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COL Jack Thomas Tomarchio: Military Lawyer During the Invasion of Grenada
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COL Tomarchio talks about going to jump school, defending service members as a military lawyer, and nearly losing his life in Iraq.
Jack Thomas Tomarchio served in the army as a JAG officer in Grenada in the early 80s. As a JAG officer, he provided legal advice to senior Army officials and represented servicemembers in a variety of misconduct and court martial cases. He was a paratrooper, and attended both jump school and law school.
Later, in the early 90s, COL Tomarchio deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Gulf War. There, he nearly lost his life after saving a fellow service member from a burning vehicle.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Colonel Jack Thomas Tomarchio. Tomarchio served in the army as a JAG officer in Grenada in the early 80s, and also deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Gulf War.
Jack Thomas Tomarchio:
My name is Jack Thomas Tomarchio. I retired from the United States Army and the Army Reserve in 2010 with the rank of colonel, O-6 full colonel. I had a fairly, I guess, a little different kind of career. I started out through ROTC, was commissioned as an officer, went on educational delay to law school and became a JAG officer with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I served from 1981 till 1985. Then I went into the Pennsylvania Army National Guard for several years, then transferred over to the United States Army Reserve. I also served as a Civil Affairs officer and also was in Armor, so I've had three MOSs.
I didn't want to go in the Army, actually. I wanted to go in the Navy. I had a nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy, and went down for my physical and I discovered, to my regret, that I couldn't read the eye chart. I went in there and I looked at the eye chart. The guy said, "What do you see?" and I saw a bunch ... I knew they were all a bunch of Es. I said, "E." He goes, "Well, they're all Es." I said, "What are they doing?" I said, "E right, E left, E up, E down." I couldn't see them. He stopped me and he said, "Okay. You're done," and he stamped my packet NPQ, which means not physically qualified. He said, "You go down that way." I said, "Well, those guys are going that way." "But yeah, you're going down that way," and down that way was the ashcan, pretty much, so that was the end of my Navy career. I wanted to be a pilot, and I couldn't see. I had an Army ROTC scholarship already that I was looking at, and I thought the Army was a better option at that time. It was my only option, really.
I did talk to the Marines briefly. They approached me about the platoon leaders' class course when I was a senior in high school. I met these two guys at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard Officers Club, and they were pretty stiff guys. One was a captain, and one was a lieutenant. Really bad haircuts, and this was in the '70s, and people had longer hair then, including myself. I remember these guys were, they had the personality of papier-mâché. They were just really boring guys and real stiff. At one point, they said, "What questions you have of us now, candidate?" I said, "Well, if I join the Marines, would I have to have haircuts like you guys?" They didn't seem to like that answer, that question too much so it wasn't a marriage made in heaven between the Marines and I, so that was the end of that, so I went in the Army.
Well, training pipeline, for me, it wasn't too bad. It was pretty nice. I wanted to go to jump school when I was in college at ROTC. I applied to jump school and I was rejected because they had some Army rule that said you couldn't go to a TDY school like a jump school, which is a TDY school, until you went through your officer basic course. Since I had a three-year education delay, I couldn't go to my officer basic course until I graduated law school and took the bar exam. I thought, "Well, I don't want to do that then. I want to do this now because I'm 22 years old. I'm all fired up. I'm a brand new lieutenant."
I met this guy who was a Navy midshipman, Marine option at Penn State where I went to college. He had these pretty cool Navy jump wings on, these gold-looking things. I said, "Where did you get those jump wings?" He said, "I got them at the Navy Marine Corps jump school." I said, "I didn't know there was a Navy Marine Corps jump school." He goes, "Yeah, there is." I said, "Where is it" He goes, "Lakehurst Naval Station, New Jersey." I said, "Can I go there?" He said, "I don't know." "Give me the number," and he gave me the number. I called up the place and I got some warrant officer on the line and he said, "Yeah, we'll take you, as long as you sign a waiver that if you get hurt, it's on you, not us." I said, "I'll sign that waiver." I got orders from the Marines and the Navy accepting me, and then I was able to talk my people over in the Army to allowing me because I said, "It's not a TDY Army school. It's a TDY Navy school, and so the regulation doesn't apply." They bought that, so they let me go, and the jump school was three weeks. It was really for 10 jumps, not five like the Army does. We were supposed to do 10 jumps. We only did five because we had weather problems, but we jumped these old C-17 aircraft, something out of World War II, my first jump.
The training wasn't bad. It was, we did a lot of running. We had a real small class, like 35 guys, 15 of which were Navy SEALs, who were going through, had just finished BUD/S, and then there were a couple of midshipmen from the Naval Academy, two Marine Corps majors, couple midshipmen from Iowa State, and me. I was the only Army guy. I think I was the only Army guy who ever went to this school ever. In addition to jumping, they also taught us how to rig parachutes. We had to jump our own parachutes, so you paid a lot of attention when they were teaching you how to rig a parachute and how to pack it, because you're going to jump it and you're hoping that you're obviously doing the right thing.
The first jump, we went up and were in this old aircraft. I'm like the number six guy in the stick, getting ready to jump out of the aircraft. As I'm coming to the door, the jump master throws his body against mine, pushes me back and yells at me, says, "No jump. No jump." I thought something I did wrong but I didn't. What I didn't notice is that the anchor line cable where your static line hooks to as you go out the door, the anchor line cable, because this aircraft was so old, actually came out of the wall and the bolt just broke, and so my first jump was an abort. Had I jumped, I probably would have ... I wouldn't have ... My chute would not have deployed. I'd have to have deployed my reserve. If I was fast enough, or not, I would have crashed, and burned, and died.
The second jump was about an hour later, and the anchor line cable didn't break, so I did two jumps that day. I did three jumps the next day, and then they had a weather problem. I got my wings in like two or three days, so it was wasn't too bad. The training beyond that, after that, after jump school, I was in law school for three years. Didn't even wear a uniform, and then I reported to the 82nd Airborne Division after I went to the JAG officer basic course, which was like a gentleman's course. Frankly, it was pretty nice. It was, started out at Fort Lee, Virginia, for two weeks, and we had a lot of people that were direct commissioned lawyers.
They didn't know anything about the military, so they taught them how to wear a uniform, who do salute, who not to salute. Took them out to the field, took them to the range. They pretty much exempted most of us from doing that. Then they sent us up to Charlottesville, Virginia, the JAG school right in the University of Virginia grounds, and we were there for like 10 weeks, so I was really just going to class, learning how to be a military lawyer. Piece of cake.
After that, I reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which was a bit of a culture shock because it was pretty much high speed, low drag, and they threw you right into it, airborne operations. You were jumping at least once or twice a month, in some cases, and then PT every morning at 7:00, running four miles a day. That was good. I really enjoyed it. Good training. They wanted their JAG officers to be integrated as much as possible with the trigger-pullers, so we went out in the field a lot with the Infantry and the Artillery units. That was also good training, and really appreciated what these guys did every day because it wasn't real fun. You're out in the cold and wet, and usually, I'm in an office as a lawyer, as a JAG officer, nice and warm. Once in a while, you're going out and you appreciate what these younger guys are doing, Infantry guys and Artillery guys, and Signal Corps guys, Air Defense guys. Their life was not easy. I enjoyed the training.
The 82nd air-landed, and I air-landed with the 82nd in Grenada. I was attached to the second battalion 505th Airborne Infantry as an Infantry line unit. I was one of the two lawyers that went in with that Infantry unit.
Those days-z this was the beginning of what became operational law. The Army didn't really have operation lawyers, so were kind of the first. Our job was a couple different things. Obviously, you're doing military justice issues if there's problems with guys getting Article 15s, or committing crimes, or looting, or raping people. You're doing all the legal work to get that guy back to the States, and get him into the military justice system. At that time, we were also doing, advising the commanders on law of war, rules of engagement, things like that.
We also got involved in situations where we were investigating some potential war crimes. There had been a helicopter, U.S. helicopter that had been brought down by enemy fire. It was, I think there were two pilots in that aircraft. Allegedly, they were taken prisoners by Grenadians, Grenadian troops, and they were executed, so we investigated that. We also investigated some issues and advised issues regarding third-country nationals that were in country. Grenada was allied at that time. They had a communist government. They didn't have it for very long, but they had this communist government that invited the Cubans in, and they had representatives. There was all kind of bad guy countries there. North Koreans, North Vietnamese, Russians, Eastern Bloc, Warsaw Pact, and military advisors. They even had some guys from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO. Our guys grabbed a lot of these cats and dogs. The question was, "What do we do with these guys now that we have them? Are they EPWs or POWs? What do we do with them?" We gave them the advice that, we said, "Well, this is kind of sticky, so we think the safe thing to do is treat them as diplomats, and get them the heck off the island as fast as possible," so that's what we did. We treated them as diplomats, got them back to the States, gave them a one-way ticket home to their home countries, and that was it.
Again, in those days, lawyers, we were on the ground, but there were only two of us at the time, and we were going down there in shifts. Guys would go down for like a week or two, and then come back. The law of war stuff had not really matured to the point that commanders were asking their JAGs and inviting them into the TOC, the Tactical Operations Center, and asking their JAGs to look over the op plans, and warning orders, and things like that. It just wasn't there yet.
In some cases, some of these commanders, they didn't like lawyers. They looked at us as a bunch of obstreperous, difficult guys who were going to mess up their military operation. That, of course, has changed. You talk to commanders today, they won't go anywhere without their lawyers. They understand that their career, in some cases, could rise or fall on the wrong decision. In those days, again, it was very early in operational law. We were really at the point of the spear.
I can recall some commanders, you'd walk into a unit and say, "Hey, sir. I'm your JAG," they'd throw you the hell out. They weren't even interested in talking to you, but those guys were dinosaurs, and eventually, the smarter guys realized that their lawyers were force multipliers for their unit and force multipliers for their careers. When I was in Grenada, we were still in the infancy of that relationship. We had a pretty good battalion commander that I served under. He was a real good guy. He was smart. He understood what we could do, and he let us get involved in things, but other commanders, they didn't want to have anything to do with lawyers.
Today, the Army JAG Corps has an embedded lawyer in the Special Mission unit down there at Fort Bragg. In those days, we didn't do that. We didn't embed anybody. We just had guys who were attached as needed. There were two, actually. One was a trial counsel, basically the commander's lawyer. The other guy was a defense counsel, who would be utilized to help any of these unspecial operators who got in trouble. I was the defense counsel. It was weird because I didn't even know the seat existed. It was very much below the radar screen, and I didn't know about it until this one major, who was a JAG officer at the 18th Airborne Corps, other side of post, who I didn't know very well, called me up and asked me to go to lunch with him at the O Club, which I did. He said, "How would you like to take my job?" I'm like, "Your job is a senior defense counsel for the Corps, the 18th Airborne Corps. I'm only a captain. I'm not qualified. I don't have that rank yet, that rank." He goes, "No, no. I have another job." I said, "What's that?" He goes, "I'm the detail defense counsel for the Special Missions Unit. Would you like to do that?" I'm like, "That sounds pretty cool. What do I have to do?" He said, "Basically, the same thing you're doing now. You don't have to go anywhere. Just you're on call."
Occasionally, we would get these phone calls from somebody that said, "You got to be prepared to go somewhere. No uniform. Bring light clothing, tropical clothing." Or we had to do a certain issue representing a military member who was assigned over there, who may have gotten himself in some kind of trouble. What those things were, I probably can't get into. It wasn't a full-time job, but it was kind of cool for a captain to be brought into that. That's how I got my TS clearance way back in '84, or '83-'84.
I really enjoyed that. I started off as a prosecutor, and I did that for about a year. Then what they did was they brought you over to defense after you had seasoned yourself. The idea was they didn't want you to screw up on ... If you want to screw something up, if you were going to screw up in court, they'd rather see you screw up on the government's time than on the time of the defendant because if you screwed up, then he went to jail. Yeah, I had to get seasoned before they'd let you defend anybody.
I had some pretty cool cases when I was over there. Probably the biggest case I had was a Grenada case. It was a guy, it was a captain, an Army captain who was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, and I knew him. He was actually from the Philadelphia area, and I had actually done a will for him about a year before. We both deployed to Grenada. I didn't know he was down there. He came to see me after we got back. He and his crew chief and some other guy on his Black Hawk apparently had decided to take some souvenirs back from the island, which were AK-47s. When we were down there, we were told we were going to get, each, an AK-47 to take back. They were going to put a rod down the barrel and demill it, so I had my own AK-47 that had my name on it, but then they said, "No, you can't do it. You're not taking your AK-47s, so you don't get one," so I didn't get one. These guys just thought they would get one anyway, so they took a bunch of them back. They hid them in the fuel cells, empty fuel cells of their Black Hawk, which then went back on a C-5, or C-141. I forget. When it went back, they took their weapons, each, and they had their souvenirs.
One of the guys in his crew, one of his enlisted guys decided he would sell his. Unfortunately for him, he sold it to an undercover agent from the ATF, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Once he got arrested, he started singing and he implicated the other enlisted guy and the captain who was the pilot, and the captain came to me for legal advice. That case actually got to be a pretty big case because the Army had advertised that if you turn your weapons in, you'll get amnesty, and so this guy came to me and he said, "Look, I want to take advantage of this amnesty. I'd like to turn my weapon in," so I ended up calling a bunch of people at ATF, and 18th Airborne Corps, and the 82nd Airborne Division, the U.S. Attorney's Office. I said, "Well, I want a written guarantee in writing, obviously, that if my guy turns it in, he's not going to get prosecuted." Nobody would give me a written guarantee. They gave me oral guarantees, but not a written guarantee. I said to my guy, "Look, an oral promise is not as good as a written promise, but it's better than nothing. Right now, you've got a whole lot of nothing to looking at, and your compatriot on your aircraft has already identified you. It's a matter of time before the CID comes to your house, executes a search warrant, searches your home, and gets this AK-47 out of your closet," which is where it was. "You got caught red-handed, so let's turn it in. I'll turn it in with you, and we'll get these oral guarantees."
I got oral guarantees all the way up the chain of command from the MP office at the 82nd, to the staff judge advocate at the 82nd, to the staff judge advocate at the 18th Airborne Corps, to the ATF, then finally the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. I said, "I think we got about seven promises here from people in the ability to give these promises. They have the authority, so let's do it," and we turned it in. Sure enough the Army prosecuted him. I had already deployed again, this time to the Sinai for a peacekeeping mission as a JAG, and I got then a TWX saying he was calling, asking for me to be his senior ... to be his individual defense counsel. He put a request into the TJAG, the judge advocate general, and they flew me back from the Sinai via Rome back to Fort Bragg, and he was court-martialed.
I filed a big motion to dismiss the case based on these promises, and I thought we had good law and good facts on our side. The judge ruled against us and said although the promises were made, and they were made with the authority to make them, and although my client did rely on them to his detriment, the promises did not bind the convening authority, the convening authority being the general, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, who decided to prosecute and, "Therefore, we could go on with the prosecution." That came as a big blow to my client, and a big blow to me. I really thought we were going to win that case.
We had no more defense really. He was court-martialed. He was convicted. He was dismissed from the service, reduced to E-1, and sentenced to Leavenworth for a year. The case made 20/20, the TV show, 20/20. I declined to go on, and was supposed to get interviewed by Geraldo Rivera. We did file a motion for immediate relief with the secretary of the Army, and we got him out in six months. He was pretty distraught that he had to go from captain to convict. That was a tough case for me. That was probably my biggest case, but I had a lot of other ones.
I had some attempted murder cases, rape cases, some child abuse cases. Child abuse cases were really tough, especially defending these guys. In most cases, they were just, I don't know if they were bad guys or they were just stupid guys. I'd say they were more stupid guys than bad guys. I had a pretty active caseload in those four years. I think I did about 65 court-martials, or 67, or something like that to verdicts, so got a lot of good experience in the courtroom.
I had some other cases that never made it to trial, and those were rewarding. I always seemed to get the officer cases for some reason. I don't know why, but when officers screwed up, they did it with tremendous panache. They didn't just do something stupid. They really did something stupid, and so I had about two or three lieutenants that were accused of various sexual misconduct. One was a homosexual assault on an enlisted soldier by a lieutenant. It was a pretty bad case, factually. The guy admitted everything to the CID that took the statement. The statement was clean. He had been read his rights. He waived his rights. Couldn't find any way to suppress it. He admitted everything, and it was extremely detailed. When I said to him, "Tell me about the statement," and he goes, "Well, I didn't do any of that." I said, "But you wrote that. You signed that, didn't you?" "Yes. I don't recall giving that statement." I said, "Well, first of all, you said you didn't do it. Then you said you don't remember. I got two stories here. I don't have a lot to work with," so that was a tough case.
I was able to go to his battalion commander and say to his battalion commander, I said, "Look, sir, this lieutenant's been a good solider, but obviously, something happened here. Maybe he's gay. Maybe he's not. I don't know. We can ..." In those days, this is the kind of stuff could put a guy, sodomy, in prison for 25 years. I said, "We can destroy this kid's life or we can maybe just let him get out of the Army and give him an honorable discharge. Maybe he'll go find himself."
The battalion commander was a pretty cool guy. He looked at me and said, "Well, I'm from California, so I agree with you. Let's just, I'll approve a resignation from the Army for the good of the service, and we'll give him an honorable discharge." That was a rewarding case for me. I think the kid was messed up. I think he was confused. I don't think he needed to go to jail for 25 years.
I had another case that was really weird. It was a guy who was a Vietnam vet. He had a lot of PTSD. He was also a captain, and he was going through his security clearance review with a DIS guy, that's Investigative Services. He asked him some questions about whether he was ... Anything that he would like to tell him that might be a little out of the ordinary that might be problematic. He said, "Yeah. Well, I wife swap with my NCOIC and I take naked pictures of my prepubescent daughters." Well, that was a problem. They were going to bring court-martial charges up on that guy. I was able to get him under psychiatric treatment. He had some severe mental issues, and we got him out on a medical discharge. He had really bad PTSD. He was an enlisted guy in Vietnam, and apparently the enemy got through the wire of some fire base where he was. He was in hand-to-hand combat, and he had a guy literally on top of him, and was getting ready to strangle him or kill him somehow. What he did was he grabbed the guy by the back of the head, brought him down, and bit his nose off. He said that was a pretty scary thing to think about, so we got him medical treatment. I thought I did a pretty good job as a defense counsel. That was a very rewarding case. I mean, bad stuff. Really bad stuff, but you're doing your job.
I guess, the most rewarding moment down range for me was in the Gulf, the first Gulf War. Deployed in the first Gulf War to Saudi Arabia, and then into Kuwait. After liberation, we were there for that. I say rewarding because it's one of those incidents that happen that you always wonder what you'll do in a time of an emergency. That case involved, that incident involved, I was in a convoy. It was a two-vehicle convoy. It wasn't much of a convoy. We were doing a site visit, and my job there was working as a ... doing contract law. We were basically going to rebuild Kuwait after the Iraqis got kicked out. We worked with the guys that were putting the oil well fires out, and stuff like that. I was on my way to check out some desalinization plants in Kuwait City. Kuwait City, it was sort of like two desalinization plants. I went out with my boss in one Isuzu, which was the Japanese nation's contribution to the Gulf War was Isuzus, so we all had Isuzus to drive. We're in an Isuzu SUV. We're following another Isuzu SUV. Two of us in Isuzus. We were doing the site visits to check out these desalinization plants to figure out the damage that the Iraqis had done. Anything they couldn't cart back to Baghdad, they destroyed. These places were pretty beat up, so we had a lot of work to do.
On the way back, the first vehicle which was driven by a Green Beret major was on orders to head to Delta Force. The guy was a total stud. We're, I don't know, about 30 clicks south, southwest of Kuwait City. It's about 5:00 at night. He said, "I know a shortcut back to Kuwait City." All right, whatever. We're following him, and we go off-road, and we're driving through, down a dirt road. I'm sitting there on the passenger side reading the Stars and Stripes. I happened to look up and I noticed we're going through a perimeter, Iraqi defensive perimeters, which were filled with oil. They were going to light these oil trenches on fire to keep us out. They never did that. I thought, "Hmm. We're going through the Iraqi defensive perimeter. That's interesting." Then I went back to reading my paper. All of a sudden, my vehicle stops and the guy that's driving it who was my boss ... I was a major at the time, He was a lieutenant colonel. He stops the vehicle and he does a three-point turn. He says to himself out loud, "I don't like the looks of this place." I don't even look up. I'm still reading the paper.
Now we're driving down the road we just came down. The vehicle ahead of us, which was about 100 yards ahead of us, they stop. He sees we're turning around, and he does a three-point turn. He's behind us about 100 yards, and all of a sudden, kaboom. The back of our ... The glass of our SUV shatters out. I look at my colleague and I said, "Did we get a flat tire?" He goes, "No." I said, "Was that us or was that Mike?" He goes, "That was Mike." I said, "Oh," and then we just kind of sat there. Then we turned around and we look behind us 100 yards, and his vehicle had hit an anti-tank mine and was just blown to hell. As a result of that, it was apparent that there was a lot of smoke. We were worried that nobody was getting out. We weren't sure those guys were even alive. There were two of them were dead, and so we both said at the same time, "Let's go." We just jumped out, and we ran through the minefield. We got to the vehicle. It was smoking. We were worried that the fuel line was going to ignite, and they were going to be burned alive, so we pulled out the doors and we lifted them out. The other person was actually a female civilian engineer, Corps of Engineers. She had, her eardrums were blown out, but she was walking around. The driver, the major, he had, his left leg was pretty bad. His right leg was pretty bad. His left leg was really bad. Bones were sticking out, and his left foot was doing a 360 on a piece of skin, and part of his scalp was gone, and part of the top of his ear was gone. We lifted him out, and my colleague and I carried him together through the minefield back to our vehicle, laid him down. His pulse didn't have a lot of blood, so I took my belt off and tourniqueted his left leg, put him in the back of our vehicle. Then we drove out of the minefield, and got out of there without a problem. Got him to the nearest allied unit, which was an Egyptian Armor brigade. We got through their perimeter, got to their aid station. They said, "Well, the docs aren't here. They're all at the OPs doing rounds seeing the troops," which is where they should have been. They said, "We'll help you. We'll put him in an Egyptian Army ambulance, take him to a hospital, Kuwaiti hospital," so we put him in there. I got in with him. He was all bloody. I was all bloody. The driver was an Egyptian conscript, about 18 years old. He kept looking at us, and you could see he was pretty nervous by the sight of blood, and he was very, very agitated. I thought to myself, "Note to self. This guy should not be driving ambulances if he doesn't like to see the sight of blood," but I wasn't in the position to say anything, so off we go. I'm standing there in the back of the ambulance. It's like a breadbox on wheels, and I'm doing my first first aid with this guy. He's coming in and out of consciousness, but he's okay, I think. Then his eyes kind of go back in his head. I'm thinking, "Oh, he's going to check out of the net," so I'm kind of hitting him, slapping him in the face, keeping him awake, talking to him.
Then all of a sudden, the vehicle starts to oscillate from side to side. I turn around and there's a slat you could open to talk to the driver. Of course, he doesn't speak any English. I open the slat and I'm going to say, "What the something are you doing?" As I see that, I can see out the front window where the driver could see, through the slat, and the whole world is going to the right. It's turning over. What I didn't know is my driver had lost control of the ambulance, and he rolled it down a 40-foot ravine and flipped it four times. The last thing I remember was turning around real quick and launching myself on my patient and wrapping my arms around this guy to stabilize him because I didn't want him to get tossed around like popcorn in a Crackerjack box.
We landed on the roof of the ambulance. I didn't remember getting out. Apparently, I did, but I did get out. Then I apparently collapsed. I came to with my colleague, by boss looking down at me and he said, "Are you all right?" I'm like, "I don't know." I said, "How's the other guy?" He said, "He's okay." Anyway, they medevaced me to a hospital where I had my right and left fingers were all clawed up. My scalp was ripped open, my knee was ripped open. My neck hurt a lot, and my left arm was really deeply lacerated right down to the bone. You could see the bone, so they sutured the left arm. They didn't suture the left arm. It was too deep. They let it heal from the inside. Sutured the scalp, sutured the knee up. They said, "You're bruised, your ulnar nerve. You'll be all right. Your hands will come back." Put me in a Kuwaiti hospital for a week. Released me. My neck hurt like hell, but they said, "You just got a cervical strain sprain." They released me and returned me to duty. I was hobbling around for about a week and then finally, my adjutant, my S-1 said, "Hey, there's an orthopedic surgeon, a neurosurgeon from Brooke Army Medical Center coming through. I want him to see you." I said, "I don't need to see that guy. I'm okay." He goes, "Nah, see him anyway." "All right."
This guy comes in and sees me at my hooch, and he gives me a lot of neurological exams. He said, "I don't like the way this looks." He said, "You're out of here." I said, "What's wrong?" He goes, "I don't like the way this looks. You're out of here." He wouldn't tell me anything more, so they medevaced me to Blanchfield Army Hospital. I walked on the medevac bird carrying my A bag, and sat in the seat for the flight. I walked off, got on the bus, went into the hospital. They gave me more X-rays, more CAT scans with better equipment, because the Kuwaitis had crummy equipment because they had to get stuff, because the Iraqis stole all the good equipment.
He came back in my hospital room and he said, "Major, you've used up eight and half of your nine lives." I said, "Why is that?" He said, "Because you broke your neck, and you broke your neck in three places, C5, C6, and C7." He wrote a, drew a line on a piece of paper, and showed me the X-ray, said, "That's your X-ray. That's the X-ray of a quadriplegic." I said, "Really?" He goes, "Yeah, you're a walking quad right now, and the only reason you're not a quad is because you've got edema, swelling in your neck from the trauma, and your muscles are holding your shattered vertebrae in place, but when that swelling goes down, you're going to be in maximum danger."
As he's telling me that, they're putting a Philadelphia collar on. He drew a line on a piece of paper and he said, "See that line? Disregard the length. The width of that line is a half a millimeter from left to right in that pencil line. That's how close you are to total cord compression." I said, "What's total cord compression?" He said, "Being a quad," so they medevaced me to Walter Reed, and they did an eight-hour operation on my neck. Rebuilt my neck, put three levels of plates and screws in there, and threw me in a halo brace for three to four months, and I'm good to go.
That was a bad day at Black Rock, but the one thing I take about that was we did the right thing, and we didn't hesitate. You always wonder, "Will I do the right thing?" I think we did the right thing. We saved this guy's life, and he was medically retired. I saw him about two years later. We had lunch at Bragg. He came walking in. He's still in the Army, getting ready to get out. He comes in. He lost his left leg. I looked at him, I said, "I can't believe you got one leg because you walk fine." He goes, "Yeah, those prosthetic legs are pretty good. It hurts to run, but I do a lot of biking now." He got out of the Army. He retired in Minnesota, and every year, I get a Christmas card from him, and it says, "Don't forget ..." He's an Infantry officer. Actually a Special Forces officer. Said, "Don't think I'll ever forget what you guys did for me that day. Thank you very much." He said, "The worst part about that is that I had to get saved by two Army lawyers." That was probably the most memorable thing that I did in that deployment.
That was COL Jack Thomas Tomarchio.
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