Idaho Marine badly wounded in Afghanistan

By John O'Connell
Fort Hall, Idaho (AP) June 2011

Cpl. Phillip Baldwin clenched a small, rubber duck in a tiny soldier’s helmet after the explosion in Afghanistan. He tried to hand the sentimental figurine – a gift from his 3-year-old daughter, Jasmine – to his sergeant, fearing he wouldn’t pull through to return it in person.

Refusing to accept the duck, the sergeant pleaded with Phillip, a 21-year-old Fort Hall native, to look him in the eyes – and not to glance down.       

“Are my legs gone?” Phillip asked.

The sergeant lied, assuring the badly wounded soldier he was OK. Phillip, however, wasn’t fooled.

Phillip, a radio operator with the First Battalion Fifth Marines out of San Diego, lost his right leg up to his hip and his left leg to above the knee when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol near Helmand Province.

He also sustained pelvic injuries. But he survived. Within 24 hours of the explosion, he was removed from a ventilator and on the phone imploring his mother, Vickie Baldwin, not to worry.

“It hit me hard,” said his father Bruce Robert Baldwin, the patriarch of a military family. “To think, if he wasn’t coming back, that would take a heavy toll. My life wouldn’t be anything without him.”  

That morning, Phillip was involved in a pair of firefights. In one close call, a bullet destroyed his radio.

The group was headed back to the base from an action-packed excursion when his sergeant shouted, “Baldwin,” and nodded to a hidden hazard in his path. Phillip misread his sergeant’s gaze and took one step too many.

“He told me, `Momma, that was the worst pain I ever felt,”’ Vickie said. “They had a medic there who jumped into action. They tied tourniquets on both legs immediately and loaded him up.”

Fortunately, Vickie noted, he was wearing all new protective equipment – the best available helmet, chest, back and groin armor, gloves and safety glasses.  

Vickie, who works in Indian Health Services for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, was running errands at 10:30 a.m. when she received a call on her cell phone from a number she didn’t recognize. She panicked when the caller identified himself as a   gunnery sergeant, and she thrust the phone at her sister, unwilling to hear more. The caller insisted that he speak only with Vickie, who was listed as an emergency contact by Phillip.

“You hear `bilateral amputee’ and everything else kind of blurs,” Vickie said. “I was kind of in denial. It wasn’t until later that I thought, `He’s alive.’ I didn’t expect him to be injured at all.”

Bruce Robert was participating in an overnight prayer service with the Native American Church at the time of the explosion. He had just returned home and gone to sleep when he was awoken by his oldest son, 22-year-old Bruce Patrick.

“He said, `It’s bad. It’s Phillip.’ I just didn’t want to believe it,” recalled   Bruce Robert, a Fort Hall Fish and Game officer who also worked six years with the tribal police department and 17 years as a probation officer. “To best describe it, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions I’ve been through. To hear what took place, it was the scariest moment ... and you know the first 24 hours are critical, and you heard he was in an operation.”

The family has elected against sharing the news with Jasmine.

“She saw me crying the other day and asked, `What’s the matter Grandma?” Vickie said. “He’s definitely her hero. She says it all the time.”

Bruce Patrick, who so closely resembles Phillip he could easily be mistaken for his twin, is also   a Marine and is close to being discharged, having already served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Phillip – a 2008 Highland High School graduate in his third year in the service, deployed to Afghanistan in March – had been considering re-enlistment after fulfilling his obligation.  

His youngest brother, Alan, 18, still plans to continue the family legacy, even after hearing the news. Alan has enlisted with the Marine Corps and is scheduled to leave Aug. 22 for basic training at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. Alan admitted he may at least reconsider the type of military occupational specialty he’ll pursue.

“I look up to my brothers a lot. I follow wherever they go,” Alan said, adding Phillip asked that he not worry about him when they spoke following the explosion. “They’re good role models. I learn a lot from them.”

Having personally been in the service for 26 years with plans to retire from the military in October, Vickie was proud when Phillip enlisted, and she’s   prouder still today.

“When he told us he was going in the service I totally supported him, and even after this happened, I don’t regret it,” she said.

She admits she envisioned his greatest challenges would be tough drill sergeants and early morning runs.

Vickie heads to Hill Air Force Base in Utah for her weekend drills. People from the base are deployed to Afghanistan quite often, and coincidentally, a master sergeant from her squadron was among the soldiers who helped load Phillip into the plane after the explosion. He learned that Phillip was Vickie’s son the following day and subsequently gave Vickie the family’s first detailed medical update.  

The first place Phillip, who is now recovering in a hospital in Germany, will be taken upon returning to the United States will be Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“Walter Reed is the No. 1 place for prosthetics. He’s going to be there for several weeks or months,” Vickie said. “It depends on how fast he heals. With him, it might only be a weekend.”

Phillip is already setting goals and looking toward the future. As soon as possible, he hopes to be driving a black 2012 Camaro.