Is that Brad Pitt in the grocery aisle? No, it’s a vet.She’s an itty-bitty thing, just 5-feet-1-inch and 112 pounds. Mary Jessie Herrera was sent to Iraq nearly 10 years ago. Months later, she took two bullets to her right arm while manning a Humvee’s gun turret and came home to Arizona with a shattered limb that hangs at her side, permanently immobile and horribly scarred.
But Mary is anything but scarred. She is darn near irrepressible, bubbly, witty. You want to hug her, but she’s not that kind of girl. She’s one tough, funny cookie.
“The first time I met somebody who was actually on the beaches of Normandy, I was starstruck,” she says. “I grew up watching movies from World War II and Vietnam. Then you meet these guys. To me, it’s like meeting Brad Pitt at the grocery store.” She laughs. She figures you will never understand.
But Mary, 31, with a degree in social psychology, does understand these veterans in their 70s and 80s. “I can relate to being shot at. I can relate to having fallen comrades,” she says. “When they tell me their stories, I can smell that carbon in the air from the firefight.” She’s been there.
It was Nov. 8, 2003. She was an MP, a military policeman, serving with the Arizona Army National Guard near Ramadi in central Iraq. Her unit was ferrying al-Qaida suspects from Ramadi to Fallujah. That day, her Humvee was on the return when she spotted two men hanging off a bridge over the road. She knew what that meant: attack imminent. She ducked down to warn the crew, but within seconds, they were hit by rifle fire, rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs.
“I got a few rounds out and then … I felt like a flick on my bicep. It was shrapnel. No big deal. I continued to fire. Then, I felt my right arm, my firing arm … I felt like it was gone. I didn’t panic, but I wasn’t about to look at it.”
She ducked down again to tell the vehicle commander. “I kicked him in the helmet and he turned around upset,” she says, laughing. “ ‘Get down!’ he’s yelling, but I can’t. I’m holding my saw, my machine gun, on the turret with my left hand. We’re in the middle of a firefight. I don’t want to lose it.”
With the truck still moving, the crew helped Mary down into the Humvee. The return to Ramadi took 40 minutes. “I was looking at the sky through that turret. I made my peace with God. I was OK,” she says. To block the pain, she would close her eyes, but the crew wouldn’t let her give up. “They would slap the crap out of me.” She laughs.
She should have lost the arm. Twice, going into surgery, she was resigned to it. But doctors on rotation in the battlefield from Brooke Army Medical Center — led by Dr. Mark Bagg — saved it. Sent by Medevac back to Texas, Mary had 21 surgeries. The bone in her arm had snapped from shoulder to elbow, and all bone was lost from the elbow to the wrist. Two flaps of skin held her hand to her arm. Surgeons reconstructed the arm, using cadaver bone and metal plates, but the pain is constant, especially from the remaining scars. “All my scars fused to my hardware,” she says matter-of-factly. Once a year, they scrape the scar tissue off the hardware.
“How I deal with the injuries is to stay busy. I’m pretty sure at some point, that’s not healthy,” she says, laughing. “But I haven’t broke down yet.” She works nine to 10 hours a day at the Arizona State Veterans Home, then runs home to care for her 3-year-old daughter. Mary is junior vice commander of a Purple Heart chapter. “It is hard. I wasn’t able to bathe my daughter because I couldn’t hold her with my right arm,” she says. “Changing a diaper took me a while.”
She thought she knewher limitations — until her daughter asked her to tie a balloon. Another thing on the list. She laughs again.
She says, paradoxically, that she never felt safer than in the battlefield. “It didn’t matter how many people were trying to kill you; you had a group of brothers and sisters willing to give their lives for you,” she says. She does wonder sometimes about her sniper. “I’m so little you could barely see me in the turret,” she says. “Whoever that was was a damn good shooter.” And yes, she laughed again.