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MacDill Airman earns Purple Heart while in Afghanistan

by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Thunderbolt editor
Photo by Armondo Flores

Maj. Gen. Dean Fox, Air Force Civil Engineer (left) applauds for Staff Sgt. Christopher Ramakka (center) and Maj. Matthew Conlan during their Purple Heart Award ceremony at Lackland Air Force Base Aug. 12.

Hollywood has done a remarkable job over the past several years depicting the horrors of war. Special-effects wizards from movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down” were able to portray the seriously wounded in ways more grisly than expected. And while millions of movie-goers were able to leave the destruction behind on the silver screen, servicemembers on the front lines are not so lucky.

One MacDill Airman and his deployed commander were recently awarded Purple Hearts for living through an ordeal that would add drama to any Hollywood blockbuster.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Ramakka and Maj. Matthew Conlan received the medals at Lakeland AFB, Texas, for injuries they sustained Jun. 17 while deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. Dean Fox, Air Force Civil Engineer, presented the medals in front of three local television stations and a crowd of supporters.

"Both Major Conlan and Sergeant Ramakka are recovering well, have sky-high positive attitudes and are looking forward to getting back to work," he said. "They are truly inspiring representatives of the selfless work and personal sacrifice being put forth in the Global War on Terror around the globe."

Sergeant Ramakka, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, lost his lower, left leg after stepping on a landmine while on a clearing operation securing items large enough to fashion into improvised explosive devices.

Sergeant Ramakka knelt down to check an old artillery round to see if it was live. After he determined it wasn't, he picked up an old rocket-propelled grenade booster which he had found earlier. He stood and took one step towards another row of artillery entrenchments and stepped on the landmine.

"It was just like in the movies; there's the slow motion effect and I never heard the explosion, just a ringing in my ears afterward," said Sergeant Ramakka. "I didn't feel any pain in my leg either… until I looked at it."

Sergeant Ramakka's injuries included explosive amputation of his left foot and severe blast injuries to his right leg and hands. Major Conlan was approximately four feet behind Sergeant Ramakka when the landmine detonated. He experienced severe blast injuries to both legs, as well as moderate blast injuries to his hands and his face.

"I remember laying there in the minefield…I realized I still had my knee and my fingers, and that they still wiggled,' said Sergeant Ramakka, recalling the events which could have easily taken his life. "Honestly I wasn't upset. It hurt like hell but I was probably one of the more calm guys out there."

It took two days of recovery before he was stable enough to move from Afghanistan to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Kirchberg, Germany. The landmine had left plenty of shrapnel and a mangled stump which needed more attention than a field dressing. At Landstuhl, doctors were able to surgically complete the amputation started by the old Soviet anti-personnel mine.

"Ram" made it to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland, on Jun. 21 and has been permanently reassigned there due to his medical issues and need for extensive physical therapy.

He started therapy in July at Brooks Army Medical Center in Texas and the physical pain he faces on a daily basis is difficult at best. The mental aspects of "Ram's" recovery have been equally as hard, although he admits he is his own worst enemy.

"It's been rough. I've had my mental ups and downs for sure," he said. "I've been really tough on myself but I know there is no way I could have known that landmine was there."

One of the few Airmen going through therapy there, Ram also gets plenty of mental exercise by verbally sparring with the Marines and Soldiers also recovering from similar injuries. Although they tend to slam the Air Force for being one of the "softer" services, "Ram" said they quickly change their tone when they find out he is an explosives expert who was injured while serving in Afghanistan.

Such an injury could easily have a traumatic affect on anyone, even a highly trained specialist like Sergeant Ramakka. However, his infectiously positive attitude and easy-going manner are a captivating combination for someone who lost a limb.

"The way I look at it is this; it's just like my glasses. If you take away my glasses, I can't see. If you take away my foot, I can't walk. So I need my glasses and a prosthetic leg to do my job," he said. "What's the big deal there?"

From his matter-of-fact demeanor, it's easy to tell Sergeant Ramakka plans to go back to work as soon as possible. He has already been discussing options with EOD personnel at Lackland and is hoping to land an instructor's position in the EOD school as soon as doctors give him the go ahead.

"There is a cop here at Lackland who lost his leg and he's worldwide qualified. If he can do it, so can I," said Sergeant Ramakka. "I still love blowing stuff up even though I got blown up."

His bulldog tenacity is inspiring and could easily earn ratings if someone decided to film a reality show based on war-torn veterans. It's easy to imagine the advertising blitz for television's latest prime-time show, “War Torn.” It's certain that "Ram" would be up for the challenge.

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