This is the story of how a terrible accident led to the founding of a successful creative enterprise. Every wounded veteran has a different path to walk, and a different way to cope with the injury, and the real pain that comes during the healing process.
This is Staff Sgt. Larry Teakell’s story, and with it the story of Junkyard Tactical, one of the most creative knife manufacturers in the country (@TeakellLarry on Twitter).
Staff Sgt. Teakell was stationed with Task Force 1, 14th Cavalry Regiment (Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s old regiment), First Cavalry Division. He had left the aid station for a quick break outside when he saw a plume of smoke.
The fire. The smoke didn’t alarm him. Air conditioning units were prone to catch fire, because of the great strain they were under in the Iraqi weather. But as he went to check it out, he suddenly heard blood-curdling screams.
“I saw a wall of fire. A young soldier, Spc. Marisol Heredia, came running out of the fire engulfed in flames head to toe. I yelled at her to get down and roll. She did, but we were on concrete. I jumped on her, screaming for a fire blanket. I smashed the flames out with my hands, my forearms, and my body.”
“She was screaming, ‘Just let me die.’ I swore to her, ‘You’re not gonna die.’ But as soon as I put the flames out, they would reignite, because it was diesel fuel. I had to go in and smash them out again.”
Once the flames were out, Larry scooped up Spc. Heredia and carried her to the aid station. “Her uniform had melted me and her together. Her body was 85 percent covered in third-degree burns. Eighteen percent of my body had second-degree burns, mostly my hands.”
“There were so many medics working on her. Once I got her intubated, the others pulled me away from her, telling me I was burned, and also needed treatment. We both went to the Baghdad ER. They took her right away, and I followed later. I remember being hooked up to a ketamine IV drip while they debrided my arms, rubbing off the burnt skin. I looked down and thought, ‘Man, I’ll bet that hurts.'”
Staff Sgt. Teakell remembers another heroic act performed that day. A soldier ran through the fire, cut the fuel line, and jumped into the truck and drove it away before it blew up. It would be hard to count the lives he saved.
Both Spc. Heredia and Larry made it to the Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) burn unit in San Antonio.
“Her family was so grateful that she didn’t die in Iraq. They were so glad to have her back. She didn’t want me to save her, but I did anyway. Her family came to my hospital bed and thanked me. I couldn’t stop crying. She died three months later — she had a DNR order in place, and she eventually succumbed to her wounds.”
The soldier’s medal. Staff Sgt. Teakell continued, “I had some bad PTSD for a long time. I got a Soldier’s Medal for that. They had a parade, and a celebration, but all I could think about was that she didn’t make it. General [Raymond T.] Odierno signed my citation — he was a real soldier’s general.” The Soldier’s Medal is the highest decoration for heroism that does not involve actual combat.
“When I first came back home, I couldn’t see someone who reminded me of her — she was a young girl, only 19, always had a smile, and worked so hard — without trouble. All I could see was flames on her face. I went to Strong Star and went through their immersion therapy, where I learned to be able to tell the story, and finish it without breaking down in tears.”
He sells his wares mostly at gun shows in Texas, but will set up a website in the near future.
The forge. “What I’ve done since has helped me recover as much as anything else. My dad was a knife-maker, and taught me the art of making them the old-fashioned way. I started making knives with charcoal on a forge, and the constant activity has helped me manage the PTSD. The reason I’m doing this is because of Marisol.”
Teakell takes great pride in making his knives from scrap iron and steel. His company slogan is “Reuse, Repurpose, Re-engage!” It captures the spirit of the creative process that helps him deal with PTSD, and helps him re-engage with the world. He sells his wares mostly at gun shows in Texas, but will set up a website in the near future.
Staff Sgt. Teakell felt crushed that in spite of his efforts, Spc. Heredia eventually died. But he should take comfort from knowing that he gave her family two precious months with her before she passed away. Her sister, who had just ended her own service in the Army, was able to stay by her side those last two months. Teakell’s heroic actions provided that opportunity to them.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered flags flown at half-mast throughout her native state to honor Spc. Heredia’s death. In 2008, a special Act of Congress renamed the local post office in her home town the “Specialist Marisol Heredia Post Office of El Monte.” He is memorialized at Fort Hood, and in the Fallen Heroes Project.
It is an honor to meet people like Larry Teakell, and it is humbling to get a glimpse of the hidden cost even of the most heroic acts. Our nation is grateful to the heroes who defend us, but we may never understand fully what their service really meant. Inadequate though it may be, sometimes all we can say is “Thank you.”
Bart Marcois, a senior OpsLens contributor, was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, he served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department. He is a director at the Richard Richards Foundation. This piece originally appeared in OpsLens.