After being wounded in three life-threatening explosions that finally sent him home from Iraq in mid-September, Sgt. Gregory Rayho is most grateful this Thanksgiving for the combat medics who "go through hell to get to you and heal you," he said.
"They are the real armor," said Rayho, 30, a team leader with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Fort Lewis-based Stryker brigade. "We have thick metal plates on our vehicles, and we wear 40 pounds of armor, but I'd take all that off to have the combat medics behind us."
Rayho, deployed to Iraq for the second time from June 2006 to Sept. 18, has received three Purple Hearts for wounds during the war. He was one of the soldiers honored during halftime at the Seattle Seahawks NFL game on Veterans Day,
"I feel very lucky," Rayho said Thursday, surrounded by friends and family at his Lacey home for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. "I've made almost full recovery, and I'm still able to fight."
Rayho will begin training in January to prepare for his third Iraq deployment next October.
"A lot of guys who have Purple Hearts are missing arms or legs," he said. "I have lost teeth, gotten metal stuck in my body and broken bones, but I will recover, and I'm still well enough to go back out and fight."
Rayho's wife, Sue, 43, and stepchildren Mindy Pinord, 24, and Kyle Stokle, 14, said they feel a mixture of joy, relief and gratitude to have him home.
"We were especially anxious after the third time he got hit," Pinord said. "I was joking, 'He's got nine lives, but he's using all of them up.' "
Sue Rayho, who works for Thurston County District Court, said she got wary after the first dreaded phone call in October 2006 that she wasn't hearing the full report on her husband's injuries. The next two times, she made sure Rayho's commander called to confirm he was OK.
"I didn't realize military life could be so hard," Sue Rayho said. "I knew I would be worried about him, but I didn't realize how much I would miss him every day — it was a longing and an aching."
The couple married in October 2005. They met when Gregory Rayho moved in with an Army buddy across the street from her after he had returned from his first Iraq deployment from November 2003 to November 2004. Gregory Rayho, a native of Collinsville, Ill., said he enlisted when he was 24, motivated by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about a year earlier.
Rayho said the enemies' weaponry in Iraq had grown in military sophistication and deadliness between the time he returned from his first tour of duty, where he suffered only cuts and scratches, and this latest deployment.
In October 2006, Rayho lost most of his back teeth and had his jaw shattered by a bomb in Mosul. He still needs 11 surgeries to replace the temporary teeth he was given after the injury and repair the damage in his mouth.
Then, in May of this year, just outside Sadr City, a bullet fragment richocheted into his wrist during an attack by sniper and rocket-propelled grenade teams following an IED blast. Rayho said the bullet, which hurts mostly when it gets cold outside and becomes like ice inside his body, will be removed next week.
The third incident, the one that finally took him off the battlefield, was in July in East Rashid. Rayho and his partner, a squad automatic weapon (SAW) gunner, had gotten out of their Stryker vehicle and were standing behind it, pulling concertina wire out of the back to use for setting up a barrier line. Inside the vehicle were a medic and the driver, a sergeant.
Suddenly, a load of explosives buried directly under the truck exploded. Rayho and the SAW gunner were knocked to the ground, unconscious. After they came to, both were temporarily deafened by the blast.
Rayno suffered broken bones and internal injuries. The other men also survived, but the sergeant lost a leg after the limb took the full brunt of the explosives coming up through the floor of the vehicle, Rayho said.
"When I started getting my hearing back, the first thing I heard was him screaming," Rayho said. "Within one minute, he was medevaced out of there."
Knowing that the medical aid is right on the spot gives Rayho the confidence to return to Iraq, he said.
"I know my story is unique in that I still get to fight," he said. "If it wasn't for the combat medics, I would not be as enthusiastic."
Keri Brenner covers Thurston County and Tumwater for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-754-5435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.