Nothing south of heroic

27 Nov 2008 | Lance Cpl. Bryan G. Carfrey

Sgt. Klay South and his fire team haven't slept more than three hours in three nights, but they're ready to clear another house.

South, composed and unafraid, noticing sweat dripping into his eyes and insects littering his face, is unaware of the gunman on the other side of the door.

The strong, heavy foot of South's 220-pound figure kicks open the door for his fire team.

"He was a Marine before he was a Marine," said Janet South, Klay's mother. "We joke that he came out smoking a cigar and swinging a chain."

He doesn't come from a military family; he was the first to enlist and did it during a time of war. The Franklin, Ind., native enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 with the sole idea of going to Iraq to "get some."

South describes himself as an action junkie and not a nine-to-fiver. He said recruiters give a hard time to guys like him who come into the office asking how soon they can get to Iraq.

"They think something's wrong with you," South said.

Apparently satisfied that there wasn't, recruiters shipped South to boot camp two weeks later in December 2002. South, at 26, was the oldest graduate in his company.

Janet said she always felt safe around her son because the natural leader in him took charge no matter the situation. But she didn't know how far that leader was willing to go.

Just as South had hoped, he deployed to Fallujah with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, as part of Regimental Combat Team 1 in 2004, and he participated in Operation Phantom Fury, also known as Operation Al Fajr.

Being the take-charge type, South forsook the survival rates of the first man to enter a house when clearing it and volunteered for the dangerous role.

"I just felt the younger guys needed a leader. Some would enter the house and freeze up a bit," South said.

South got plenty of experience at being the first one through the door.

"We cleared between 25 to 35 houses during the first three days. It's just like the movies: bombs dropping everywhere. You're exhausted, and the smell of sulfur is all around you," said South with a vigor that suggests he enjoyed that environment. "You just revert to your training; it really does just take over. I got right with God and said, 'I'm ready to go, but please let me go out in a blaze of glory.'"

In the last room South entered, the team's front was clear. Then South looked left.


The first round struck him in the mouth from point-blank range. He fell to the ground as the enemy kept firing. Fading in and out of consciousness he tried to throw a grenade into the room, but it started to roll back toward him. When it exploded, the insurgent got off another shot, striking him in the foot.

The round from the AK-47 that struck him in the mouth shattered 22 of his teeth and blew off most of his jaw and a fifth of his tongue, the bullet still lodged in his throat. He had no airway. He regurgitated the same blood swallowed when he inhaled. A corpsman, Nick Lowery, stopped the bleeding long enough to try a tracheotomy. The first try failed, but the second got air to his lungs.

"I thought I was dead. I had come to the conclusion that I wasn't coming back," said South, who remained unconscious for the next few days, during which he was transported to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

With 162 hospital beds for a daily average of 13 patients, the hospital's goal is to provide expeditious life-saving procedures and get the patients stateside as soon as possible.

After a few surgeries, South was transported to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. South was wounded in Iraq on Nov. 11, 2004, and arrived at the hospital threes days later.

South underwent three and a half weeks of surgeries. The gunman was so close to him that the muzzle flash burned his face.

"I had so much dead skin on my face, they had to come in four to six times a day to scrub it off,” South said.

Surgeries were one after another for the sergeant. Doctors took parts of bone from South's hip to use in the reconstruction of his face. His jaw is now made of titanium.

"It really was a staged approach to reconstructing South's face," said Capt. David Bitonti, director of surgical services at the National Naval Medical Center.

When South first arrived it was a matter of resetting what was still intact and coming up with a plan to reconstruct what was missing, Bitonti said. South has had about five dozen surgeries for his injuries.

"I didn't even recognize myself," South said.

Until a year and a half ago, when South got new teeth, he was unable to eat solid foods and lost nearly 75 pounds, dropping from 220 down to 147 pounds.

"Man that was awesome, getting to actually eat food that I could to chew," South said.

With a natural looking smile, South said he's noticed a significant change in his appearance from his first surgery to the last: "One hundred percent difference from when I was first wounded ... maybe I can still be on that show 'The Bachelor.'"

Although spirited, he will never forget that day. South said he is a man who is proud of what he did.

"I'm proud of my scars; they remind me of something, what I did for my country. I customized my face," South said.

The Mended can be Menders
While recovering, South would stare at the TV and become discouraged. That was until a Marine amputee came in and sat next to him.

"He came in, sat down next to me and we got to talking. And he was so upbeat and positive despite not having all his limbs," South said. "He turned and looked at me and said 'Marine, I have no regrets.'"

Impressed with the young Marine, South recalls thinking he didn't have it that bad himself.

"I kept thinking, 'I have all my limbs. Things could be worse,'" South said. "You can't change the weather if it's raining."

This change in spirit for South got him thinking, something needed to be done for his fellow wounded warriors. Klay and his mother began taking steps to conduct fundraisers for the wounded. After numerous fundraisers and donations to the tune of $21,000, the 31-year-old's non-profit organization Veterans of Valor was officially launched on Oct. 4, 2007.

Members from Veterans of Valor travel from hospital to hospital visiting wounded service members.

"It’s more than just us showing up and giving out gifts, we want to hear their stories," South said.

South spent days in surgery and nights in thought, drawing from his own experiences to design backpacks for patients: "I wanted to give them something that could ease their minds, and give them some sense of normalcy. I wanted to give them stuff they could use as well as something functional."

The backpacks contain iPods, video games, and athletic gear that included athletic pants that open on the side. The pants are especially well received by the patients Klay visits.

"The backpacks are just phenomenal. One of the best things in there were the side-opening sweatpants because in my case I have gunshot wounds in my legs, and doctors have to continually check them," said Lt. Col. Keith Schuring, who was wounded in Iraq.

Being a previous patient and wounded warrior, South is able to sympathize with the patients' experiences, and he offers his own advice on how to get through to recovery.

"We have had visitors like Donald Rumsfeld and the commandant of the Marine Corps,” Schuring said. “But when Sgt. South came to the hospital it was like a breath of fresh air. A Marine that has been in combat, a Marine who has started such a great program as Veterans of Valor -- it's just wonderful to see someone step-up and take charge like he has. He has lived this life. He knows what it's like to be in this position."

The organization never stops looking for new ideas to raise money.

"We are constantly looking for new ideas for fundraisers and doing ground work to get donations," Janet said.

Each backpack provided by South and Veterans of Valor costs around $500.

"I'm not going to cut corners," South said. "These soldiers gave everything they had. They didn't just give a little bit. This is a small, small token of appreciation. Would you chop off your arm for $500? Would you even lose a finger? No, you wouldn't."

To help cover the cost, South started Operation Care Package 24/7, a shopping Web site where visitors put together packages for military friends and family, thus feeding money into Veterans of Valor by selling high-end quality care packages. Site visitors can even have their care package delivered to a service member from a specific location or branch of service, South said.

"I'm the go-to guy. I don't care what branch of service you were in; if you're wounded, I can help," South said.

South has no intentions of slowing down his organization.

"My main goal right now is to do everything I can for Veterans of Valor," South said. "As long as there is a need, I'm going to supply it."

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