The evening of January 22, 2007, on a desert highway near Baghdad, the Humvee that Army Sergeant Michelle Rudzitis was riding in was hit by a roadside bomb. The driver of the vehicle, Army Specialist Brandon Stout of Grand Rapids, was killed in the explosion, as was the Iraqi interpreter, Kevin—a nickname given to him by the soldiers he worked with. Gunner and Army Specialist Derek Gagne of the Upper Peninsula town of Wilson was also seriously wounded. Seated at a picnic table at Traverse City’s Clinch Park Marina on two afternoons during the summer of 2008, Rudzitis, a Purple Heart recipient, talked with Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine about the trauma of being a veteran and the challenges of building a new life. Sergeant Rudzitis, retired since the spring of 2009, was a member of the 46th Military Police Company, Michigan National Guard.

You have strong feelings about the events leading up to the accident.

I’ve given a few speeches and it’s important to me to tell people this. There was supposedly some colonel who said that anyone who had a FRAG 5 kit on their vehicle—a type of protection kit—that they were all to remove the four-inch-thick glass in the doors.

Basically [our vehicle] was going to be bare metal, because if there was an explosion he was saying that the glass was shattering and going into the soldiers. So we spent that whole weekend taking our glass out of our doors—which was our protection.

So Sunday the 21st we were like, okay, we’re done because that day was supposed to be our day off, so we were all excited. My squad leader was like, I got bad news: your team has to go out with second squad tomorrow to go to BIAP [Baghdad International Airport].

So we were basically bare metal. I do like to add, a couple months prior to our accident there was another squad hit with an EFP, which was what our vehicle was hit with, and a copper slug hit the windshield and didn’t penetrate, and that was what the glass was for—so it worked.

We didn’t want to do it. We were ordered by somebody sitting at their desk, somebody who probably hasn’t even been out of the FOB [Forward Operation Base], to go on a mission without any protection on our vehicles to get protection for our vehicles. People just aren’t thinking.

When we left BIAP it was starting to get dark, and we like to be off the roads before it gets dark because it’s easier to get hit then. We were heading on to Route Pluto, which was the last stretch to get to our base. Brandon was talking about how slow we were going and commenting that we were perfect little ducks in a row. And I was like, ‘Yeah this is ridiculous, I wish we could go faster,’ and we were getting ready to pass this spot that’s known for EFP blasts, and I always would sit myself cockeyed in the vehicle—arms up, legs everywhere, because we thought if we got hit it would get a part of us, not all of us. So we always would get in our position and hold our breath.

We got past it, and I sat up to re-situate myself, and Brandon said, “I love ya man,” and Derek said it too, and it was like they knew, and I looked out the window and the explosion happened.

[Brandon] was killed instantly. My girlfriend Tara, she found him under the vehicle, and I don’t think she’s talked about it. But every time I see her we have this special bond because she found Brandon. He and Kevin were killed instantly.

Kevin was back further. This is really sad … his family probably doesn’t even know that he’s gone because we can’t contact them. We don’t know where they are. I don’t know if they collected his body. Basically, obviously, we have to take care of ours first … you know, [crying] but he was left out there.

[Derek] lost his right foot. Either his right or left foot. But it was below the knee so he’s a below-the-knee amputee. He had a lot of damage to his left eye—which they couldn’t save—and he had a lot of damage to his face. Lost parts of his fingers and his toes.

I was in and out of consciousness—I was hurting and thinking about my family. Derek had gotten out of the turret to come get me and try to get me out of my door, but the locks had blown off my door.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowsk