Saving life after terrorist bombing garners Army award

By Dianne Ryder

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Ask any Defense Logistics Agency employee to sum up the agency’s mission, and they will likely answer, “Support the warfighter.” But that mission takes on a far deeper, more dangerous meaning on the battlefield.

Army Col. Rick Ellis, commander of the DLA support team in Afghanistan was awarded the Combat Action Badge Nov. 26. The badge is awarded to soldiers performing assigned duties in areas where hostile fire pay or imminent danger pay is authorized.

Ellis earned the honor for his actions on what began as a typical day in Bagram, Afghanistan.

“On Nov. 12, there was a Veterans' Day 5K run scheduled, and our start point was North Disney Boulevard, across from the Bagram Support Group headquarters,” he said. “I got up early that morning because I had signed up to participate in the run.”

It was 5:30 a.m., 45 minutes before the start of the race, Ellis said.

Dressed in his running gear, Ellis walked up the main road, where only a few people were walking in either direction. He saw a group of people walking toward him.

“I didn’t immediately recognize who they were, but as I passed them, I [saw] one of my compadres, Col. Chris Colavita,” Ellis said.

Colavita is the First Cavalry Division Resolute Support sustainment brigade commander. They slowed briefly to exchange playful taunts and then continued on their separate ways.

“I said to him, ‘Hey, don’t fall out of the run, old man,’” said Colavita. “That little engagement that I had with Col. Ellis was enough to put me toward the back of the gaggle I was with.”

Not more than 90 seconds later, there was an explosion.

“This is Afghanistan; we get explosions sometimes,” Ellis said. “So I did what we always do. I hit the deck and covered my head because I initially thought it was an indirect fire.”

Ellis said he didn’t hear any sirens or warnings, so he broke with regular protocol and looked up.

He first saw people running toward him and then looked over his shoulder and saw the billowing black cloud of smoke behind him.

“I came upon a soldier who was later identified as Pfc. Robert Healy,” he said. Ellis said Healy was bleeding profusely from his left hand, and another soldier had hold of his arm to help him elevate it above his head.

“I tried to calm him down a little bit,” Ellis said. “I said, ‘I’m Rick, from DLA. Just stay calm.’”

Ellis asked Healy where his tourniquet was, since all deployed service members are equipped with one. “He had enough mental acuity at that point [to tell me] his tourniquet was in his left pants pocket,” Ellis said.

After applying the tourniquet, Ellis said he realized Healy began to feel pain and his sense of panic was elevated; he insisted he needed to get to a hospital. Again, Ellis attempted to calm Healy, and since ambulances hadn’t yet arrived, Ellis helped Healy into a police car. “We told the policeman to get him down to the hospital, which is about 100 meters down the road,” Ellis said.

Once they departed, Ellis revisited the scene to see who else he could assist. He saw Colavita, who had been rendered temporarily unconscious from the blast.  “We all got blown to the ground,” Colavita said. “It was a bloody, horrific scene – like something out of a movie.”

“When I got to Col. Colavita, I told him that I had taken care of one of his guys and gotten him to the hospital and he was going to be OK,” Ellis said.  It wasn’t until Ellis spoke with Colavita that he learned the explosion was the result of a suicide bomber.

“When he got to me, I was just angry at this cowardly bomber,” Colavita said. “[Ellis] was a calming presence.”

Colavita said everything was very foggy because of the fumes from the bomb, and at first there was no movement or sound.  “These are all my soldiers; I’m the commander,” he said. “I start walking into this carnage and start to assess casualties and look for secondary explosive devices or another threat.”

In all, four died, and 16 were wounded. Colavita talked to many of the injured soldiers and their family members, including Healy’s mother. She asked him to help her find “Rick from the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal detachment].” She said and her son wanted to thank the man who saved her son’s arm and possibly, his life. 

“I laughed and said, ‘Rick from EOD is actually Col. Rick Ellis, a good friend of mine from DLA,’” Colavita said. 

Even after Colavita arranged a telephone call to reunite Ellis and Healy, Healy still referred to Ellis simply as “Rick.” “[I told Ellis], ‘You’re never going to be a colonel to this guy; you’re always going to be ‘Rick.’ You’re just going to have to be OK with that,” Colavita said. “And he is.” 

“My perspective is, I did the thing that anybody would have done,” Ellis said.

He attributes his lifesaving actions to first-responder training and to the tourniquets. “It’s a testament to the piece of equipment itself, how easy it is to use,” Ellis said.

Colavita said Ellis’s “remarkable actions” earned him the honor of the Combat Action Badge.  “He very humbly accepted it; I never even told him I was [nominating him],” Colavita said.