There’s an explosion before things go black. When he wakes to the rhythmic pounding of chopper blades, the hospital isn’t too far out. Several have been injured. One is dead.
“I don’t remember a whole lot. I was unconscious for a while,” Justin Christiansen says. “I just remember coming around a corner and then waking up in a helicopter.
“We were hit by a roadside bomb – about 400 pounds of homemade explosive. It took my gunner’s life and severely injured two others. I was the only one allowed to return to our base. That came about 11 days later.”
Christiansen before a 2011 patrol in Afghanistan.
Such attacks were on the decline in Afghanistan by April 11, 2011, but general trends and statistics are never a guarantee of safety.
Sgt. Brent Maher, a 31-year-old in the Iowa National Guard’s 1-168th Infantry Battalion, died when that device detonated in the country’s Paktia Province, a vast 2,500-square-mile territory bordering Pakistan. Friends would later recall him in the media as a family man with a hearty laugh and a love of country music and chewing tobacco.
Christiansen honored his friend and colleague as best he could.
“I didn’t really want to go back out, but I faced the fear and I told my new platoon sergeant that I didn’t want to be anywhere but the gun,” he says. “To move from driver to gunner is more dangerous, but I wanted to be in my buddy’s spot.”
Thirteen months later, Spc. Justin Christiansen was honorably discharged from the Iowa National Guard after eight years of service. He returned to his wife, Leesia, and his children, Kayli and Kaden. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
Soon after, Christiansen began work as a powder man at Martin Marietta’s Weeping Water Mine. The position was one he knew he could handle.
“It’s a lot of hours, but the military had prepared me for long days,” he says. “The military – especially after a deployment – mentally prepares you for more than life itself.”
At 28, he still feels occasional pain from the attack and bears physical scars – reminders of the deep wounds that once were scattered over his face, back and knees. Mentally, though, Christiansen, one of several hundred veterans in the Company’s employ, is stronger than ever before.
“I’m more responsible now and more vigilant. I enjoy time with my family more. I’m not taking life for granted,” he says. “That’s become my philosophy. I plan on staying with Martin Marietta for the long haul and I’m going to bring that attitude to work with me every day.”