Soldier undeterred after near-fatal blast

TALLIL, Iraq - Last year, Jed Berman noticed a piece of metal lodged under his left index finger, a remnant of the shrapnel that tore through his body during a roadside bomb attack in 2004.

The Fort Lewis soldier didn’t tell anyone before he deployed; removing it would require yet another surgery, and he worried it would keep him home.

“I didn’t really want anyone to have an excuse to stamp me undeployable,” said Berman, a sergeant first class with the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade. “I can’t help it. I’m a big meathead. I love what I do.”

Doctors cut the fragment out in October, shortly after he arrived at Contingency Operating Base Adder in southeastern Iraq to serve as the 201st Brigade’s intelligence section platoon sergeant. During an interview last week on the roof of his brigade’s headquarters building – in full view of the historic Ziggurat of Ur – the 36-year-old California native showed visitors the scars that run across his body from the near-fatal attack.

His reputation among fellow soldiers of the brigade seems equally hard-boiled.

“He won’t take any crap from anyone,” said Maj. Victoria Campbell, a DuPont resident serving as the brigade’s intelligence officer “If someone has the wrong answer on something, pretty much no matter who they are, he’ll tell them that.”

The 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade has about 1,000 soldiers working on intelligence operations throughout Iraq, and the brigade’s intel section operates as a fusion cell to analyze the reports coming in from across the country. About 300 soldiers serve in Tallil, with the rest scattered to about 38 locations across the country.

But it was during a deployment with Fort Lewis’ 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division when the bomb attack almost killed Berman.

He then was serving in the intelligence section of 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment and was riding in a nuclear, biological, and chemical reconnaissance vehicle through the streets of Tal Afar on May 29, 2004. A parked minivan packed with explosives detonated as the convoy passed.

Berman’s memory gets hazy at that point.

“I remember for a few seconds trying to get up, but everyone was holding me on the ground,” he said. “I don’t remember much from that time, but I remember trying to clear the vehicle. Someone finally told me, ‘Stay on the ground. The vehicle’s clear.

“When I woke up again, it was 21/2 weeks later and I was at Walter Reed” Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Shrapnel tore through most of his body. His right shoulder was shattered. His left lung collapsed. His right eye was gone. The bits of metal ripped through his brain. Doctors later used titanium mesh to reconstruct his cheekbone and forehead. His unit’s medics didn’t recognize him when he returned to the base.

Doctors placed him in a medically induced coma and sent him to a hospital in Germany. The Army flew his parents and aunt there because they believed he would die in his hospital bed.

Berman’s father, Jon Berman, gave an interview to his hometown newspaper, The Sonoma Index-Tribune, about six weeks after the soldier was injured. The article captured the daily struggle the soldier faced.

“Jed’s progress is a matter of baby steps, Jon said,” the June 11, 2004, article read. “With his remaining eye, Jed has been able to signal ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ On Tuesday Jed started slightly shaking his head ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And Wednesday morning he gripped hard with his left hand – the one that is controlled by the injured right side of his brain.”

He eventually recovered enough to be transferred to Walter Reed and later to Madigan Army Medical Center. Berman has lost track of how many surgeries followed; he stopped keeping track at 30.

He recovered enough to return to work that August. He moved his hospital bed to his unit’s barracks and worked at the squadron’s rear detachment between surgeries.

And when 3rd Brigade deployed again in 2006-07, Berman returned to the country where he almost lost his life – though he admits he wasn’t quite sure how it would affect him.

“On my first night in Baghdad, a big boom” rocked his living trailer, he said. “I just rolled over in bed and said, ‘Welcome back to Iraq.’ And that was that.”