Area soldier's mission ends with bullet skirting head

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Spc. Justin Mercer poses holding his helmet less than 24 hours after being injured while serving in Afghanistan. (Submitted photo)

SIKESTON, Mo. -- Sept. 5 is a day Justin Mercer will likely never forget.

Not only was it the most intense day of fighting the Army specialist faced during his nine-month deployment in Afghanistan, he was also struck in the head with a bullet.

"This particular mission had been planned once or twice in the past," said Mercer, who was released and returned home to Bertrand, Mo., earlier this month. "Intel reports said the Taliban had too many fighters and also that they were building strongholds and fighting positions in the valley we were trying to assault."

Once his unit was ready for the mission, there was bad weather so the mission was again pushed back until the go-ahead was given Sept. 5.

Thirteen chalks, or groups of soldiers, were set to be transported by helicopter to the mission site, which Mercer called "a very hot area," on a ridge line.

A short time later, when four of the chalks were on the ground, Mercer noticed the silence.

"I remember standing there, in the dark, and turning to a buddy of mine saying, 'I don't hear any more [helicopters].'"

A short while later, the soldiers were told the weather closed in, and no more helicopters would be coming in -- which left less than 100 U.S. soldiers on that mountain ridge, about 200 meters from the village they planned to assault.

As the sun came up, it was raining, with a tremendous amount of fog.

"And that's when the fire started," Mercer said. "Immediately, it seemed to come from all directions."

A short while later, while kneeling by the wall, he noticed an old man walking in his direction, about 50 meters away.

"I told my buddy I saw something and he urged me to shoot, but I didn't see a weapon, and I'm not the type to just shoot anybody," Mercer said.

Right then, Mercer recalled, the man came into full view and he spotted a bandolier and weapon and opened fire.

"After he fell, I realized they were advancing on my position and I was exposed, so I moved around behind the wall to get cover," he said.

Once behind the wall, Mercer recalls putting his weapon down on the wall to fire, then a round striking him in the head.

"It hit me with so much force that for a split second, I thought an RPG had hit me on the head," he said. "I remember turning and falling. But I knew I was exposed and if someone was going to try and treat me, they would be exposed. So I low-crawled into the building."

Another soldier saw what happened and followed Mercer into the building.

"As soon as he pulled my helmet off, blood started rushing down my face," he said. "He examined the wound and took a field dressing and bandaged it."

Army helmets aren't bulletproof, Mercer said, but are designed to deflect rounds or change the trajectory, as occurred in his case.

"It entered on the front left, then skirted my scalp," he said.

The bullet remains in the helmet, which Mercer has been told will be sent to him.

Last week, Mercer was approved to receive the Purple Heart for his actions.

"I'm just waiting to receive it in the mail," he said.

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