Kevin Cullen

Alive, and a lot more

Cameron Kerr, who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan, trained for a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride. Cameron Kerr, who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan, trained for a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride.
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 28, 2011

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Army First Lieutenant Cameron Kerr called in the chopper. His Afghan counterpart, a platoon leader named Maiwand, was on the ground, writhing in pain after stepping on an IED in a village in Kandahar Province too small to have a name.

Kerr was holding his radio in his left hand because there was something wrong with the microphone cord. He was walking as he spoke into the radio and his left foot came down on a small pressure plate.

It didn’t even sound like an explosion, more like a pop.

“At first, there was no pain,’’ Kerr was saying.

His machine-gunner, Soto, ran over.

“Don’t look down, sir,’’ Soto said, and the medic came up and said the same thing.

When Kerr looked down he saw his boot was blown clear off, and his foot was splayed so that it didn’t look like a human appendage anymore. His heel bone had flown far away, never to be found. The pain kicked in, and it was excruciating.

Kerr was still holding the radio, shouting into it, “Everybody stay put!’’

He didn’t want his soldiers running to him across a minefield.

But the radio was useless, as shredded by shrapnel as his foot. That radio may have saved his life.

Staff Sergeant Derek Leach definitely saved his life. The chopper Kerr had called in for someone else awaited him too. It was three football fields away. Kerr hopped on one foot, supported on each shoulder by comrades. Halfway to the chopper, he collapsed.

Leach peeled off his body armor and threw Kerr over his shoulder, carrying him the rest of the way.

On the flight to the hospital, Kerr shouted above the din of the rotors to his medic, “Doc, when can I get back to my platoon?’’

The medic shook his head.

“Sir,’’ he said, “you’re going home.’’

Two hours later, doctors amputated Kerr’s leg at midcalf.

It was Feb. 16, 2011.

“At Walter Reed,’’ Kerr said, “they call it your alive day, because you didn’t die.’’

Cameron Kerr was born in Waltham 24 years ago and grew up in Stow. He may be the only member of the 101st Airborne Division - heck, he might be the only soldier in the Army - who joined the service because of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

His parents, John and Mary Kerr, began mentoring the African orphans of civil war, scattered as refugees across the United States, when Kerr was just a boy.

“My parents had taught in Sudan,’’ he said. “I met a lot of the Lost Boys who settled in Worcester. They were like my half-brothers. Being exposed to what they went through, hearing their stories, I really came to realize how lucky I was to be born in a country where there is so much, where freedom is a given, where opportunity is everywhere.’’

In high school, he watched “Saving Private Ryan’’ and was struck by the scene where a dying Captain Miller tells Private Ryan, “Earn it.’’

“I started questioning myself: What have I done to earn it? What have I done to earn all the advantages I have? What have I done to earn my citizenship?’’

And so he decided to be a soldier. To earn it. To hold accountable the kind of people who murdered the families of his friends, the Lost Boys.

He made a deal with his parents: He’d go to college first, but join ROTC and come out an officer. He learned Arabic and got a degree in Middle Eastern studies and Islamic culture because he knew where he was going.

When he got to Afghanistan, he was under no illusions. In parts of Afghanistan, many people like the Americans and see them as the bulwark against the Taliban. But in the Pashtun south, where he was deployed, the Taliban hold sway.

He asked his parents and friends to send candy and toys, and he’d hand them out to Afghan kids. Then he realized he was putting the kids at risk by being near them, so he left the goodies lying around for them to find. He even had to stop that, because the gifts could attract booby traps.

When he woke up and found part of his leg missing, he didn’t regret joining the Army. He didn’t regret taking on a Sisyphean mission, because he went there with good intentions and did his best. He was in awe of his young soldiers, selfless kids put in difficult situations, in awe of the people who saved his life.

Four days after he stepped on an IED, people with the Wounded Warrior Project were at his bedside at Walter Reed, asking him what he liked to do. They got him on a bicycle, and he has completed three long Soldier Rides, the latest yesterday, when he rode 22 miles out of Concord. He expects to be snowboarding this winter.

Coming home for the first time since his alive day was fun. But now it’s back to the new Walter Reed in Bethesda for his three to four hours of rehab every day.

Anybody who pities Cameron Kerr never met him. He is, like so many soldiers fighting a war unseen and unfelt by so many Americans, a credit to his family and his country. On a faraway battlefield, he lost part of his leg and found so much else.

He used to hate rainy days. Then he learned that rain had greatly diminished the power of the IED he stepped on. Like the radio, like Sergeant Leach, like the medics who put the tourniquets on, the rain saved his life.

You look at life differently after you go to war.

“I love the rain now,’’ Cameron Kerr said.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.