Montana State University

Mountains and Minds


Photo by Kelly Gorham.

Call to duty October 15, 2013 by Michael Becker • Published 10/15/13

Saul Martinez lost his legs in Iraq. Now he stands up for MSU veterans and those he left behind

Montana State University student Saul Martinez died for the first time on May 8, 2007.

He died a second time a couple of days later.

They are not experiences Martinez likes talking about—not the details anyhow. Yet the circumstances that led to those two flat lines on EKG readouts in military hospitals on two continents have, in profound ways, shaped the man he has become—literally and figuratively.

In the six years since the improvised explosive device attack that took both of his legs and two of his friends, Martinez has become a father, an MSU sociology student and an advocate for veterans. He speaks at events and fundraisers, counsels vets in learning to deal with their disabilities and, despite the strains on his time, manages by all accounts to remain upbeat, devoted and genuine.

“He’s just one of the good guys,” said Brenda York, director of veterans services at MSU, who has known Martinez since he enrolled. “That’s the face I’d like to put on a vet coming back to school.”

It’s hard to miss the 28-year-old Martinez on campus. He stands more than 6 feet tall, his 250-pound, Crossfit-trained frame held up by two prosthetic legs and accompanied by Nebula, his service dog, a Great Dane who is, size-wise, a comically appropriate match for the retired soldier.

Born in Hollywood and raised in small-town Bloomington, Calif., Martinez was a constantly active teenager. With football, track, swimming, wrestling and his other activities, there was nary a day of his teen years that he wasn’t on a team.

It was during his sophomore year that 9/11 happened, and like a lot of young men, he saw the attacks as a call to duty. He watched the soldiers deploying to Iraq on TV and wanted to be part of that team.

“I was very prideful in our country, still am,” he said. “That’s when the seed was planted.”

Graduation came in 2003 and then marriage to his high school sweetheart, Sarah. For more than two years he lived the civilian life, though it couldn’t last. His 21st birthday proved to be the catalyst.

“I said, ‘It’s time.’”

He joined the Army in March 2006. By that time, the invasion of Iraq was well under way, and since Martinez was joining the infantry, a ticket to Iraq was pretty much included with his enlistment paperwork.

“If I said I wasn’t scared, I would be lying,” he said, adding that basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., was his first time really being away from home. “There were a couple of times I broke down. ‘I’m really going over there. It’s really happening.’”

Martinez was assigned to the HHT, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, assigned to Command Security Detachment Headquarters Company, providing security for commanding officer Col. Wayne Grigsby. When not needed for security, he was on combat patrols.

“I was excited about that,” he said. “It was finally happening.”

Martinez found out about two days ahead of time about the convoy. They would be accompanying Col. Grigsby to a meeting of high-ranking Iraqi officials. It was a big deal—lots of people and lots of attention.

The morning they were scheduled to leave, May 8, 2007, didn’t feel right, Martinez said. His buddies, KIA (Killed in Action) SPC Kyle Little and SGT Blake Stephens, normally talkative and lively, were stern, even reluctant to get on the road.

Whether it was just nerves or something prophetic, Martinez can’t say, but, “Something was predetermined to happen that day, regardless.”

 

Four vehicles in the convoy: Martinez in the lead Humvee’s gunner’s turret.

Thirty-five miles per hour: the Army’s speed limit at the time.

Forty minutes into the mission.

One foam rock, six hidden improvised explosives designed to penetrate armor.

“I still blame myself for not seeing it,” Martinez said.

 

He remembers everything.

The sound, the loudest thing he ever heard.

The feeling of the Humvee still rolling along after the blast.

The realization that the two soldiers in the front seats, his friends, were no longer there.

The sound of his squad leader and the medic cutting what remained of his legs loose from where they were twisted, caught and melted to the vehicle.

The colonel kissing him on the forehead and telling him how proud he was of him.

The dire need to make sure the squad leader gave Martinez’ wife the special bracelet he always wore.

“It was probably the bluest sky I’d ever seen in Iraq up until that time, kind of like an opening in the smog and nastiness. Just looking up at the sky. ‘Wow, this is really it. This is what it feels like to die.’”
—Saul Martinez

“When that realization kicks in, it was almost like a cooling sensation through my whole body, like you’re about to go to sleep and be the most comfortable you’ve ever been in your entire life,” he said.

“It was probably the bluest sky I’d ever seen in Iraq up until that time, kind of like an opening in the smog and nastiness. Just looking up at the sky. ‘Wow, this is really it. This is what it feels like to die.’”

Martinez was the only soldier from his Humvee to survive the attack. He credits the heroic actions of squad leader SFC Michael Henderson and SPC Stephanie McCulley. A helicopter arrived 22 minutes after the blast and flew him to Baghdad, where the staff stabilized him and induced a coma, during which he flatlined twice—once in Iraq and again in Germany.

He woke up eight days later in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Maryland with his wife, Sarah, next to his bed.

He spent several weeks in intensive care before heading to C-5, the Comprehensive and Complex Combat Casualty Care Center in San Diego for rehab.

“I didn’t even think about losing my legs. It’s later on when the realization set in. ‘I’ve got no legs now. What am I going to do?’”

What he did was stay in the Army.

“I decided I wasn’t done yet, that I’d gotten hit too soon,” he said.

He was released from the hospital in mid-June, and just five months later, he was fitted for his first prosthetic legs.

After a year of rigorous rehab, Martinez took a job as squad leader at one of the Army’s Warrior Transition Units, where he counseled soldiers who were in positions like his and motivated them to stay active.

“I spent the next two years running around like a madman,” he said. “I wouldn’t take it back for anything, but sometimes I wish I would have gone back into a regular unit.”

There are lots of jobs for amputees in the regular Army, he noted. Some below-knee amputees—a term Martinez pronounces like “baloneys,” while comparing said amputations to paper cuts—are out there in combat.

Rather than deploy again, though, Martinez decided to retire from the Army in March 2010. He said it was time to focus on his family, and it felt like the right time to move on.

“I miss it every day,” he said. “I try to be as up to date as possible because all my friends are still in the Army. I still feel like I’m part of the team.”

He praises the time he gets with his two young kids and the chances he has to attend classes at MSU. Hearing him talk, though, it’s clear he’s trying to convince himself that an ordinary life is enough.

It’s not convincing. The Army has his heart.

Sarah Martinez has seen first-hand how hard it has been for her husband to part with the Army life.

“What do you do after you cannot keep working your dream job?” she said. “You’re doing what you love, what you see yourself doing for the rest of your life, and once you’re told you’ll never be able to do that again…. That was really difficult for him to accept.”

In September 2009, Martinez took up an offer to be part of Warriors and Quiet Waters, a program that brings veterans to Montana for a week of fishing, relaxation and healing.

“It’s therapy without the therapists,” said Tom O’Connor, vice president and secretary of the nonprofit.

O’Connor met Martinez in 2008. He said that, like most of the veterans who come on the expeditions, Martinez started off reserved.

“He was pretty quiet,” O’Connor said. “He’s a changed personality today.”

Martinez has stayed involved with the nonprofit and serves as its adviser. He trains volunteers on how to deal with people with traumatic injuries and disabilities, speaks to veterans groups and even helps with fundraising.

Having someone there who has been through some of the same experiences as the veterans attending strengthens the program considerably, O’Connor said.

“He can tell it like it is,” O’Connor said. “Being injured himself, the guys can relate to him.”

It was  Warriors amd Quiet Waters that cemented the young family’s desire to move to Montana—Sarah had grown up taking trips to the state to visit her uncle. The slower pace of life, friendly people and the proximity to MSU made Bozeman the perfect choice—husband and wife were both looking to attend classes.

On top of that, the price was right.

Eugene Graf IV, a 2003 MSU graduate and owner of EG Construction, had been looking for some time to continue a tradition his father started in the late 1980s of helping build a home for a family in need.

When Graf learned that the Martinez family was looking at moving to Montana, he met with tradespeople and a developer and managed to get nearly $200,000 in labor and materials donated to build the family an affordable Bozeman home, which was finished in time for Thanksgiving 2010.

“(The house) was pretty overwhelmingly supported,” Graf said.

Situated in a home and with a newborn adding to their family, Martinez began classes at MSU. It was his first college experience, his wife said, and the adjustment from military to academia was rough.

“At first it was really hard for him to be in a more free environment,” she said. “It was difficult for him to manage his time and know when assignments were due.”

It’s a common problem for veterans coming to school for the first time, said York, whose office helps the more than 500 student veterans attending classes at MSU. 

“It’s hard because it’s so unstructured,” York said. “You have to guide them back into it, help them see that no one is going to make them go to class or do their homework.”

Adding to Martinez’s difficulty was another consequence of the IED attack: traumatic brain injury, which Sarah said can play havoc on his memory.

“The first couple of semesters were learning experiences,” she said.

But it was worth it to Martinez, his wife said, because he felt like getting back to normal after the attack would also help the widows of his two friends.

While Martinez describes MSU as a veteran-friendly campus, he still says there’s a tendency among students and some faculty to see veterans as unstable or unpredictable—like “grenades waiting to go off,” he says.

The stigma is real, said York, who has been helping MSU veterans for 18 years.

“It’s a perception that’s formulated by not knowing veterans,” she said.

“You have faculty who want to be over-involved and know everything about you, or have you sharing everything about your war experience,” she said. “And there are the other ones who think all vets are dangerous or have PTSD and are going to go off in class.”

To combat this perception, York’s office is holding an educational summit in the fall to discuss student veterans’ roles as leaders on campus.

“Saul is…an inspiration to pretty much everybody. If I need a veteran to be at something or another veteran needs help or mentoring, he’s the one I call.”
—Brenda York

Additionally, her office has orientation sessions specifically for veterans, and they’re hiring tutors just for veterans. York is also putting together an advisory board for faculty, staff and veterans to talk about the issues on campus and report to the provost.

“We want to see vets succeed in college, so we want to help them transition from military to civilian life and matriculate through higher education and get that degree,” York said.

Martinez, president of the student veterans club on campus, admits there are a few bad apples, but he also knows vets who dropped out in part because of interactions they’ve had. Combating the stigma of the unstable veteran is one of his main goals now.

“We’re part of this society,” he said. “We have a different skill set and different experiences. This doesn’t mean we should not be incorporated normally.”

York said Martinez is invaluable to MSU’s veterans service efforts.

“Saul is…an inspiration to pretty much everybody,” she said. “If I need a veteran to be at something or another veteran needs help or mentoring, he’s the one I call.”

“Being a teacher or mentor wasn’t really on my radar back then,” Martinez said, referring to the explosion. “There’s a lot of positive aspects to what’s come out of that day.”

Indeed, Martinez receives many speaking invitations and often does peer visits with other wounded soldiers. He has spoken at Army functions about helping servicemen and women recover from traumatic injury, and he has given talks for organizations like the Semper Fi Fund and the Troops First Foundation, in which he often focuses on providing support systems for returning soldiers and their families. This summer he traveled to China with an MSU class, taught English and worked with kids with disabilities.

His experience has also allowed him to indulge in one of his passions—golf—with some high-profile people. In 2011, he got some tips from golf legend Jack Nicklaus at a  Warriors and Quiet Waters event in Bozeman, and just this January, Martinez met former President Bill Clinton while golfing in the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif.

His family, including his children, Ezekiel, 4, and Sephora, 2, are setting down roots in Bozeman. Sarah plans to take health classes at MSU in the near future.

Martinez hopes to find a career in the intelligence field, or something related to his sociology degree would work too, he said.

“I’m finding that people with sociology degrees tend to go into social work and counseling, which I’m finding more and more that I’d be comfortable doing,” he said. “I like helping people.

“If I happen to land a career that I love waking up in the morning for, great. If not, I’m perfectly happy being a father,” he said. “In other words, I don’t want to waste this gift of a life I’ve been given after May 8, 2007. It wouldn’t serve my brothers right if I did.” â–