By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Sept. 13, 2016) -- Staff Sgt. Frankie Hernandez might not be around today were it not for his Army-issued advanced combat helmet.
On Saturday, Sept. 10, Hernandez was reunited with the helmet that saved his life as part of Program Executive Office - Soldier's "Personal Protective Equipment Returns" program. Hernandez, an Army Reservist, is a platoon sergeant with the 668th Engineer Company out of Orangeburg, New York.
Four years ago, on May 18, 2012, while on deployment to Afghanistan, Hernandez was driving an up-armored D7 bulldozer in Afghanistan during an operation to build a road that would serve a U.S. Army infantry unit.
"It was in the afternoon, closer to the end of the evening," Hernandez remembered. "It was towards the end of the mission when we came to a point where we needed to adjust the direction we were going."
Hernandez stepped out of his up-armored bulldozer to consult with two Army infantry officers who were leading the way on how to proceed with the construction mission. They had come to a swampy area and were trying to determine the best route of approach to continue building the road.
While he was consulting the map with the infantry captains, they heard a loud noise coming from the engine compartment of the bulldozer. All three turned to look.
"The captain that was on my right asked me what it was," Hernandez said. "As I turned to answer -- I don't remember what I was going to say to him -- I felt the impact on my helmet, and on my head."
Hernandez had been fired upon, but his advanced combat helmet had stopped the bullet from hitting his head.
"I was kind of numb. I didn't know what had happened," Hernandez said. "So I told the captain to my right, I told him, 'I think I got hit.'"
The captain confirmed for Hernandez that he'd been hit on the helmet. At that point, the men dropped to the ground and sought cover on the other side of the bulldozer. Hernandez called for the other bulldozer to pull up to provide additional cover. An infantry captain called for gun support.
Today, Hernandez finds it hard to describe exactly what was going through his mind after being hit by gunfire.
"One second you're talking normal," he said. "And then the next your whole body goes numb. You get like a ringing sensation in your ear. ... I thought about a lot of things: family, friends, my Soldiers. Everything was going through my head at the same time."
One thing Hernandez knows for sure about the moments immediately after being fired upon is that his battle buddies were there for him when he needed them most.
"It felt like I was alone," he said. "Then all of a sudden, out of everywhere, I had back up. They came and they had my back and they helped me. That was such a relief."
He remembers feeling angry at being shot, but concerned for the other troops and concerned for his own welfare, because he had no idea of the degree of seriousness of his injury.
"I didn't know whether or not we were going to get back up, or get cover fire, or get support," he said. "Everything goes through your head really fast."
Hernandez received the Purple Heart in July of 2012 for the wounds he received that day.
Back home in the United States, Hernandez said, he had a fiancée, Deborah Galdames. He knew she was worried for his safety. Since Hernandez and Galdames had become a couple, Hernandez had already served two deployments. This was the third. It was the first time he had been seriously injured.
She was the first person he told that he had been shot. She wasn't pleased.
"I started picturing different things in my head, like how serious is it? Is he coming home?" she said. "Is this it? Is it ending his military career? Luckily, it's not so serious. He's okay. And he's able to continue to do what he has to do."
Galdames said that the best advice she can offer to other fiancées of service members and for military spouses is just to be there for their Soldiers to provide support and understanding.
"Even though we're together and building a life together, the military is his life too," she said. "I try to stand by his side and be there for him and be understanding."
During his Afghanistan tour, Hernandez was able to return home on leave to visit his friends and family, knowing full well he would eventually have to go back, even though he had been shot. He said that was difficult for his friends and family to accept, especially his mother.
"They weren't too happy about that," Hernandez said. "But they have been with me through thick and thin since I joined the military. If it wasn't for the love and support and encouragement, I probably wouldn't have been able to come back."
For his mother's part, Hernandez said, she wanted to know why he had to return. She asked if he could get out of it somehow. He told her that he couldn't, that he had to go back.
For Hernandez, serving in the Army was about more than a fulfilling a contract, or earning a paycheck -- it had to do with his brothers in arms.
"It has to do with the guys I go back to," he said. "That's it."
When protective equipment like an advanced combat helmet or an enhanced small arms protective insert fulfills its role in combat -- by taking fire -- Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier brings it back to the U.S. to evaluate how well the gear performed.
During the Sept. 10 presentation ceremony at the Orangeburg Reserve Center, the Army returned the helmet to Hernandez. His fiancée and several members of his unit attended the event. Members of the 668th chain of command were also part of the ceremony.
Col. Dean Hoffman, the program manager for Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, part of PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, said that such events remind Soldiers of the value of their personal protective equipment.
"When we do a ceremony like this, what it does is it says, one, you're going to get the best equipment the Army can provide, and two, that it works," Hoffman said.
"And that's the big takeaway. But you've got to wear it and use it to your advantage, with that same heart and dedication we saw with Sergeant Hernandez. He's been shot, been through two improvised explosive devices, but he still continues to be in the fight. He does what he loves."
Hoffman said that Hernandez is alive today because of the work of the PEO Soldier team, industry, Army scientists and engineers, and places like Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Army Research Laboratories and the Defense Logistics Agency.