In an emotional reunion, veteran Tyler Huffman welcomed to Jefferson City two of the men who saved his life three years ago. Huffman - a U.S. Marine who was grievously wounded in Afghanistan by a sniper's bullet on Dec. 3, 2010 - has been the recipient of an outpouring of community support, including the construction of a home, since his return.
Addressing a crowd of supporters gathered at Concord Baptist Church Friday night, Marine Sgt. David Castillo and Navy Corpsman Jesse Miller said they've been "overwhelmed" by the warmth of the welcome shown by the Jefferson City community.
As each man stepped to the podium to describe what took place, listeners heard three different perspectives of that terrible day.
Squad leader Castillo told two stories. In the first, Huffman saved his life. In the second, he saved Huffman's life.
"I remember what he did for me," Castillo began. "It was the first patrol we went on."
Castillo noted his team really didn't expect to be attacked, but they were moving down a long curved alleyway when gunshots erupted.
Bullets "came flying across us, flying across my face ... all of our faces," he said.
They were "stuck" near a wall, he lamented. "Every time we moved, we got shot at."
Soon he was bellowing for Huffman - the squad's "pack mule" who was carrying an M-32 grenade launcher - to assist.
"Shoot every single round he has. Every single round he has!" Castillo directed. "As soon as I heard the first explosion - boom! boom! - I told my guys to take off."
On the day Huffman was injured, Castillo remembers massive grenades had destroyed everything left and right of the road. Rubble was piled everywhere and it was safer to walk through the debris than on the main route. The team, which had been clearing houses, decided to take a rest inside of a building.
When they left the compound, they were beset by four or five shooters with assault rifles.
The moments that followed seemed surreal to Castillo.
"Huffman is not the biggest guy. But he had this huge pack on him ... and I see him fall straight backward," Castillo recalled. "I couldn't believe that happened to him. I didn't think it was real," he said.
The second he saw his friend go down, he raced toward him. He was followed by two others, Jason Albright and Jose Santiago.
Castillo remembers pulling him to a tiny slope where the men had some coverage. In those first moments, the men thought Huffman was OK. Castillo said: "We got to Tyler and he said, "I'm fine. I'm fine. Get me out of here!'"
Castillo is grateful the Americans were able to fire back that day.
"It was the scariest moment of my life, trying to pick this guy up with my fellow buddies. I knew we had to get him out of the kill zone and we did. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I will never forget that day," he said.
One of Miller's most-vivid memories of that day was hearing the words: "Corpsman, up!"
"I hear those words, I gotta go. Those are words you never want to hear," he said. "When I think about it now, I'm scared. But then I just ran because that's what I'm supposed to do," he said.
Rounds were cracking overhead.
He remembers one brief funny moment erupted in the midst of the tragedy.
"Tyler was saying, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!"
The men didn't immediately know what was wrong. But Huffman did.
"Albright, your knee's on my chest!" Huffman complained.
For his part, Huffman has a few memories of that day. He recalls being tossed "like a sack of potatoes" into a trailer and on top of another corpsman who was trying to hold him down. He also noticed he was mostly naked as they raced through the marketplace.
"I had boots, underwear and a Kevlar," he said. "That was it. It was the roughest, bumpiest, most painful ride of my life."
He said he was "definitely glad" the other men moved as fast as they did. "It is pretty much the only reason I am here today," he said.
Huffman not only thanked his friends, he expressed gratitude to the Jefferson City community for making the men's visit possible.
"The last time I can actually remember seeing Jesse, I was looking up at him," Huffman said, with a catch in his throat. "To actually be able to see him and say thank you ... it's just nice to see them again."
The three men were treated as honored guests of the city throughout the visit.
"I can't find the words to say thank you to this community. I'm just kind of speechless here," he said. "For this community to come together and bring these guys in, it means a whole lot to me and my family."
The presentation by the three men was only part of a veterans program held at Concord Baptist Church on Friday night. Titled "Flight 93 and the American Spirit," the ceremony was an opportunity for the public to hear the remarks of David Beamer, father of Todd Beamer, the passenger on United Airways Flight 93 who vowed "Let's roll" before he and his fellow passengers took down hijackers of that plane on Sept. 11, 2001.
Beamer was the keynote speaker at Operation Bugle Boy, a veteran's appreciation dinner held Thursday in St. Martins.