Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Ryan Shane lay as still as possible on a street in Fallujah, Iraq, as his insides roared with burning pain from the bullets that struck him in the lower back. A few feet away lay a dying Marine he tried to rescue only moments before.
“I had made my peace that I was done and had done my best,” said Shane. “My guts were on fire. I just lay still to prevent being shot again and to keep my buddies from coming out to get me.”
Shane’s unit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, was one of those ordered in to suppress the insurgent uprising Nov. 9, 2004 in Fallujah. As the Marines moved into the heavily defended city, insurgents fired at them from every hiding place they could find. Earlier that day, Shane had rescued another wounded Marine when his unit was caught in an open area of a street. “One of our snipers was hit,” said Shane. “I picked him up and carried him to the safest place I could find. As I was running with him on my shoulder, the insurgents were shooting at me, with their bullets kicking up pieces of pavement from the road and concrete from the wall to my left.
“Later, as my platoon provided supporting fire, our guys were crossing another road,” he said. “I could see one of our guys was down, but I didn’t know it was Sgt. Lonny Wells. I said to myself, Come on boys, let’s get him out of there.
“I went to him, trying to drag him to safety, and Navy Corpsman Joel Lambott joined me,” Shane said. “I felt bullets hitting my back, bouncing off my vest. The next burst hit me in the lower back. I was airborne and I think I blacked out.
Lambott was hit in the heel and got back to safety.” Shane was later told that his Marines counted six rounds that had struck his back body armor, and one bullet had embedded in his ceramic protective chest plate.
“I wiggled my toes to see if I had movement, and I felt my hands, arms, legs and face to see if I had feeling,” he said. “The Marine I went after was badly bleeding and needed immediate care. It was a pretty helpless feeling.”
Once an insurgent machine gunner was driven off, Shane’s men rescued him and Wells, carrying them under heavy fire to a medical amphibious vehicle. Wells was taken aboard, but the Marines couldn’t lift the 250-pound Shane up the ramp to waiting medical care.
“Insurgents were shooting guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at the track,” said Shane. “I was conscious and I remember it all. I was worried about the Marines risking their lives attempting to rescue me on a stretcher. I wanted them to take cover, but I’m thankful for their heroism.
“I was in a lot of pain, but when they got me to the track, I had to crawl up from the street. That’s when it hit me that I may actually get out of this,” he said. “I told them I could crawl up. My legs didn’t work, so I pulled with my hands, and I pulled my guts out to get up there.
“I remember lying there with the smell of blood and diesel fuel, looking across at Sgt. Wells, but I didn’t recognize him,” said Shane. “He was still blinking every once in a while, but he looked lifeless. I knew it was the Marine I had gone after, but I couldn’t make out his face. I just remember us staring at each other. After a while, he stopped blinking and I just closed my eyes.”
At the field hospital, Shane lost consciousness from the pain and woke up two days later when he was in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The bullets that struck him had shattered on impact and sliced through his abdomen causing severe injuries to internal organs. Doctors performed 10 surgeries there and at the Naval hospital in Maryland to extract bullet shards and repair his organs as best as they could.
While at Landstuhl, Corpsman Lambott and two others from Shane’s company who were wounded in Fallujah came to visit. “They told me Wells was the Marine I had tried to rescue and that he didn’t make it,” said Shane. “I remember starting to cry and how bad it hurt my insides. All three of those Marines held my hand.”
As he recovered, the 15-year Marine infantry veteran received a Bronze Star for valor and a medical discharge with 20-percent disability, which did not qualify him for the military benefits of a medical retirement. He also struggled with depression and disabilities that were never discussed at his military physical and medical review boards. His service-connected VA disability rating granted in 2006 also failed to fully include the extent of his injuries and other errors.
A Marine since he was 18, Shane desperately wanted to remain in the Corps, but his injuries prevented him from meeting the tough physical standards of an infantryman. He realized he needed time to heal. He tried to stay in the best shape he could without doing the hard, physical exercise that only brought searing pain and sought to begin his life as an injured veteran.
Nearly six years passed before Shane, who had joined DAV, talked to Newark, N.J., National Service Office Supervisor Nicholas Bernardi. In reviewing Shane’s VA claim file, Bernardi found the veteran had been improperly rated for his injuries.
“As Shane explained his injuries several red flags popped up,” Bernardi said. “I couldn’t understand why he was separated from the military and not retired.”
Bernardi met with Shane and discovered a close personal association —they had served on the same battlefield during the invasion of Iraq, but never met. “During his first deployment, Shane’s unit went into Mosul to get a foothold, and my unit, the 101st Airborne, came in to secure the area,” he said. “He felt greatly at ease with DAV because he was dealing with someone who served with him and had the same experiences. He trusted what I was doing.”
“My health hasn’t gotten any better, but it is what it is,” said Shane. “I have been told it may get worse as I get older. I still have bullet fragments inside me, and there are some days that I hurt more than others. The best thing for me was finally coming to grips that I had to slow down and to make changes because of my injuries. I am thankful for every bit of life I have.”
Bernardi closely followed Shane’s case through the VA process to ensure errors were not repeated. “Within six months the VA disability was increased several times to a final rating of total disability with special monthly compensation for his wounds and associated conditions,” Bernardi said.
Meanwhile, DAV’s Washington, D.C., National Service Office Assistant Supervisor Stephanie Cooper began to work with the Department of Defense to upgrade Shane’s medical discharge to the 30-percent disability level that meets medical retirement standards.
Bernardi said it was his top priority to ensure Shane received the benefits he earned. “It’s our duty to uphold DAV’s mission to keep the promise to the men and women who served,” he said.
“My injuries are a part of my life now,” said Shane. “DAV and the VA have helped me accept them. I miss the Marines, and I miss the action. It is a hard thing to deal with when you have your career pulled from beneath you.” He praises DAV’s work for making the difference in his case. “The depth and breadth of DAV and the networking and influence it has make it unparalleled,” he said. “No one does things like DAV.
“I have worked with great professionals, but for a non-profit organization, this level of service and professionalism is unsurpassed. At times, I felt like I was Nick Bernardi’s only client.
“I am thankful for what Nick and DAV have done for my family and me,” he said. “DAV has righted the wrong. I never would have challenged the rating if not for DAV. Now DAV is helping me obtain disability retirement from the Marine Corps. I have wanted my Marine Corps retirement since the day I left. I think I earned it.”
“This is an outstanding example of how DAV service helps restore the lives of injured and ill veterans,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Barry Jesinoski. “NSO Bernardi quickly recognized that Shane’s initial rating failed to account for the full extent of his injuries. We are veterans helping veterans because no one should go it alone.”
“DAV National Service Officers are working hard every day to ensure veterans are honored with correct disability ratings,” said National Service Director Garry Augustine. “It is a special privilege to serve our veterans in such a significant way.”
“I found DAV phenomenal,” said Shane. “It is filled with dedicated professionals and provides first-class service. You know that DAV really cares about you.”
“Caring about veterans is DAV’s sense of pride,” said Bernardi. “It’s the least we can do to help veterans. We do this work because we want to help veterans and their families.”