FORT LEWIS - Scott Connely says some people don't consider contractors like himself as being part of the military.
But the 36-year-old Lacey resident has a vicious scar that runs through his right knee, proving contractors who serve in Iraq aren't immune to the dangers those in uniform face.
On Tuesday, Connely and a fellow contractor, Roger Bascom, received the Defense of Freedom medal, the civilian equivalent of the military's Purple Heart, for the wounds they sustained during the suicide bombing of a mess tent near the Mosul airfield on Dec. 21, 2004.
"Those guys really gave arguably as much or more than a lot of green suiters give who go there every day to defend freedom," said Maj. Michael Devine III, deputy director of the Battle Command and Network Support Directorate, which coordinates the field support for the Army's combat brigades.
Brig. Gen. Nickolas Justice, deputy program executive officer for the Army office that develops and supports cutting-edge command, control and communications equipment, pinned the medals on the two men during a ceremony attended by family and colleagues.
The men found themselves "in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the right time from somebody's perspective, and it's been a long couple years' recovery," the general said.
On Dec. 21, Connely ate lunch with Bascom and a third contractor, John Grant, in the mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul.
Connely and Bascom waited for the flight home after providing computer support to a deployed Fort Lewis brigade for more than three months. Fifteen yards behind Connely, a suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to himself that turned a routine lunch hour into a frantic fight for survival.
The blast killed 22 people, including six Fort Lewis soldiers, and wounded 69 people, nearly half critically, including Connely, Bascom and Grant. It remains the single deadliest attack against a U.S. installation since the war began.
The shrapnel injured Connely's knee to the extent he finally had it replaced in May.
"I've got enough metal and plastic to make the Terminator jealous," he quipped during an interview before the ceremony.
In September, he had another surgery to clean out scar tissue in an effort to give him a more natural and less painful range of motion.
He still feels sharp pain if his foot catches or twists. Running is out of the question, so Connely bikes to stay in shape.
He received counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, and is considering giving it another try. Loud noises startle him, and he has nightmares where he relives the chaos in the smoke-filled mess tent.
He's returned to his old job at Fort Lewis, but his injury prohibits him from deploying to the field. He continues to train others on the computer systems.
"Is it field support? No," he explained. "But I still can contribute in some way."
He remains appreciative of all of the support the military has given him. Bascom, 51, experiences recurring back problems from his injury. He left his job at Fort Lewis because of cutbacks and now works for a credit union in Bremerton.
"I'm not sure I'll ever be completely healed," he said.
Grant has moved out of state and is scheduled to receive his medal during a ceremony in Georgia in a couple of weeks. He suffers from acute short-term memory loss, Bascom said.
The Defense of Freedom medal was created in 2001, and its first recipients were civilian workers at the Pentagon injured or killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The medal may be awarded to civilians not employed by the Department of Defense, such as contractors, at the discretion of the defense secretary.
During the ceremony, Bascom said there were a lot of contractors who worked in Iraq while he was there or shortly after he left.
"We were the unfortunate ones that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the general said. But the one thing that does ring true with all of us - we all volunteered to go over there, we all believe in what we do. If nothing else, I hope to God it never comes to this country like it is in their country and that we can enjoy our freedoms like we do."
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.