As Staff Sgt. Frankie Hernandez chatted with two other soldiers in an Afghanistan cornfield, a sudden, sharp metal-on-metal sound caught their attention. Hernandez' head turned in time to see sparks fly from the bulldozer from which he'd dismounted.
As he turned his head back, he felt an impact; he'd been shot in the head. But the Advanced Combat Helmet held, and the long-tenured reservist with the 668th Engineer Company escaped with minor injury and no lingering effects.
Saturday, the Bronx native had that helmet returned to him during an equipment return ceremony at the Orangeburg (N.Y) Reserve Center — just a few miles up the Hudson from where he grew up. It was the first time he'd seen it since the 2012 deployment.
"It's a memory of what happened there, and how lucky I am," Hernandez told Army Times. "And even more so: how much my friends and family care, because they went to bat for me (to help track the helmet down)."
Hernandez, a Bronx native, serves as a construction engineering supervisor. During the deployment — his third — the platoon sergeant's unit was clearing a path for a road between two villages in Panjawayi district, Kandahar province. Hernandez. During the mission, Hernandez dismounted to discuss the route with two infantry captains.
That's when the attack occurred.
Staff Sgt. Hernandez poses as members of his platoon touch his lucky head. A helmet that protected that head from a bullet in Afghanistan was returned to him during a ceremony Saturday.
Photo Credit: Army
Hernandez didn't remember hearing any recoil; he just heard the "strange sound" coming off the front end of the bulldozer, which was not far behind. He later learned the engine block had been hit.
Then he felt the impact of a bullet on his helmet. He moved back and "kind of bounced off the bulldozer."
Staff Sgt. Frankie Hernandez displays the damaged helmet that took a bullet, likely saving his life, in Afghanistan in 2012. It was presented to the reservist during a ceremony in New York on Saturday.
Photo Credit: Army
"I said 'I think I just got hit.' One [of the captains] said 'Where?' I just circled my whole head, said 'somewhere around here,'" Hernandez recalled.
The bullet had made its mark on the left side near the top of his helmet. The trio scrambled to the other side of the bulldozer for cover, and called for support. Infantry, including one of the captains, cleared the area. Hernandez and the other captain got into the armored bulldozer to wait out the firefight.
There was a small, two-story building about 200 feet away, Hernandez said, but he never learned for sure where the shot came from or what became of the shooter. Once the area was cleared, the team continued the mission of plowing the road. Back at the base, he said he underwent some brain injury tests but said he suffered no effects, other than some swelling in his head and face.
The ceremony Saturday was arranged by Program Executive Office Soldier. PEO Soldier's Personal Protective Equipment Returns program's "returns of life-saving equipment builds confidence among military personnel regarding the safety and dependability of their gear," according to a PEO Soldier press release announcing the ceremony.
"I would tell the story," said Hernandez, who served in a Navy construction battalion on active duty from 1992 to 1997 before joining the Army Reserve in 1998. "You tell someone you got shot in the head and survived, and they look at you like 'yeah right, whatever.' It'll be nice to have this and say 'haha, see, I told you."
He said it had been difficult to get information on the helmet at first and he gave up on it for a while. But when a relative saw on Facebook that another soldier got his helmet back, they redoubled their efforts.
Hernandez said he was appreciative of the help from his friends and family.
"They fought for me this time, as opposed to me fighting for them," he said.