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Courage under Fire
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On Aug. 19, 2003, a bomb exploded at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad killing the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 22 others in the first terrorist attack aimed directly at the United Nations.

Fire fighter and paramedic Andre Valentine, a U.S. Army Reserve chief medic from Covington, was trying to free another blast victim near Vieira de Mello when he died.

"At first we didn't know who he was - that he was the boss of bosses for the U.N. in Baghdad," Valentine said.

Valentine, a paramedic with 26 years experience, only knew Vieira de Mello's first name and that he probably was not going to survive his injuries. So, he began working on another man who was covered by less shattered concrete and metal.

All paramedics dread having to make a decision of who to help based on their chances of survival, but also know they will eventually have to during their careers.

"People don't realize those split-second decisions last for a lifetime for everybody involved," Valentine said.

Valentine said the sunny August afternoon which made headlines around the globe started normally until his unit heard a loud explosion.

"It rocked the ground," Valentine said.

They gathered their gear and headed out in the direction of the tower of smoke, not knowing what the target of the blast was or how many casualties had occurred.

For almost an hour Valentine and his team of medics triaged 185 injured and almost 20 fatalities. Then Master Sgt. Bill von Zehle yelled to Valentine that more victims were trapped in the rubble of the hotel.

Five victims were trapped in a cavernous hole; two were already dead. Vieira was still alive, but buried.

Valentine removed his helmet and Kevlar outerwear and grabbed as many medical supplies as he could hold, while von Zehle held up the walls in what Valentine described as a house of cards.

"I literally had to crawl down three stories face-first into the hole," Valentine said.

He first reached a woman who had sustained devastating wounds to her face. Valentine gave her pain medicine, opened her airways so she could breathe comfortably and whispered a prayer into her ear before moving deeper into the pit.

"May the Lord be with you and may your soul go to heaven," he prayed.

When he reached Vieira de Mello and Gil Loescher, humanitarian expert on refugee issues, he determined Loescher could be more easily extracted from the rubble. He tried to make Vieira de Mello as comfortable as possible.

For six hours Valentine used his hands and bits of debris to free Loescher - who had been meeting with Vieira de Mello and several other colleagues - and then sawing through flesh and bone to free his legs from the rubble and inching him to the top of the pit.

When they reached the top Loescher was unconscious.

"I think it was because he knew he was finally out of danger," Valentine said.

Loescher was transported to Germany and for weeks Valentine did not know what had become of him.

Eventually he viewed photographs on the Internet depicting Loescher's recovery, including an image of him walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding with the aid of prosthetics and a cane.

"When I finally saw those pictures I kind of broke down and cried because I promised him he wasn't going to die and that he would be able to see his daughter's wedding," Valentine said.

On a stop-over in London on Valentine's way back to Iraq in 2005, he met Loescher and his family. It was the first time they had seen each other face to face since the bombing.

"We all just hugged and cried for about 20 minutes in the middle of the airport," Valentine said.

Monday, Valentine and von Zehle will meet for the first time since that horrible August afternoon.

Valentine said his experience as an emergency medical technician and his faith helped him through the ordeal and months of nightmares that followed.

His civilian experiences as a fire fighter and paramedic erased any shell shock he would have experienced that day and helped him train his team of medics on what to expect in combat medicine. He said his crew did a fantastic job of triaging patients and finding transportation, in many cases civilian vehicles, to take them to hospitals.

"You treat the patients of a certain accident the same no matter where you are," Valentine said.

He said he made a pact with himself early in his career to learn from experiences, but not to regret or dwell on decisions that didn't turn out the way he wanted

Valentine continued to read the Bible, which he said is a better way to deal with a traumatic experience than turning to alcohol, drugs or abuse of loved ones.

"Scripture says if you want peace, look for the Lord and he will give it to you," Valentine said.

Always wondering whether he would be able to perform as a paramedic in battle, he answered his question by plunging into an unstable chasm because he knew there was a life at the bottom and it was his job to save it.

"We tell ourselves if you have 100 injured people and you can get one out, then you've done your job," Valentine said.

Gil Loescher, the only survivor of those who met with Vieira de Mello on Aug. 19, 2003, is a testament to the task Valentine completed that day.

"I'm not the person that brags or flaunts," Valentine said. "I think my actions will speak for me."