- Transcript (RTF)
It's a normal day for Joe Gottschalk of Lone Tree. He'll work with a small construction crew on one project or another in one of many small Iowa towns and then knock off for the day. But there is another side to this young Iowan's life.
Gottschalk, 26, is an Iowa National Guardsman with the 2133rd transportation company based in Muscatine. Gottschalk joined the Guard knowing that his obligation could become more than just two weekends a month and two weeks a year.
Mundt: In 2003 Gottschalk's life changed forever. The 2133rd was deployed to Iraq.
Gottschalk: To be honest with you, I was excited and scared both. Excited for the part that we're finally going to do something, we're finally going to do our job. The scared part, I wasn't really scared but I was because not knowing what was going to happen or what was going to go on while we were over there.
Mundt: After five months of training in Wisconsin and Kuwait, the 2133rd was paired up with the regular Army's 3rd armored cavalry regiment. The unit was stationed in western Iraq at the former Iraqi Al Asad air base. Several men in the 2133rd were from Joe's hometown of Tipton. Among them was specialist Aaron Sissel, an old friend from high school. Sissel and Gottschalk had gone from a life of going to work, going to the bowling alley, and going to National Guard drills, to a life with a single focus, transporting troops and detainees and delivering supplies to remote forward bases. Acronyms took over their daily existence. They carried SAWs, or squad automatic weapons. They avoided IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. And they hoped no one would shoot RPGs, or rocket propelled grenades, at them. On November 29, 2003, Gottschalk and Sissel made a delivery to a forward operating base in western Iraq. The day would not end on a good note.
Gottschalk: We were on the road and in about six hours or so we made it to our destination where we unloaded and we sat there and we started heading back.
Mundt: Just outside the town of Haditha, the column of trucks came under attack. Gottschalk was driving and Sissel was in the passenger seat carrying a squad automatic weapon.
Gottschalk: And at first it was kind of -- it all happened at once it seemed like, I mean, because the first few vehicles went by and nothing happened. And pretty soon IEDs started going off. And then as soon as the IEDs went off, there was RPGs being shot. There was small arms fire. And at that time I wasn't really sure what had happened, other than I knew that we were being ambushed and that we needed to get out of there. And I had seen Aaron, he was kind of hunched over and laying down. And I wasn't sure what had happened to him. You know, I knew that -- he looked like he had gotten knocked out is what it looked like. I picked him up and carried him underneath the front of the truck, and that's where he sat. And I proceeded to fire back. I wasn't real sure what I was shooting at, but I was shooting. And his saw jammed and then I fired my m16 until I ran out of ammo. And then I just sat there and hovered over the top of him. We were under fire for roughly 45 minutes. To be honest with you, to me it just felt like a couple of minutes. The adrenaline was pumping so hard.
Mundt: Sometime during the prolonged firefight, Sissel died of his injuries and Gottschalk was wounded. A single bullet entered the back of his head, just missing his spinal cord. After ricocheting off the top of his left jaw, it exited just under his left eye. Eventually Gottschalk lost consciousness. Nine days later he woke up in bed at the Walter Reed Army medical center.
Gottschalk: When I was in the hospital, I kept telling everybody that I wanted to go see Aaron and go see, you know, the rest of the people that were injured. And they -- I kept them that they were just down the hall. And they kept telling me, no, they're not. You can't, you can't go see them. You have to stay here in bed. I remember a couple days after that, mom had told me that Aaron had passed away. I never really, per se, broke down until after the fact that I was kind of by myself, didn't have nobody around. It was more something that I had to deal with on my own time. Just not having him around when we, you know, just as simple as, like, our bowling leagues on Thursday nights. He bowled with us on Thursday nights, and he's -- you know, he's just not there anymore.
Mundt: During his time at Walter Reed, Gottschalk was awarded the Purple Heart. It was pinned on his hospital clothes by President George Bush.
Gottschalk: I knew that I would end up getting the Purple Heart out of the deal, but to have it pinned on by the President himself, it's a big honor to me. It means -- it means a lot.
Mundt: While Gottschalk was still in the hospital, the Army decided to offer him a medical discharge. His response was one you might not expect from someone who had endured so much.
Gottschalk: To be honest with you, I told them that they were full of crap. I told them that I didn't want to get out. And they're like, "Well, why not?" You know, you've done your job. And I guess my biggest thing is I've always said that there's people out there that want to do it and can't do it and there's people out there that can do it and won't do it. And I guess I'm one of them people that can do it and will still do it.
Mundt: After some major reconstructive surgery and several months of recovery, Gottschalk qualified to return to duty. He stands ready to return to Iraq if his unit is recalled.
Gottschalk: I would like to see Iraq to be the country that they should be, and I would like to see the people over there get treated fairly just as we do. And obviously I know that may never happen, but if I can do -- if I can go back over and help do that a little bit, then I would be more than happy to do that.