Common valor

July 17, 2007

By RON PAZOLA Staff Writer

The media is filled with war stories about soldiers and Marines taking lives or having their lives taken. This is a story about a soldier from Glen Ellyn who helped save a life in Iraq.

It was late June, and Army Spc. Joseph O'Brien, 23, watched a mortar shell land just a few yards in front of the field latrine he was exiting.

"I saw the flash from behind the door," the medic and Glenbard South High School graduate said in a press release from U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs. "I knew it was close."

O'Brien's fellow medic, Spc. Paul Brown, was nearby in the makeshift emergency room in the house once owned by Baath Arab Socialist Party officials during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Both medics, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, arrived at the blast site to find Tech. Sgt. Jeramie Brown, an Air Force broadcaster, on a cot, his legs torn by shrapnel.

Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi, the news team photographer, and Air Force Capt. Stephan Edwards were trying to help the wounded airman.

After applying tourniquets to Brown's legs to stop the bleeding, the medics - along with Varhegyi and Edwards - rushed Brown to the emergency room. Other 30th Infantry medics and doctors prepped him for an emergency medical evacuation. In less than an hour after the mortar hit, Brown was in surgery in a Baghdad field hospital, where it was determined that a chunk of shrapnel severed a large vein in his left leg and caused other injuries to his shins.

It was the second mortar injury O'Brien had treated in two weeks and his first Air Force injury. He has been deployed to Iraq twice.

"Fortunately, Sgt. Brown's prognosis is good, thanks to the quick care he received in the field," said Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein of U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs. "Spc. O'Brien and the others involved in helping Sgt. Brown should be commended for their efforts."

When The Glen Ellyn Sun contacted O'Brien's mother, Kathy, about the incident, she was surprised, saying she hadn't heard anything about it. She called The Sun the next day and told a reporter she had just talked with her son and that he confirmed the incident.

"Joe is matter-of-fact about his experiences in Iraq," she said. "He feels he is just doing his job. He never complains, even though he was supposed to have been discharged from the Army in August. He doesn't know how long he will be in Iraq or when he will be allowed to leave the Army."

The last time O'Brien was in Glen Ellyn was a week in April.

O'Brien joined the Army four years ago. He had attended College of DuPage for a year and was thinking about becoming a firefighter or paramedic.

"Joe was uncertain about what he wanted to do and didn't feel ready for school," Kathy O'Brien said. "He wanted to do something worthwhile while he decided his future, so he joined the Army."

O'Brien knew he wanted to be a medic.

"When a patient comes in, (the patient is) usually terrified and scared he is going to die," O'Brien said in a press release. "But when his face relaxes, when he's calm, I start to smile. That's when I know I've earned his trust. He trusts that I and my team will work hard to save his life."

And what does Mom think?

"We're very proud of Joe," she said.

Contact Ron Pazola at or 630-416-5283.