm having a conversation with you right now. So obviously I'm doing, I'm ok. If I wasn't, you know, if I was worse off I couldn't have a conversation with you so soon after this incident.' So, urn, and then she called and let my dad know that she spoke to me, but, you know, I was alive, I wouldn't say well, but most importantly I was alive. So, yeah, maybe a day [after] I was able to come around or came to enough to talk, let my grandma know I'm ok to tell everybody else I'm ok.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so, I guess, when were you first able to actually talk to your parents?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um ... probably, I didn't, it was maybe a week, about a week later or so when I got to uh ... to Walter Reed.

Tanner Russo:

Ok. And so what was their reaction, I guess, just being able to hear your voice and know that you're well enough to have a conversation?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Oh, I would imagine they were ecstatic, you know, happy, you know, that [I was] alive, talking, coherent, you know, all that, had my arms and legs still, you know, urn, that allowed me not just to come back to the US but coming back to Walter Reed, which is just right up the road from where we are right now, here around northern Virginia. So they would, once I got back there, the family would be able to come up there and visit.

Tanner Russo:

And so you described your injuries for me, I guess, it would be the right side of your body, as you said. How serious - give me kind of a feel for how serious your injuries were.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um ... well, obviously, by far the most serious injury I've ever had. But really to put it in perspective it was, from really late February I went into a couple surgeries and some things, I will have to start rehab, like rehabilitation, you know, physical therapy and stuff like that. So it was probably late February until I finally ended all the therapy sessions in July, so that time frame overall. But to really, you know, to put it into perspective, when I was at Walter Reed, I was the only one in the physical therapy unit there who had all four limbs so to me, as an individual, it was the worst injury I've ever had. But, obviously, in comparison to other soldiers, you know, it was really just a scratch so to speak. But I still had some surgeries and scars and stitches, you know, I lost a piece of my elbow, stuff like that, but it could always be worse.

Tanner Russo:

Right. And so when did it become clear to you that you wouldn't be returning to combat?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um, probably, well, if you get to like Germany to be Medevaced back to the hospital for surgery and rehabilitation and therapy, urn, it's kind of, you more or less think 'I probably, won't be returning in that capacity. If I were to stay in the military, it would be in an administrative or different - it wouldn't be in the combat arms, because of, you know, the, one, just by the time you get full range of motion back in your elbow and your knee and then stabilizing your knee to when you can carry all that equipment around again and, you know, run and be able to physically perform, you know, to meet the combat arms standards, PT and stuff. So, you know, after all of that, I probably knew that when I left, you know, that mission on the 25th of January was my last one. But initially, I didn't think that right away. It was just really kind of set in, once days had passed, you know, you're in Germany and you come, things aren't as hazy because you're going from here to there, you're dealing with medication and going through surgeries and stuff, but, urn, yeah, once a week or so had passed and once you're back at Walter Reed you kind of realize 'Well, I don't know how long it's going to take to go through therapy and everything and then, you know, after that will you be able to do, how many pushups, you know, will you be able to move your knee, you know, carry it like it was when you were totally 100 percent healthy, when you first went in?'

Tanner Russo:

Right. And so physically now, how do your injuries affect you on a day-to-day basis?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um, I've ... because I had an older nerve damage in my elbow, I've been able to have some feeling, nerve-ending issues with these two fingers, but the nerve, she told me, is slowly regenerating itself. So, that's fine. No, you know, extreme knee problems. Again, I'm still, like when the weather's nice, I'm able to get out and jog and do some exercising and stuff like that. But, no, no heavy lifting with my elbow anymore, no pushups, that's why I said I wasn't doing anymore, maybe, but nothing, you know, I have range of motion back here in my arm and everything. Maybe, you know, as I get older, maybe, hopefully not, but arthritis or something, side effects, but right now, being my age, it still, it's ... I think I'm fully recovered. I mean, the scars and stuff are still there, but I've recovered, you know, real well, compared to, you know, what it could have been.

Tanner Russo:

And so when were you actually able to actually come home? You know, you finished your treatments and you can begin to readjust.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Well, I had some convalescent leave when I was left ... Walter Reed, which was end of February 2007, when I left there and before I reported back to Fort Hood, they give soldiers what's called convalescent leave, since I was so close to home, you spend some time with your family first, before I go back down to continue treatment and stuff at Fort Hood, but I was able to continue therapy sessions in Warrenton. I found ... a physical therapy, you know, unit that individuals up there who would, took the army insurance, the Tricare, so I was able to continue that during convalescent leave, so I did do that. And then, so, yeah, it was pretty much on the weekends, family would come up to visit when I was there, you know, at Walter Reed. So I got to see them and talk on the phone, essentially, most every day. I might not see them every day, of course, but at least, you know, talk to them.

Tanner Russo:

Be in contact.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right.

Tanner Russo:

And so, you know, we're hearing so much these days about how, just how traumatic it is both physically and mentally, particularly for people who have served, you know, multiple tours of duty, to readjust to civilian life. What was the transition back into civilian life like for you?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Um ... well, after I realized I was being released on a medical discharge, because, you know, of my injuries, I knew that, you know, that I would be leaving Texas, leaving Fort Hood and obviously coming back here to Virginia. In order to really speed that transition up, the first thing I did was apply, because I knew I had GI bill benefits, so the first thing I did then was apply to go back and get a second bachelor's degree right down the road at George Mason in Fairfax. Also, I knew I'd have to get ajob, first and foremost, I knew the job would take awhile because right down the way the economy was going and I've got to find something that I would be interested in applying, you know, ajob that I would want to do, not just to come back to find something to work. So, getting in, getting things ready, applying to go back to school kept me busy through December, into January of that year, you know, sending the application and stuff off. And then, it was around February of2008, I started to look on government websites, things of that nature, other state jobs, stuff like that, so ... it was, I [?] myself, I knew, I didn't just want to stay around, not do nothing, or keep myself busy, but I set myself up for things to eventually keep me busy. I knew, if I hadn't, I know that I would have been frustrated because just however many months ago, I was busy. I had never, never would have thought in my mid-twenties, here you are, living back at home, you know, you don't have ajob - what are you doing, where are you going? So that was really the hardest thing, such a turnaround, being in an environment, like being deployed, being in a college environment where you're studying, you always have something to do, to then having, being in the service, always keeps you busy up until deployment, which is non-stop, around the clock, now to back in Virginia, and my service, my contract's up because of the medical release so, you know, where do I go from here? But I knew that, first and foremost, go back, you know, you get more education, use your GI bill, there was a list of things that had been afforded to me through service, make sure you use those. So and then to, one thing at a time, look at what's, what you have, what you can apply for now, and then also just wait for jobs to come along. As I waited to hear back from school and then as I applied to work with the federal government, you know, waiting, and it took its toll, so by mid-2008 I was getting pretty frustrated because I find that really I was waiting to hear back. I know, fairly soon that I would be accepted to school, but also I wanted to work and really start a career, too, and really get myself established as a civilian now that my military time is done. But, waiting on things, you know, paperwork to process, getting the job, was really frustrating around May, June, on into the end of July of 2008, just waiting to hear, you know, 'Do I have the job or not?' and I'm going for the interview, so I got that step, waiting another five weeks, I hear back, ok, well, I'm going to the next step, so that's a good thing, I'm being, at least I know it's being forwarded on, my application. So finally at the end of July 2008, I heard that I, I was offered a federal government job. So, I was, finally that waiting period, that tense time of like really 'Well, if I don't get this, you know, then where do I go from here?' You know ... I knew I had school starting up, then do I go to school full time again? I got another bachelors degree, then apply to graduate school? So all that was going through my mind, which became frustrating, because you wanted to get out, you know, I wanted to get my own place, get myself established, work. Which worked itself out, you know, by the end of 2008 I was working full time and then finished the first semester at school, but leading up to that, getting back to the original part, it was very frustrating. Finding that, just waiting, waiting. Nothing that, you know, you've done what you can do, but there's nothing you can do about waiting to hear back.

Tanner Russo:

And just trying to shape what the rest, you know, the next couple of years were going to have in store for you.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah ... right and then thinking, then trying to make a list of 'Well, even though I went to say like phase two of being hired for this job, and then phase three. Ok, well, what happens ultimately if it all comes down to you didn't make the cut? You waited this long, ok, it will be a letdown, but what are other things you can apply to?' I was constantly just trying to keep myself busy, because, you know, otherwise you drive yourself crazy over things you can't-

Tanner Russo:

Control.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah. So, but, you know, school and having the GI bill pay for it, that was the most important thing. You get the one thing that you know, once you get into school, you know it's covered financially. Get yourself involved in that, it keeps you busy, just constantly like I've found in the last couple years, with being in the service, the time of leave, I was like 'Ok, well, I always had something to do, now I don't. Now I have to make, generate something. I have to, you know, it's not going to be, it's not already regimented like it had been since 2001, going to a military school and going on into active duty service. Now I'm going to have to like, you know, kind of make your own way.' But, ultimately, it all worked out. There through the spring and summer, on into the fall of ... or, you know, the end of2007, December, you know, November, December of when I first got out initially to when I started work and school around August 2008, that was a very long, very long time oflike 'What am I doing? Where am I going?' You know, so, yeah, that was the toughest part, really trying to figure yourself out, not really so much of reeintegrating back into society, that-

Tanner Russo:

So more frustrating than emotionally traumatic?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Right. Frustrating because I've known sixth gear for however many years now, always doing something, and now, next thing you know, I've just completely shifted to reverse almost of like waiting, you know, you're not really doing anything. But I know it's all part of, you know, whenever you transition from thing to the next there's always waiting involved, no matter what it is, it's just I didn't know how long it would be. That was the most frustrating part of like 'You know, I've got start school. Ok, well I'm accepted. Ok, will I get the job?' That was the most difficult part.

Tanner Russo:

And so now, on a day-to-basis, do you - I mean, does it stay with you, do you think about your time in Iraq every day?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Maybe not Iraq itself, like per say, but definitely the military, whether it be Fort Hood or, you know, hanging out with some of the guys on weekends. That, definitely you think about it every day, except maybe not Iraq every day. Maybe I have kind of unconsciously maybe thought about it, just not aware of it. Something I'm not aware of, maybe every day since, um, but not really every day, but most days, you know, you think about it, especially now with the massive reduction that just took place in Iraq, moving a lot of the combat units now and everything, of course, then that kind of refueled memories, rekindled some things for me of being back over there of like, uh, you know, the one, the operation, the mission, you know, the war I was involved in was kind of, more or less, drawing to a close even though it's not closed out officially, but it's significantly reduced.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and I'm curious to know, I guess, what you, how you feel about the Iraq War today. Do you think we will achieve victory in Iraq and, if so, what do you think that victory will look like?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Victory, I think, is extremely broad and I don't know if I could define that ... I was say, you know, from my time there and my experience, which I think is the best way I can answer it, because it's what I perceived and the way I understood things as opposed to victory as an [?] state employee. I know that we went over there and we did, you know, the best we could. My platoon, we did our mission and 1 think that we, we helped really spearhead part of the early on, with the surge and how it really changed the country. Because we, again, being in there in late 2006 and the surge really taking form in the summer of 2007 and on into early 2008, I really think that we really helped that transition of not just the leadership of the country, the general US leadership change and mission, but you really saw in 2007 that we were doing that as a unit, as a brigade, and as a platoon in 2006. So I think, from that standpoint, because of really trying something, a method and a tactic that we were kind of going in blindly to, I think it was successful because things really did change. The surge really did, you know, I don't have like, obviously, data and statistics in front of me to say, ok, this is how it changed and this is what the government, you know, not at that level, but I think looking back and looking at the positive aspect, now, of the Department of Defense being able to cut back on the amount of soldiers in personnel combat units in Iraq, I think it speaks highly of, you know, initially in late 2006, what the soldiers and the mission, how it drastically changed and how it did affect, ultimately, getting out of there and within a few years, how it really changed the country and ... I really don't hear, you know, other than just the recent withdrawal of a lot of soldiers, but I don't really hear too much about this occur. I know I don't hear many bomb - the amount of bombings that were taking place, the suicide bombers' attacks, it's still ongoing and probably will be for many years. But, I mean, but now, it just seems to be, they haven't - they occur less often, now I think, since, we've really hopefully established a law enforcement entity over there, their own military and ultimately their own way of government. So, I think, from our individual platoon level, we went out, we worked with them, which ultimately which we came on for the country as a whole, a whole new tactic with General Patreas with the surge and the counterinsurgency. So I'd to think that it was, it was a victory.

Tanner Russo:

I want to ask you about the Purple Heart which, for the recording, I have right in front of me. You told me that you keep this on your dresser?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Yeah, in my room, yeah.

Tanner Russo:

Ok and so tell me a little bit about what it was like to receive this and what it means to you.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Obviously, it means a lot. I remember our lieutenant colonel of 2-5 Cav, he and the Sergeant Major, came in when I was, before I left ... I was still in the hospital bed when he came in and placed it on the pillow next to me, or the pillow that I was on. He put it next to my shoulder, he kind of pinned it on there, because I was in a cast and kind of laying there. But I remember him coming in and speaking with him briefly. He came in and talked to me. Of course, that's something that's really special. Of course, it's only a medal that you're not put in for. It's something that you instantly get because of criteria. It's not something that has to be with sworn statements and other, you know, silver stars, the recent Medal of Honor recipient who they have to go through a review, an investigation to see that whole incident as something that, because of [an] enemy of the United States who wounded bullet shrapnel on a mission in a combat zone, it's something that you can instantly receive. It's not something you can put in for, it's something that's instantly given to you. So that, you know, means ... it's a special, special award.

Tanner Russo:

In closing, what lessons have you learned from your time in Iraq and how has, I guess, just being a soldier in general changed you as a person and shaped the way, your outlook on life?

Paul Franklin Mercer:

I think it's something that I'll, you'll always have, no one can ever take it away from you. Of course, a Purple Heart medal, the veteran status, you know, because for the rest of my life and, you know, from here to eternity my name will always be a veteran. So, that's something that will never, no one can ever take away from you. It's not something material or something that you can have one day and it's gone the next. That title is always there, you always would've served and the medal, you know, will always be, that will be mine to share, it's almost like an unspoken brotherhood from every other person from here to the American Revolution. It was all, all for the same cause.

Tanner Russo:

Well, Trey is now an employee of the federal government and attends classes in the evenings at George Mason University working towards a, I think you said government and ...

Paul Franklin Mercer:

A government degree and international relations.

Tanner Russo:

Right. Alright, well, thank you very much Trey for agreeing to have this important conversation and, most of all, thanks for your service.

Paul Franklin Mercer:

Thank you.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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