Before the deployment, Russell was not exactly known for his heroic attitude. When he was accepted at Annapolis, some of his high school teachers in San Antonio started a pool: How long till they boot the smart-ass? At the Naval Academy, he instinctively cast every step in his career in Us-versus-Them terms: freshmen versus everybody, juniors versus seniors, seniors versus the staff. This rebellious instinct did him no favors in his class standing. But it sure helped when he looked out of the suicide bunker to size up the heavily armed hostiles. He knew that the insurgents were undisciplined. He remembers thinking, There’s no squad leader there directing fire, making sure their shooters don’t get drawn off by the first bright shiny thing that passes by. He made a decision. “Basically,” he says, “I became the bright shiny thing.”
He started pushing back into the vehicle-search area, drawing fire, discovering enemy positions. While Cyparski covered him from behind the bunker, Russell crept forward—a moving target—taking shrapnel in the arms and face and exposing enemy positions. When the volume of fire became, as he put it, “stupid,” he and Cyparski retreated to the bunker and got another idea. During his feint into the vehicle area, he’d located several insurgents. Hey, now’s as good a time as any to try to engage those positions, he thought. So he popped up to shoot and took an AK-47 round to the head. The bullet penetrated his helmet and ricocheted—up.
“It knocked me to my ass and gave me a pretty good concussion, I found out later,” he says. “Regardless, I went down, and at this point I think I’m dead, because the shrapnel that I’d taken to my face started bleeding with the impact. So I go down to a knee and tell Ski, ‘Hey, I’m hit.’ What do you do in that situation? ‘Well…tell my mom I love her’? I don’t know. Basically, you just kind of accept it and wait. But one count, two count, and things aren’t getting dark. I don’t see the great white light. So I’m like, Well, uh, it’s your brain, man. So try thinkin’ something. If you can think, you’re fine. So I tried thinking something, and nothing came. I figured that was fine, too. At least thinking that I wasn’t thinking anything was kind of thinking.” A few
beats later, he popped back up and resumed his command.
Interesting guy. I really like his philosophy:
“You know your Platonic ideals?” First Lieutenant Russell said hesitantly. “War is probably the Platonic ideal of sport—what all sports are trying to become. It’s physical, but it’s as much mental as physical. It’s definitely got its spiritual aspects, you know? And the prize at the end is the ultimate prize imaginable. And I’m not talking about democracy in the Middle East or the end ofthe Great War but your own life. And the lives of your team.”