Despite a near-death experience, student veteran is able to overcome and move forward
While serving in Iraq, Alex Mera suffered a gunshot wound that nearly cost him his life.
November 11, 2016
oments before a sniper in Iraq shot Alex Mera through the lung, the Marine infantryman was on patrol with his platoon. He doesn’t remember what happened next, but his older brother does.
The worst phone call Denny Mera ever received lasted less than 10 minutes.
His brother Alex had been shot and was close to death. So he, his other brother Ivan and his mother Maria Isabel Nieto boarded a plane for a military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland where they expected to claim his then 20-year-old brother’s body.
“Everyone was in shock, so we just grabbed whatever we could as quickly as possible and took off to the airport. The Marines had already bought the flight to go to Maryland,” said Denny. “As soon as we got there, he was just arriving from Germany. [While] we were waiting to see him, two people from the Marines came to explain the situation and what happened. They told us he got ambushed on a regular patrol.”
The Marine is now able to walk on his own and speak but spent half of his military career in recovery.
Alex, a junior Florida Atlantic exercise science major, was originally supposed to serve from 2004-08 in the U.S. Marine Corps Unit 2-8 Gulf Company, 3rd Platoon.
He decided to move in July of 2014 from his home in New York to South Florida to study exercise science, later becoming the president of Veteran Owls, an on-campus organization that looks to ease the transition from military to college life.
Alex looks to one day become an occupational therapist so he can help veterans who have experienced similar trauma.
Alex was in his sophomore year of high school when he saw the Sept. 11 attacks happen. Coming from a low-income family and with his future uncertain, seeing the towers fall was one of the reasons that motivated him to enlist straight out of high school.
“When I graduated from high school I didn’t have many options,” said Alex. “It was either go to work or try and go to college, and when I graduated I knew I didn’t have the maturity level [for college]. So I chose to serve my country and buy myself some time to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
He chose the Marines, admiring the intensity and challenge that came with being a part of that military branch.
He flew from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Parris Island — a Marine boot camp in South Carolina — to begin his initial training, later deciding to be an infantryman.
“To me personally, boot camp was more intense mentally than physically. The physical aspects anyone can get used to, as long as you are in shape, it’s hard but nothing you can’t overcome,” said Alex. “You hit mental fatigue … They push you to your limits to break you down and then build you back up again the way they want you.”
He served in one deployment that mainly focused on training, traveling between ports of Spain, Jordan, Israel, Dubai, Greece, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Alex arrived in Iraq on his second deployment in July of 2006. After being stationed there less than a month, he experienced his first close call with death on Aug. 6.
“I was digging sandbags and I was bitching about it. We heard shots, it kind of sounds like popping and we all got quiet. Someone said, ‘Oh shit someone is shooting at us.’ I decided to get my weapon and by the time I got inside a car, [the] bomb hit,” said Alex. “I got knocked into the wall just as I was putting on my helmet. I was a little out of breath. My first reaction was to look around to see if everyone was all right. Everyone was, except for the driver.”
Alex added, “We had been building up the sandbags specifically for that reason — sandbags can take a lot of hits. They can take the blast of a bomb which [was proved] that day, so I stopped bitching after that.”
Brandon Michael — a junior social work major at South State Northridge in Los Angeles — was part of Alex’s platoon and was with him during the attack. They had been through infantry school together at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina and used to eagerly wait for the day they would get to see action.
“We had been back in Camp Lejeune and had heard all these stories before being deployed to Iraq. We couldn’t wait to go fight, but it’s not like the movies once you go through the real deal,” said Michael. “After the [bomb] and the gun fire, we went through and [after] already losing a few Marines, your nerves are just edgy.”
Alex and Michael had made friends with another squad member who had been killed in action after being shot by a sniper. In October 2006, the pair and another 10 members of their squad were making their way back to base from a marketplace on a routine foot patrol when a similar scenario took place, only this time Alex took the hit.
“I remember passing a building to my left and saw bullet holes it reminded me of my roommate who had just passed away two days prior. He was shot in the throat while on post,” said Alex. “I remember I was thinking about him when passing that building.”
They walked another 20 feet and the patrolman in front of Alex stopped and called for them to take a knee.
“I got up and started readjusting my gear and that’s when I got shot. The bullet went into my right deltoid and came out right here,” said Alex, pointing to a scar on his chest. “I went through my routine that was drilled into me. I said, ‘Marine down.’ That’s pretty much all I got out before I collapsed and started spitting up blood, immediately my lungs filled with blood.”
Adrenaline took over and his first reaction was to try to fight back, but quickly found he was unable to.
“I tried getting out my gun and I couldn’t do anything with it without my arm hurting. It wasn’t functioning well. I could barely aim. I couldn’t rack the gun,” said Alex. “I thought, ‘I’m not doing anything there,’ so I immediately tried to pull out my smoke grenade. I took out the thumb pin but I couldn’t pull out the actual pin so I tried pulling it out with my teeth, then I rolled over.”
Michael was only three Marines behind him in rotation when the shot was fired.
“It sounded like a car backfired, and I remember everybody was kind of edgy because we knew that was what a sniper fire sounded like. As soon as we heard that, everybody just took off and started running. Someone yelled out, ‘Sniper’ and we all took cover,” said Michael. “I heard, ‘Corpsman up,’ which meant that we needed our medic so when I heard that I just thought, ‘I hope it’s not somebody I know … Oh my god who is it?’ The next thing I know, they said it was Alex.”
The corpsman on duty in their squad was Tom Kiraly, a now 31-year-old clinical manager in Roseville, Michigan. Alex was the first Marine he saved in action during his deployment.
“In training, they keep telling you that the first time you see trauma, it’s possible that you can freeze up. My biggest fear was that I would see that and all my training would just go right out the window,” said Kiraly. “Alex kind of showed me what I could do the second he got hit and went down right away. It was go time, the stuff you train for was real and I had to do something or this guy was going to die on me.”
Kiraly heard the call for corpsman and rushed to Alex’s side, cutting his bulletproof vest from his right shoulder and folding it over in case he’d need to fold it back if they were fired at again.
“There was blood everywhere. I prevented a sucking chest wound and stabilized him [by] keeping him on his feet while he was dealing with a lung that was trying to collapse,” said Kiraly.
Michael ran in front of the two to cover them from fire while Kiraly stabilized Alex, who was waiting for the emergency evacuation squad to show.
“The corpsman patched up Alex [and] we called back to the base and told them we had come under sniper fire, and at that point in time we threw smoke to screen our movement and make sure we didn’t get hit by another sniper,” said Michael. “We called the base and told them that we needed a medevac … and in about five or six minutes backup came … We had loaded Alex and went out to a Highly Mobile Multi-Wheeled Vehicle and they took him back to the base.”
Alex was flown to the Al-Taqaddum Air Base, an area where casualties are flown. After that, he was flown to Kuwait, then Germany and finally to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, all while he was in a coma.
“We were expecting the worst, which it was when we got into see him. Sure enough, he looked real horrible,” said Alex’s older brother Denny. “We all were braced for the worst. They told us he might die [and] he is in a deep coma. They operated on him and he was still breathing.”
Alex was on a respirator in the intensive care unit for four months and toward the last week, the situation took a turn for the worse when his body began to swell from the trauma.
“We thought we were going to lose him, so me and my niece were screaming at him, ‘Alex, wake up, you can’t go yet,’ and my mom came inside and said a prayer with the pastor right when we thought he was going to die,” said Denny. “They called us in and told us he was regaining consciousness and he finally opened his eyes.”
After Alex awoke from his coma, he received a Purple Heart — a U.S. military decoration given to soldiers wounded or killed in battle — from the Marines.
This marked the start of a long road to recovery and rehabilitation. He had suffered a stroke while comatose, leaving him numb on the left side of his body.
“I thought they had amputated my left arm because I couldn’t feel anything from my left side and I couldn’t raise it, so I was freaking out. They told me, ‘You’re OK, you suffered a stroke,’” Alex said. “There were tubes in my mouth, I had a trachea tube and I was on a respirator. That’s pretty much where I spent three months … in [the] ICU listening to the sound of the respirator and other beeping from the machines.”
After those three months in the ICU, he was transferred to Hunter Holmes Mcguire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, where he spent another two months doing physical therapy. There, he learned to walk again.
After struggling to sit up in bed without passing out, Alex learned to walk with a support belt. He later transitioned to using a walker, followed by crutches and was finally able to use a cane.
“It was heartbreaking seeing what he was going through, how he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t speak or eat, yet everyday little by little he finally regained his spirit. [That’s how] you know he’s a fighter,” said Denny. “Everyone was saying what a miracle he was [when] he came out of ICU, [how he] was basically dead [and] now he’s in physical therapy. They gave him the release and that was the best day that we had all felt in a long time.”
After getting his release for outpatient recovery, Alex returned home to New York. Unsure of what to do with his future, he dealt with depression and emotional stress.
“There was a lot of shit that went down emotionally … can you imagine just having your body broken, your career’s over because I couldn’t be an infantryman anymore,” said Alex. “Cognitively, I had a stroke so I was pretty slow and everything else was just crumbling around me, so it was a tough time and I was still kind of sensitive to the environment around me. I think overall I did all right because I had my family as a support system.”
Alex decided to go back to school with the remainder of his six months in the Marine Corps. He took basic courses in algebra and English, but wasn’t fully comfortable yet with the college atmosphere.
He then went to technical school to learn aviation mechanics at Wilson Tech in Farmingdale, New York, learning skills that would enable him to get a job as an aircraft technician with the GEICO Skytypers Air Show Team.
“My first real job was working for an airshow team, so it was great,” said Alex. “I went back to college in 2013 due to my injuries holding [me] back from completing my tasks at work.”
However, tuition was expensive in New York, and through traveling with the airshow team, he made his way to South Florida.
He bought a house and attended Palm Beach State College until he graduated with his associate degree. He later applied to FAU and was accepted in spring of 2016.
“I decided to study exercise science. My goal is to become an occupational therapist and help other veterans the way I was helped,” said Alex. “I have a unique perspective of what they went through and what they’re going through. I had such a good experience with my [Veterans Affairs] doctors and therapists. I like them and what they do so I wanted to help other people. I think it will be a good fit for me.”
People who are close to Alex note that he has changed because of his experiences in the Marines and that he has become more humble and accepting of his life.
“I was much more cynical when I was younger. I’ve heard a lot that after I got shot, I changed a lot,” said Alex. “That day I made my decision if I die, I die. So I don’t stress about it now. I do think about my friends who didn’t make it back, like my roommate. We can easily be switched around, with him sitting here talking to you.”