The loneliest 15 minutes of Pfc. Kyle Turner's life happened on an asphalt road on the outskirts of Balad, Iraq, in June 2003.
It was just after 10 p.m. Turner and his sergeant, Atanasio Haro-Marin Jr., had just started their guard shift. They were standing about 20 yards "outside the wire" -- beyond their base's safety perimeter -- whispering and joking about what they planned to do when they both got home to California. It had been four or five days since their last contact with the enemy. Intel suggested few threats in the area.
The intel was wrong.
The orange trail of a rocket-propelled grenade split the night sky and hit a vehicle behind them, sending a soldier flying. Haro grabbed Turner and threw him to the ground out of another RPG's path, and the two lay on the pavement firing back at the unseen enemy in front of them. From behind them, the rest of the platoon returned fire over their heads.
They were trapped in the crossfire. There was no cover, no time to duck into a nearby canal, no time to do anything except return fire. Sparks danced off the concrete. One group of insurgents opened fire from the left, another was bearing down directly in front of them, with Turner farthest in front.
He could feel rounds whirring past him. Haro and Turner kept up their fire. Then Haro stopped. Turner looked over five or six feet to his left and saw that his sergeant wasn't moving. He crawled over, realized Haro was hurt and called for a medic -- but the rest of the platoon was pinned down behind them by enemy fire. Another RPG exploded, and in the glow Turner saw a pool of blood beneath Haro's head. It was 15 minutes before help could reach them.
After Haro was dragged to safety, Turner stayed in the firefight, shooting back and covering a lieutenant's retreat. When the fight was finally over, he realized dozens of shrapnel fragments had pierced his arms and body. About three hours later, Haro, 27, died of his wounds. Turner was stitched up and back on guard duty after 12 hours.
He was 19 years old.
The commander of ground troops in Iraq later singled out Turner's bravery in a speech, saying, "Thank God we have soldiers like Kyle Turner."
But to Turner, that June night was the moment he walked through hell. He came out the other side with three things no one can ever take away: a Silver Star for his valor, a Purple Heart for his wounds and the knowledge that death had come for him, then let him be.
Four years later, he is back in Merced, wrestling with the contradictions that night brought into his life. His physical wounds were treated with 30 or so stitches, but the firefight left lasting psychological scars.
He calls himself cocky but freely talks about crying late at night. He's fiercely proud of what he's accomplished at such a young age, but he hides his experiences from his peers so they don't judge him for what he had to do in the war. He wants to honor Sgt. Haro's memory, but if he doesn't put that night behind him, it threatens to smother his soul.
He is a 21st century American warrior.
From the time of Hannibal to the era of Petraeus, war has moved men (and, today, women) in a million ways. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different. What is different is that this generation of American warriors returns -- if they survive -- to a society largely untouched and unencumbered by the wars its sons and daughters are waging thousands of miles away. Some call it "war fatigue" and explain that in the age of 24/7 multiplatform news, Americans' notoriously short attention spans have wandered and wavered. There is no draft. There are no war bond tours. Nobody has missed a meal because of these wars.