Despite surgery and recovery, the hardest part is two soldiers who saved his life in a Tal Afar battle never made it back home
This is the first in a two-part series. The first part profiles Jeremy Wolfsteller’s combat experience in the Iraq War, and the second part details what he does for The American Legion as the service officer for the Department of Minnesota.
By Tim Engstrom
The Minnesota veterans community knows Jeremy Wolfsteller as the departmental service officer for The American Legion of Minnesota.
Yes, his office is right there inside the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. He leads efforts to assist veterans with getting care locally and is a key adviser on national issues regarding rehabilitation.
People who know him typically are aware the man was shot in Iraq. Some even know that he survived a nine-hour surgery and years-long recovery.
But few know the full and difficult journey Wolfsteller, 41, has been through. Here is his story:
Wolfsteller grew up in the greater metropolitan area and graduated from Osseo Senior High School in 1997. He was big into skateboarding and frequented 3rd Lair, an indoor/outdoor skateboard park and shop in downtown Minneapolis (now in Golden Valley).
It can be hard to believe today seeing Wolfsteller walk with a slight limp that this guy could catch six or seven feet of air off 12-foot ramps. He skateboarded semiprofessionally, even with some big names like Tony Hawk. He also had played hockey from first grade to his senior year.
Looking for more direction in life, he enlisted in February 2001 with one year in the Delayed Entry Program.
Then the Twin Towers fell in New York on Sept. 11.
“My family became concerned that I’d be going to war,” Wolfsteller said.
He entered the Army in February 2002 and went to basic and AIT at Fort Knox. Drill sergeants had adjusted training to prepare recruits for war.
His military occupational specialty was 19D — cavalry scout. Wolfsteller, in June 2003, became part of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson, Colorado.
Cavalry in combat traditionally meant horse-mounted troops. The 3rd had horses at the outbreak of World War II and turned in their trusty steeds in February 1942.
In modern warfare, cavalry units still fulfill many of the strategic purposes of soldiers on horseback but without the horses: scouting, reconnaissance, forward security, flank moves, busting enemy lines. The terms “shock troops” and “cavalry” have been interchangeable. Cavalry can move with tanks, armored personnel carriers, Humvees or other trucks and even helicopters. You see mechanized cav, armored cav and air cav. To be flexible, they often operate without additional support from other units.
Wolfsteller said the commander of the 3rd asked top brass that his regiment enter the Iraq War.
“Unfortunately, he got what he requested.”
They left in March 2003 for Kuwait.
In this war, there was no scouting around the backwoods picking out terrain features and mapping them. The soldiers of the 3rd Cav went house to house, “clearing cities,” as they called it. They had Bradleys, and the scouts worked closely with the tankers.
Wolfsteller described hours in the desert heat with limited amounts of water. A private first class at the time, he drove Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Baghdad, Faluja, Ramadi, among other cities. After the defeat of the Iraqi conventional forces in late 2002, the well-known Iraqi Republican Guard no longer wore uniforms. It became difficult to tell a civilian from an enemy.
He was promoted to specialist in Iraq and returned unharmed — well, physically — from his first tour in March 2004.
“It was life-changing,” Wolfsteller said. “I wasn’t the same. I was very standoffish. It took months to figure out you’re not in a combat zone.”
He suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: always on high alert, drank heavily and was “all over the place” for about six months. He was preparing to get out of the Army in February 2005 — but then a stop-loss order came down. The 3rd ACR would return to Iraq in one year.
Back in the Sandbox by March ’05, he was promoted to sergeant and became a senior scout. He ended up the gunner of the lead Bradley within his Scout Platoon — operating the M242 Bushmaster, a 25 mm chain-fed autocannon firing up to 200 rounds a minute, and an M240C, a coaxial weapon firing 7.62 mm rounds.
Sgt. Wolf had a passion for it.
“You have to be really good at multitasking while scanning your sector with the turret gun,” he said.
The Army’s logistics were rather lacking during the first tour. Wolfsteller said soldiers had to get by with low or no supplies. The second had better amounts of water, food and toiletries along with improved living quarters.
The 3rd first went to the Triangle of Death, a name given to a region south of Baghdad with major sectarian violence. A change in orders sent them to Baghdad for a month.
His squadron then was sent to take over Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq 35 miles west of Mosul, joining the local Kurdish fighters. They learned the city’s troublesome situation by working with a Stryker brigade slated to pull out.
“They did recon by gunfire,” he said.
The regional commander, then-Col. H.R. McMaster, wanted U.S. troops to win hearts and minds, rebuild the city and build an Iraqi version of the National Guard. Iraqis often acted like guardsmen but would be insurgents.
“It was really hard to figure out who was true,” Wolfsteller said.
By June 2005, they had done many missions into the city, with many soldiers injured by roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.
On June 25, the cavalry scouts were sent to a hilltop citadel in Tal Afar, where they coordinated operations with the Iraqi military and guard and U.S. Army Special Forces before heading out. This time, Sgt. Wolf was told he would be a dismount that day — going without the Bradley. He was assigned hand grenades, one on each side.
They walked to the Sarai district. With its narrow streets, the ancient neighborhood was known for heavy insurgent activity. (Sidenote: Sarai again was the site of fighting in August 2017 during the Iraqi Civil War pitting ISIS against Iraqi forces.)
Wolf and others suspected not all the allies were allied. When they arrived in Sarai, gunfire was instantaneous.
“When we did that dismount, the insurgents were waiting for us. They knew we were coming that day.”
At that point, it was “scattered chaos,” Wolfsteller said. Soldiers took cover where they could: some behind a courtyard wall, some were caught in an alley. Enemy fire was coming from all sectors including rooftops.
His platoon sergeant was on the opposite side of an intersection, shooting down an alley and yelled for a specialist to lay cover using a grenade launcher. Wolfsteller found a huge truck tire in the dirt and lay in the prone position, firing toward a nearby rooftop to provide cover. He didn’t have much for cover behind him.
“When I got shot, I didn’t know what happened,” he said. “The impact was so great, I just thought ‘bomb.’”
He quickly realized it wasn’t.
Wolfsteller wore a lot of protective gear. He looked at his body and didn’t see blood or a missing body part.
“I yelled for help. That’s the first thing you do in that situation, is yell for help,” he said. “I knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, and it was really hard to breathe.”
His platoon sergeant heard him and called for two soldiers to come over. Spc. Hoby Bradfield and PFC Eric Woods, a combat medic, pulled him out of that area.
The gun battle lasted two and a half hours, and the 28-year-old was injured in the first 10 minutes. Woods and Bradfield administered first aid and IVs as their battlefield patient wandered in and out of consciousness.
The insurgent who shot Sgt. Wolf was believed to be in a courtyard, and soldiers were able to lob a grenade in his area. It is unknown whether the injured insurgent was the one who shot Sgt. Wolf.
Wolfsteller said the insurgents must have been trained to fire at soft spots in the armor of Americans, just underneath the interceptor vest where the femoral artery is. The 7.62 mm round hit him above his 9 mm pistol and below the hand grenade on his right side, striking right on the hip bone.
Woods and Bradfield ran with Wolf on a stretcher about 50 yards downhill to a set of Bradleys.
“They were returning fire as they were running with me,” he said.
Wolfsteller recalls the tail dropping on the Bradley and Spc. Ruperto Estrada saying, “You’re naked, Sgt. Wolf.”
The Bradley team medevac’d Wolf to outside the city where a Black Hawk helicopter landed. Wolfsteller recalls the sound of the propeller and the door opening. About 25 minutes had passed.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Oh, I made it this far,” he said. “‘I’ll be in surgery soon.’”
The chopper took off, and, feeling safe, Wolfsteller let go and blacked out. He woke up, gasping for air, to the surprise of the medics. They landed within 30 mins at a combat support hospital in Baghdad. Doctors came rushing to the Black Hawk, brought him in, got him on life support and performed a nine-hour, life-saving surgery. Around 10 a.m. Iraq time and 1 a.m. in Minnesota, the rear-detachment casualty assistance office contacted Wolf’s family to let them know their son had been critically injured. Everyone gathered at his mom’s house in St. Louis Park.
They got another call nine hours later. Their son was in stable condition.
The bullet had traveled through his hip to his tailbone — shattering it — and went up L5 to L1 vertebrae before veering off a little left to hit the lowest left rib, then narrowly missing his heart as it punctured his left lung, finally settling in his scapula.
“It just never exited,” Wolfsteller said. “Initially it was difficult for everyone to understand the severity of the wound.”
The Army reported back to his unit that he had survived and flew his family to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Wolfsteller flew to the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany while in a drug-induced coma. (The American Legion created Operation Comfort Warrior originally for Landstuhl, later expanding the program.)
A day later, he was flown to Walter Reed, where he was kept intubated and in a coma for two weeks in intensive care.
“I didn’t even know I was back in the U.S.,” he said.
In that first week, his parents had to make one of their biggest decisions of their lives. The surgeons explained they could install screws in his hip, tailbone and spine or they could lay him flat in a custom airbed for three months without moving. His parents chose the latter. There was a 50/50 chance he would walk again.
When he was conscious by the third week, he would fight his doctors and nurses, thinking they were trying to kill him. He’d pull out his IVs and yell, then get intubated all over again several times.
“I was still in survival mode,” Wolfsteller said.
Nurses log-rolled him four times a day to prevent bed sores. The back of his head went bald. Three other people from his platoon were at Walter Reed, too, and they would come in to talk to him, providing moral support.
He also learned the men who saved his life, Bradfield and Woods, were killed in a tragic incident two weeks later on July 9, 2005. Wolf has a tattoo with their initials, that date and a fallen soldier cross.
Bradfield was shot during a raid while walking up a stairwell of an old school that was being used by insurgents to teach IED training. PFC Woods was the driver that day of the medevac M113 armored personnel carrier, which carried Bradfield out of the city. On the way to a medevac helicopter, the 113 APC struck a powerful improvised explosive device, lifting the vehicle off the ground and flipping it over. Woods died in the explosion, but Bradfield remained alive with a gunshot wound in his neck. The M113 commander, a staff sergeant, suffered a leg wound.
The platoon, in addition to the ongoing fight, had to cater to the rescue of the two men. They got them out, but Bradfield died in transport. The staff sergeant survived, and his leg had to be amputated while at Walter Reed.
“It was hard to be told the two guys who saved your life died and that you are not able to see them and thank them,” Wolfsteller said.
The staff thought he might die. While motionless on the custom airbed, he suffered bacterial infections, became sick and couldn’t eat. He atrophied from 225 pounds to 150 over three months.
But the plan worked. The medical staff sat him up in bed slowly — as in 5 degrees a day.
He couldn’t feel his legs and still wasn’t sure if his spine and sacrum would hold. He had thoughts of being paralyzed. After a few weeks, he reached 90 degrees and began physical therapy, such as the staff bending his knees while he lay in bed.
“They finally got them to bend after a week of bending. That was so painful,” Wolfsteller said.
He did the parallel bars and while his left leg worked, the right one just flopped around. After three more months, he took his first step.
“From that moment on, there was no turning back,” he said.
In December 2005, Wolfsteller came back to Minnesota for a week. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other high-profile politicians were there for the welcome-home party.
“All the news channels were coming to my mom’s house in St. Louis Park,” Wolfsteller said.
What’s more, there was a welcome-home parade in Hopkins, with him riding in a Humvee and people lining the street. He called the experience “overwhelming.”
After 10 months at Walter Reed, Wolfsteller asked to go to Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson. In a wheelchair when he returned around April 2006, he became a casualty assistance officer, helping families when a service member has died.
“This responsibility hit home with me.”
He has two coins from meeting George W. Bush twice. The first time Bush gave a coin to his dad when Wolfsteller was early in his treatment at Walter Reed and instructed the father to give it to the son when he recovered. The second time was four months later, when Wolfsteller could stand with help. Bush came in, closed the door, and seemed genuinely interested in how Wolfsteller was doing. He handed him the second coin.
When Sgt. Wolf finally reunited with his unit, he gave his platoon sergeant — Ed Malone, the one who had answered his call for help — the second presidential coin.
Wolfsteller left the Army with a medical discharge in April 2007. He went to Normandale Community College, where he found a passion for helping veterans.
“I wanted to learn everything I could to help them with anything,” he said.
After college, he worked at Normandale as a student counselor, then found out a department service officer job was open with The American Legion.
“I thought, ‘This was it,” he said.
That was 10 years ago.
“The thing that keeps me going is the soldiers who didn’t come back. Because I was given the opportunity by two soldiers who didn’t make it back. I owe them my full effort and share this with my fellow veterans that might be struggling to find purpose.”
Next month: Read what Jeremy Wolfsteller does at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center on behalf of The American Legion and how his work impacts the entire VA Health Care System.