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Last September 19 Sergeant Michael Burghardt was on his third tour of duty in Iraq. During his second tour he too had been awarded the Bronze Star for disabling an astonishing 64 IEDs and destroying 1,548 pieces of ordnance.
Four American soldiers had just been ambushed and killed there, and Sergeant Burghardt, part of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team supporting the 2nd Brigade 28th Infantry Division (Pennsylvania Army National Guard), was ordered to help sweep the area for the kind of secondary explosives the Islamist terrorists often planted to kill soldiers reacting to a first bomb or ambush.
Along the area’s evacuation route, Burghardt noticed an odd piece of shrapnel in an eight-foot wide crater five feet deep. He jumped into the hole wearing only a flak jacket and helmet, not the bulky protective suit designed for those in bomb disposal. “You can’t react to any sniper fire” in that suit, he told a reporter, “and you get tunnel vision.”
Inside the crater he saw a glint of telltale orange plastic covering a Senao base station. He quickly cut the wire leading from it, his hand following it to uncover two buried 122 millimeter cannon shells that had been rigged to explode.
What Burghardt saw too late was another wire leading between his legs to a third such cannon shell. A distant terrorist, probably watching through binoculars, triggered it by remote control. The explosion hurled Sargeant Burghardt’s body 10 feet into the air. His limp frame came smashing down, face first, on the roadway.
As fellow soldiers rushed toward the limp body of Sargeant Burghardt, whom they knew as “Iron Mike,” he was awake. While still in the air, he had thought “I don’t believe they got me” and was already feeling “ticked off they were able to do it.”
After hitting the ground, Burghardt was unable to feel anything from the waist down. “I was lying there thinking I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair next to my dad,” Burghardt remembered, “and for him to see me like that.”
Around his body, his fellow soldiers looked down at his shredded uniform. After the gigantic explosion, they were amazed he still had legs and was clearly alive. They quickly began cutting off what remained of his pants.
“I felt a real sharp pain and blood trickling down,” the Sargeant remembered. “Then I wiggled my toes and I thought, ‘Good, I’m in business.”
Medics arrived with a stretcher, but Burghardt had other ideas.
“I decided to walk to the helicopter,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let my team-mates see me being carried away on a stretcher.”
And he wanted to send a message to the cowardly terrorist still probably watching from afar. He stood, then raised a one-fingered salute of defiance toward this bomb and all insurgents. That’s when this picture was taken. Among those attending to the Marine are Spc. John Adams (far left in front) and Pfc. Darin Nelson.