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'I Didn't Think I Would Get Shot'

Army Spc. Jonathan Pilgeram silently fires an M-4 assault rifle at insurgents in Afghanistan on the big TV screen-saver in Cody Smith's bedroom in Ruch.

"That's my friend who died when I got shot — he got hit in the back of the neck," Smith says from a wheelchair rolled up against his bed.

"Me and him, we were the gun team. That picture was taken back in the summer (2010) before everything happened."

Before Pfc. Smith, who turns 21 early next month, was shot in the lower spine on Feb. 17, initially paralyzing him.

Before Pilgeram, 22, of Great Falls, Mont., was killed just a few feet from him on that remote ridge in the Ghaziabad district of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, a mountain region known for its frequent insurgent attacks.

The soldiers were members of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) based at Fort Campbell, Ky.

"I didn't think I would get shot," says Smith, a 2009 graduate of South Medford High School, where he was an all-conference guard.

"I had made it through 11-plus months of deployment," Smith said. "I only had about three weeks left.

"That firefight was bad, but not as bad as a lot of other ones we had been in," he says. "There are times when I literally thought, 'There is no way in hell I'm going to get out of this.'

"When we went on missions like that, it was, 'All right, who is going to get hurt or killed?' You don't want to die, but that's what is going through your mind."

Smith arrived home July 8 after spending two months recovering at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. Prior to that, he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., following two emergency surgeries in Afghanistan.

Technically, he remains in the Army but is in the process of being medically discharged. He can move both legs a little, but cannot walk without braces, and then only a very short distance with extreme exertion.

"It's hard but I can do it," he says. "But I'm real fortunate. I've seen guys in a lot worse shape, a lot worse."

An avid hunter, Smith had easily qualified as expert at the rifle range during training before his deployment. And he was accustomed to mountain hikes.

But even 5,023-foot high Tallowbox Mountain half a dozen miles south of his home would be a foothill compared to the mountains ringing the Pash River Valley. Sparsely populated, the region where he was stationed is centered around the village of Ghaziabad at 4,173 feet above sea level. Steep mountains jut up on every side.

"It was a wild ride," he says. "We went out in the mountains to find those dudes. There were times we went way up to find them, 10,000 feet up in elevation.

"Those guys know how to hide," he adds. "It may be 120 degrees. You could fry an egg on those rocks. But those guys just creep up to you. They look like they are part of the rock."

He estimates his unit was in at least 200 firefights, many involving near daily insurgent attacks against their small outpost.

The image of Pilgeram disappears as Smith triggers a video on the flat-screen TV. Their comrades-in-arms can be seen firing at insurgents attacking the base.

They are also lobbing white phosphorus 120mm mortar rounds onto the mountain. The white smoke clings to the mountainside, killing every breathing thing in its path.

"We were trying to burn them out," Smith says. "I don't know where they would come from. They would come out like ants to attack us."

His unit often went on the offensive after insurgents. They carried automatic grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and TOW missiles.

He talks about missions in which two AC130 gunships — there are only eight in the military — flew in to back them up.

"We confirmed around 500 enemy KIA (killed in action)," he says. "But we still lost a lot of dudes in my company — 60 casualties."

He would later meet many of the wounded at Walter Reed, he says.

"The way it works over there, the farther you go out, the worse it gets," he says.

In addition to Taliban, they also had to worry about al-Qaida fighters from throughout the "stan" countries, he says.

"These dudes are so bad not even the Taliban want to get in their faces," he says.

On Feb. 17, his unit was dispatched to a remote valley near the Pakistan border.

"Americans had never been in this valley. Someone decided it was a good idea."

His platoon was deployed to a narrow ridge overlooking two valleys that intersected below.

Smith, who weighs about 220 pounds, was loaded for bear.

"I had 15 M-4 magazines, four grenades, my body armor and rifle," he says. "I had a bag with 2,000 rounds. I also had a rocket. I had to weigh over 300 pounds. When we go on a mission like this, we load ourselves down."

Running out of ammunition in a firefight was not an option.

"We were ready to rock," he continues. "The problem was, they always hit us first. That's what sucked. It's so thick with brush and so many rocks. We have air support and they (helicopter crew) can't see them."

Rocket-propelled grenades slammed into their position. Machine-gun fire raked the ridge.

That's when a blow to his lower back knocked him flat.

"It felt like the lower half of my body had gotten cut off, like I had been hit by a freight truck," he recalls.

It was 3:30 p.m.

He figures the bullet that struck him was about the same size fired by his .30-06 deer rifle. A rocket hit right in front of his position at the same time.

"I heard the explosion as I was going down — it kind of knocked me out," he says. "I remember rolling over and trying to grab my legs. They hurt so bad."

Just to his left about four feet away was Pilgeram. His buddy wasn't moving.

"I rolled over and saw him — I knew he was dead," Smith says.

For several minutes the soldier, who estimates he lost about three quarts of blood, was exposed on the ridge.

But the rest of his platoon, farther down the mountain, quickly moved forward.

"My friend David Hernandez came out and saved my life," he says of a fellow soldier. "We were still being shot at for a long time after I was hit. He helped me get behind some cover."

He credits three other soldiers, led by team leader Gordon Martinez from Oregon, for providing protective fire that saved him that day.

"They got a guy on the (machine) gun and laid down suppressive fire," he says.

The wounded soldier was carried and dragged off the ridge to a nearby shed, where he would later be airlifted to a field hospital.

"It was weird but I kept asking if Pilgeram was OK," Smith says. "I knew he was dead. But I kept asking about my friend."

Five months later, Smith is focusing on recovery in his beloved Applegate Valley, where he spent every childhood hour he could hunting, hiking or fishing.

"I've always liked getting out away from people, even more so now," he says. "I've never liked being around a lot of people."

With an old photograph of a four-point buck decorating his bedroom, he notes with pride that his family, which has pioneer roots in Southern Oregon, were not "road hunters" but avid hikers when it came to hunting.

"We'd go all the way down to the bottom of the canyons — way down into the brush," he says. "We shot two deer opening morning when I was a high school junior."

Like all hunters, he has a story of a big buck that evaded him.

"I had been chasing this one four-point for four years — a monster buck," he says. "Then my dad's best friend's little girl, she walked down there one day and shot that four point. It was one of the biggest bucks I've seen killed out here."

Smith, who has already done some target practice since he returned home, has his sights on starting a gunsmithing and specialty ammunition reloading business.

"I'm thinking about starting my own business out of our shop," he says. "I'd also like to get a high-speed knife-sharpening system for hunting knives."

He envisions a business catering to serious hunters like himself.

"I'd be loading specific grains and rounds for each rifle," he says. "There are a lot of hunters around here."

He stops talking and looks out the window for a moment. Quietly, he says he and Pilgeram had planned an elk hunting trip in Montana this fall.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Army Pfc. Cody Smith reflects on his friend, Army Spc. Jonathan Pilgeram, who was shot in the neck in Afghanistan. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore