A patriotic Parkite, a Purple Heart | ParkRecord.com

A patriotic Parkite, a Purple Heart

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

Jan. 23, 2007 started like a typical day for Jake Larsen.

Perched inside a tank, the Army soldier from Park City and the rest of the tank’s crew were patrolling a stretch of occupied Iraq along the Tigris River. The soldiers call it Route Cobras, and it was a snake-bitten morning.

It was about 10 a.m., Larsen recalls, and the patrol so far was typical.

He was manning the gunner’s slot when a huge explosion struck the tank, a heavily armored, 72-ton M1 A2 with a 120 mm primary gun and two mounted machine guns.

The weapons and the armor, though, could not protect the tank from the 400 pounds of homemade explosives buried on the side of the road, a weapon of choice for the insurgency in Iraq.

"When you get blown up, you can’t hear anything," Larsen says. "You get shaken up."

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The first sounds he remembers hearing were the dirt and debris hitting the tank. He quickly realized he was injured. The force of the explosion had tangled the inside of the tank, crushing his legs.

It didn’t matter at that moment. The tank was still under attack. His tank fired back, and another American tank engaged the insurgents.

It was 20 minutes before he could be evacuated for medical treatment at a base. The tank commander also suffered injuries. The military doctors gave him pain-killing morphine. They put him on crutches and ordered him to physical therapy, all in Iraq. Within about two months, the Army returned him to his tank patrols.

The Army awarded him a Purple Heart, the hallowed medal reserved for soldiers who are injured or killed on the battlefield.

"Stuff like that makes you more and more pissed," he says of the attack. "You want to get back in the fight."

PCHS to Iraq

Larsen, who is 25 years old, graduated from Park City High School in 2000 and later moved to Newport Beach, Calif., working in restaurants in the Southern California sun after leaving Park City’s snowy winters.

He had long considered joining the military, but he opted not to out of high school. His girlfriend broke up with him, and he wanted a change in lifestyle. He had friends in the military, but he talked to other buddies who suggested he not sign up.

"Serving the country sounded fulfilling enough," he says, remembering that he was informed early on that he would be sent to Iraq. "I knew I was going. That’s the first thing they tell you when you get to basic training."

Within about three weeks, he was moved to Fort Knox, Ky., for his training.

He did not regret enlisting, even as some of his friends who opposed the Iraqi war wondered why he joined. Larsen supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq from the start of the war. He had grown "curious of the nature of why we were there," he says, but he served nonetheless.

He arrived outside Baghdad in October 2006 as a tank gunner, the person in a tank who targets and fires the weapons. It gets much colder in Iraq than he expected, and the spiders are huge.

His commanders sent him on tank patrols almost every day in and around Baghdad, many times on what is called Route Tampa, a main highway in Iraq. When the tank returned to the base, his guard remained up.

"This is for real," he says. "24-7, literally, for 15 months. There was no break time."

The insurgents used improvised explosive devices, car bombs and snipers. Combat conditions improved between his arrival in Iraq and his return to the U.S. early in 2008, but the insurgents "fight dirty," Larsen says. Making it tougher, he says, American military leaders prohibit the soldiers from firing unless they are attacked.

His battalion lost 21 soldiers, and he wears a military-style bracelet honoring a slain staff sergeant. A sniper gunned him down as he reached for a bottle of water outside the tank.

"It was hard. You can’t fight what you can’t see," he says.

Checkpoint chaos

Larsen was on a tank at about 5 p.m. on July 27, 2007 at an Iraqi military checkpoint near Baghdad.

A huge explosion rocked the checkpoint about 165 feet from the tank. It was a suicide bomber driving a truck full of explosives. Three soldiers from the Iraqi army were killed. Others were injured.

Larsen grabbed a first-aid kit and rushed to help the injured. The Army honored him again, awarding him a Commendation Medal, with valor, for his performance at the checkpoint.

Within six months, he returned to the U.S., arriving in January. He remains an active-duty member of the Army stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. Larsen expects to leave the Army on June 1, and he wants to enroll at the University of Utah afterward. He is unsure what he wants to study.

Since returning to Park City, he has found Parkites grateful to the soldiers in the Iraqi war. Some have thanked him. The people in Park City, though, are generally unhappy with the politics that led to the war, he says.

"It’s like a dream," he says of his stay in Park City, a brief reintroduction to civilian life. "You dream about this all the time in Iraq."