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Photographers revisit soldier after witnessing his injury from an Afghan IED

As a journalist, a frequent regret of mine is that we meet people and report their stories, but we seldom have the time to find out what happened next in their lives. There's rarely a "The End" in the news business.

After witnessing a life-changing moment for a young soldier in Afghanistan, some Associated Press photographers took the time to find out what happened next.

Rodrigo Abd / AP

A U.S. medevac helicopter arrives to evacuate Spc. Jeremy Kuehl, 24 of Altoona, Iowa, and from the 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, who was seriously wounded when he stepped on an improvised mine near Command Outpost Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley, Kandahar, Afghanistan, July 30, 2010.

Photographers Rodrigo Abd and Evan Vucci spent weeks embedded with U.S. soldiers at COP Nolen, an outpost in volatile southern Afghanistan. Day after day, the soldiers at the outpost were fired on by insurgents. The photographers Photoblogged for msnbc.com from Afghanistan to report on the daily lives of soldiers, from the incoming RPG rounds to the quieter moments of humor and boredom among the men.

On July 29, the photographers woke to the sound of an explosion. Rodrigo Abd describes the scene:

At 6 a.m. on July 29, I had just woken up when I heard a huge explosion. Rushing outside, I saw a tall column of smoke just 20 meters (60 feet) away, and soldiers walking toward me carrying Spc. Jeremy Kuehl. His squad had been all set to go on patrol when it triggered a homemade bomb or IED, an improvised explosive device. PV2 James Stenett was injured in the face. Kuehl lost a leg.


As they waited for the rescue helicopter, the soldiers held a tourniquet to Kuehl's leg, assured him help was on the way, and fired a red flare to signal one of the few flat patches that could serve as a landing zone. Kuehl was in shock but remained conscious, answering the troops' questions. The mood was hyper-tense.

 

Rodrigo Abd / AP

U.S. soldiers carry Spc. Kuehl to a medical evacuation helicopter after he was wounded.

Months later, Associated Press photographer Emilio Morenatti met Spc. Kuehl stateside. Morenatti writes:

Sitting in a wheelchair at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the 24-year-old soldier from Altoona, Iowa, smiles as he stares into the computer screen and sees himself on a stretcher. Flipping from photo to photo, he narrates the last minutes of his war in Afghanistan, 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) away. His voice barely audible, he remembers the name and rank of each of the soldiers who got him to the rescue helicopter.

Then he falls silent, swivels in his wheelchair and goes to his room for some rest before his physiotherapy begins.

 

Emilio Morenatti / AP

Spc. Kuehl leaves his room for his physical therapy session at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington Aug. 31.

Kuehl knows that I'm a fellow patient, having lost my leg to an IED while on assignment in Afghanistan, and am back at Walter Reed for a checkup. He's curious to see my leg; is it computerized? I tell him I prefer a mechanical one, because the high-tech kind is apt to break down if you run.

On my visits to the amputee clinic over the course of six months, I have seen the number of patients swell as the war has ramped up. The physiotherapists and prosthetics makers can hardly cope.

Kuehl lies down on a spare bed and asks for a couple of weights to work out his pectoral muscles. "Before, I could lift more than 60 kilograms; now I barely can (lift) 15," he says as he struggles with the dumbbell. His left leg is a bandaged stump above the knee. His right leg, also injured, is in a splint.

Emilio Morenatti / AP

Spc. Kuehl writes an email at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

He returns to his bed and lies on his back, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Sitting in a corner is his aunt Janice. The day before, he was visited by President Barack Obama, who gave him a Purple Heart, the medal for being wounded in combat.

Kuehl is with 1-320th Alpha Battery, 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, and its symbol, the Screaming Eagle, decorates his sweat shirt, the entrance to his room, and the Airborne's flag hanging on the wall. The Purple Heart lies on his bedside table.

The room is adorned with messages from relatives and friends. The one from Obama says: "To Jeremy, The Nation Is Proud Of You."

Janice Harbaugh / Walter Reed Army Medical Center via AP

President Barack Obama places the Purple Heart on Spc. Kuehl during a private ceremony at his room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington Monday, Aug. 30.

 

 Within 20 minutes of the explosion, the Medevac helicopter landed in a thick cloud of dust. Kuehl and Stenett were loaded on board. It took off just a couple of minutes later.