Battle scars bring out the character of an American hero

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by SHANNON POWELL HART

WFAA/GMT

Posted on May 14, 2014 at 12:06 PM

Updated Thursday, May 15 at 1:00 PM

 It's a story of courage and survival during a very difficult time. This is not the plot of a book or movie, but the real life of a soldier who, despite major life set-backs continues to fight the brave fight.

Sgt. Omar Avila's story is a true reminder of why we honor those who serve our country. He's a funny, brave and humble young man whose life was changed in an instant while on duty.

The explosion brought out his true character of bravery.

The 28-year-old man was in a horrific explosion that burned more than 75 percent of his body and forced the amputation of his right foot.

Avila was always ambitious. He was born in Mexico and became a United States citizen when he was a sophomore in high school.

Then 9/11 happened. Like so many others, he joined the Army. He was thrilled to be an infantryman and felt the job fit his personality.

He was in Iraq for his first tour.

“We ended up in a small town called Adhamiyah in 2007,” said Omar Avila. “I was there 11 months before I got injured.”

He was injured in the early-morning hours on May 14, 2007. He said it was around 6 a.m. when a five-vehicle convoy rolled out of camp on a regular mission. Avila was in the third vehicle and said he was still half asleep when the first blast went off in a vehicle behind him.

“I remember my squad leader grabbing me and saying, “There goes your alarm; wake up,’” Avila said. “And I said, ‘That’s one hell of an alarm.’”

That was only the first sign of trouble. A series of events after that blast changed Avila’s life forever.

“The two front vehicles started getting engaged from the left hand side,” he said. “My vehicle turned on that street and I saw the enemy. I started engaging them with my 50-cal. I took about two to three of them out.”

Then he said the Humvee he was in went over a large bump. Just as he started wondering what happened…

“The loudest bang I ever heard went off,” Avila said. “Later on we found out it was 200 pounds of explosives had been buried in the road. It hit the vehicle the vehicle went up about two to three feet in the air.”

That day he discovered the true meaning of courage, having to save fellow soldiers and watch others die.

“When the vehicle hit on the right side, Hartge was KIA on the spot,” he said. “So, when the vehicle came down, my legs gave out on the platform and I feel on top of Hartge’s lap. I looked into his eyes and I could tell he was gone.”

Avila thought he too was going to die that day, but he said an inner light forced him to get up and keep going.

“There was a sense of God in me saying ‘Not today, not now. This is not where you die,’” Avila said.

He was also facing another major hurdle because he was on fire.

“I did not realize I was on fire,” he said. “One of my guys ran from the last vehicle and he actually put me out with a fire extinguisher.”

With his skin still too hot to touch and the fire barely out, Avila managed to radio the camp with a call for help and details on the attack.

The driver of the vehicle Avila was taken to had just started and he started panicking.

“He lost control and was screaming and I reach over and slapped him across the face and tell him to calm down,” he said.

Then there was another problem when medics finally arrived to tend to his burns and injuries.

“None of them knew how to get back and now I am trying to remember how to get back and I start giving him directions on how to get back,” Avila said.

What he didn’t know until much later was dozens of insurgents were bearing down on the rest of his team. Choppers, on another mission miles away, saw the smoke and fire from Avila’s attack the pilots headed toward the scene, saw the insurgents and took them out before they got the Army team on the ground.

Avila’s injuries were so severe, doctors has to put him in a medically induced coma for three months. He was sent home to Texas and started the recovery at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

Avila said this was the beginning of three years of a dark period in his young life.

“There were times when I contemplated suicide,” he said. “There were times that I hated the world.”

With burns over 75 percent of his body, missing a foot, skin grafts, 97 surgeries with the promise of dozens more to come, he was angry.

But one day he decided to join the world of the living.

He joined support groups and received a lot of encouragement from friends like Chris Kyle. Kyle was another soldier that North Texans mourned after he was killed while helping another veteran.

Avila said he spoke to Kyle just hours before his death.

“Good friend of mine who had a lot to do with it; Chris Kyle played a big role in that,” he said. … He became a close friend of mine. Someone who I could call at any time and he started mentoring me.”

Avila has taken the lesson and the strength learned from his friend to help others.  He’s involved in mentoring others through Operation Proper Exit.

“We take service men and women back to the spot where they were injured,” he said. “I was taken back in 2010 three years after I was injured.”

He volunteers with Veteran Outdoors and Son of the Flags is one of his signature project.

“Sons of the Flag is raising awareness, trying to raise money to fund hospitals to do more extensive research on burns,” he said. “How can we better a burn victim’s life.”

It’s a project that allows him to help others, as he wears the scars of recovery, the tattoos of those lost in battle and the unexpected label of hero.

“I make sure I credit God 100 percent for why I am here and what I am doing,” Avila said.

He earned a number of medals behind his courageous acts that day including a Purple Heart.

He’s working on a book and perhaps a future that will one day include a wife and child.

Email spowell@wfaa.com

Follow on Twitter: @shannonwfaa

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