August 7, 2012: Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank, Logar Province in Afghanistan. She remembers a ‘thump’ followed by the sensation of a big hand picking up her body then squeezing the breath from her lungs. Hurled through the air, her body smashes against a blast wall, called an Alaska Wall by the U.S. Military. A water truck packed with 3,000 lbs. of explosives had just detonated ‘inside the wire.’ Major Patty “Mama Bear” Justice lies wounded and motionless, another casualty of another suicidal terrorist attack. She is 49 years old.
During WWII her father worked on the secretive Manhattan Project to help develop the atomic bomb that ended the war. By the time Patty was born, her father was vice-president of a steel company in Mexico City. She recalled, “When we moved back to the states I was 8 years old, bilingual and with dual-citizenship. I didn’t lose dual-citizenship until I took the oath as an officer in the U.S. military.”
After high school Patty attended the New Mexico Military Institute with high hopes of an Army military career upon graduation. An incident in advanced boot camp spoiled the dream. “I ruined my knee,” she said. “That terminated my ROTC scholarship so I transferred to Mount Saint Mary’s, an all-girl Catholic school in California. After graduation I later worked in defensive contracting until moving to Peachtree City, GA in 1989. I met a great guy, we got hitched, and I decided on a career in nursing. First I attended Gordon College before receiving my nursing degree from Brenau University. I worked at Piedmont Hospital for 11 years, until the Twin Towers fell.”
Patty received a card in the mail explaining a need for qualified nurses in the military. She said, “I thought, ‘shoot, I’ll try again,’ and I took a chance on being accepted.” At 40 years of age, Patty Justice received a direct commission into the US Army. “I didn’t even have to wear the butter bars of a 2nd Lt.,” she said, grinning. “I was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant.”
Patty was assigned to the 3297th out of Fort Gordon, GA after attending an officer basic course at Fort Sam Houston, TX. The battalion moved to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio as the campaign in Iraq heated up. Patty said, “I was there for 18 months. We were the last in a chain of care spectrums. Casualties were flown in from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany into Brooke for the completion of their treatment before going to a VA hospital nearest their hometown.” During this time the 3297th was disbanded to become the 3274th then reorganized a second time as the 75th Combat Support Hospital out of Tuscaloosa.
Patty returned to Piedmont Hospital after completing her assignment at Brooke. She recalled, “Boy, talk about going back to slow motion. It was like being demoted from the big league back to the little league. Piedmont is a great hospital, but a military hospital moves at a more industrious tempo. They expect more.” To expand her knowledge as an officer, Patty joined a civil affairs outfit in Dallas, TX for 2 years. “Those 2 years gave me a better rounded background and bestowed really great training,” she said. Patty would need all the training for her future deployment.
Up for a promotion to Major without slots available, she received a call from the 228th Combat Support Hospital in San Antonio. Their offer was unembellished: promotion to Major if she’d accept deployment to the 628th Forward Surgical Team hunkered down at an isolated location in Afghanistan called FOB Shank, better known as Rocket City. Patty accepted the promotion, and the challenge. Soon nicknamed “Mama Bear” by her colleagues, Major Patty Justice was going to war. From September of 2011 to September of 2012, she would reside in ‘Rocket City.’
FOB Shank, Afghanistan: “Well, it reminded me of the movie MASH; we lived in tents, no real roads, just about everything brought in by air, and that included the wounded and dying. We stayed busy and learned a lot about different cultures, the Afghans and Nepalese. Afghan men in the villages could not understand a woman in uniform, packing a .45 automatic, and so bold as to look them in the eye. They just couldn’t comprehend that.”
“Mama Bear” kept count of the action. She recalled, “We got hit 278 times during my tour, mainly in the mornings, into the afternoon, but not very often at night. Even though we were ‘blacked-out’ at night, I had the impression many of the enemy fighters were basically lazy, like, ‘It’s time for bed, see you in the morning.’ Our south side base did get hit at night so I guess it depended on which area had less lazy fighters. Anyway, we received mortars, RPGs, and sniper fire on a regular basis.”
Her comments on the base medical field facility: “They did a great job considering we only had 14 people. We were on call 24/7, no shift work because the shifts depended on casualties. A 72 hour shift was nothing for us, yet the next time we’d only work 4 hours. We saw and treated a minimum of 1,100 patients. These were not minor injuries. We dealt with the results of IEDs and combat, severed limbs; people absolutely blown away. During the fall and winter we mainly took care of Afghan soldiers, except for the American soldiers hit by sniper fire or suffering from frost bite or hypothermia. It was horribly cold during the winter. But then the ‘killing season’ began, May through December, and the American casualties really picked up.”
When discussing American soldiers, she stated, “Those guys are good, resilient, and do what they are told. The average age of a soldier was about 20, our field surgical team about 25, and there I am a 49 year old “Mama Bear” fussin’ over our boys.”
August 7, 2013 – “Our small medical facility and living quarters were no more than a 30 second walk from ‘the wire’. We lived close to where we worked because we had to respond quickly for the medevac flights, coming in and going out. That night we were hit by mortars and had to attend an after action meeting in the morning. I forgot something and had to return to the tent which put me outside the protective wall. Suddenly, ‘Boom’, and that’s all I remembered.”
The ‘boom’ was a water truck. The water truck was stolen a couple of months prior to the explosion. The two truck drivers were beheaded. During the interim, insurgents jam-packed the truck with 3,000 lbs. of military explosives, slipped through an Afghan checkpoint two months later, and detonated the truck and themselves. The explosion created a 75 foot gap in the protective wire.
Patty regained consciousness 45 minutes later strapped to a stretcher, dazed and in pain. She recalled, “The base was home to an American Mountain Division, Rangers, and special forces guys. Some of the men had just returned from night combat duties and were sacked out when the truck exploded. Those guys didn’t hesitate. They grabbed their weapons and gear and hit the perimeter to ward off any ground attack, in their underwear. Luckily, there wasn’t a ground attack.”
Major Patty “Mama Bear” Justice’s shoulder was dislocated as was her hip. Her ears rung like church bells and continued ringing for weeks to come, plus, as later discovered, she received moderate TBI (traumatic brain injury). Flown via medevac chopper to Bagram Air Base, along with a trauma surgeon suffering from shrapnel wounds, her next port- of-call for proper healing should have been Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
“No way,” Patty said. “After a few days I told them I was just fine, my fingers and toes worked okay, my trigger finger still functioned, and I’m ready to go back to FOB Shank.” When they asked about the terrible ringing in her ears, she replied, “No ringing whatsoever.” Major Patty Justice was lying through her “Mama Bear” teeth. But her whopper worked; she returned to Rocket City to work alongside her colleagues and completed her tour. One month later, Patty rotated home with her unit.
More than qualified, combat veteran nurse Patty Justice found quick employment at the Atlanta Medical Center Trauma Unit, plus has had additional corrective surgery on her shoulder.
Now the fog of military paper-shuffling reared its ludicrous head when Patty received several emails from Bagram Air Base inquiring about her Purple Heart. She’d never received a Purple Heart, always wondered why, and contacted a close friend, the deputy chief nursing officer she served with in Afghanistan. Patty said, “He was fit to be tied when he heard about the screw-up.” Through his and Patty’s persistence, the truth was finally exposed. The unprocessed paperwork for seventeen individual Purple Heart recipients had been discovered in a desk at Bagram Air Base, including Patty’s. She stated, “Shoot, I was thinking about going to Fort Benning to purchase my own Purple Heart!”
No, ma’am, that’s not the way it’s going to happen. Major Patty C. Justice will be presented her Purple Heart on Friday, December 5, at 1:00 pm at the Walk of Heroes War Memorial at Black Shoals Park in Rockdale County, Georgia by the Georgia Department, Military Order of the Purple Heart & Chapter 465. The public is invited.
Well done, “Mama Bear”, well done.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.