Source: Sherman Publications

Brandon grad survives shot to head in Afghanistan

by Susan Bromley

September 29, 2010

After surviving a bullet through his brain, Joshua Keel figures skydiving should be a breeze.

His mother has other ideas.

“No skydiving,” says Yvonne McClelland. “I want him to have both feet on the ground.”

Keel, a 2008 Brandon graduate, isn’t quite ready for skydiving four months after being shot in Afghanistan. He uses a cane to walk and must wear a helmet when moving around, because a piece of the skullcap protecting his brain is currently stored in his abdomen, leaving his cranium vulnerable.

“My body is opposite right now,” says the Marine Lance Corporal. “My stomach is hard and my head is squishy.”

The oddities don’t seem too bother him much. He knows he is lucky to be alive.

Keel, 21, joined the Marine Corps in July 2008, shortly after graduation. His grandfather was a Marine, he notes, and he was also motivated by the money he would receive from serving in the military to go to college and become a teacher. He was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and this past December, he was deployed to Marjah, Afghanistan, which he calls the last stronghold of the Taliban, a terrorist group.

Keel said his duties as the “new guy” in his first deployment included filling sandbags, loading and unloading items, and standing post as a lookout. The automatic rifleman stood post in the Helmand River Valley, where canals run alongside every road, giving people there enough water to grow crops. The area is also the center of the opium trade.

“Our job was to gain a foothold and regain control of the poppy trade, make sure the Taliban is not getting money from that and give the civilians the protection they need,” said Keel.

On June 6, Keel was shot providing that protection. On that hot, sunny day, he was in an MA-TB, a Marine vehicle twice the size of a Humvee, with three of his fellow Marines, patrolling an intersection where the Afghan police had a checkpoint. Keel had been standing up in the turret for about a half-hour to 45 minutes when the stillness was broken by a barrage of gunfire aimed at the Marines. They were being fired upon by what he estimates was 10-15 members of the Taliban, hiding behind trees and berms. Keel returned fire with a .50 caliber machine gun, but it jammed.

“I could see them,” he said. “The only thing I didn’t see was that one guy in Afghanistan who really could shoot. I got his buddy, though.”

Unable to fix the jammed gun, he dropped down into the vehicle to tell his comrades they had to retreat.

“I ducked down and told them we had to get the hell out of there because we couldn’t shoot back,” recalled Keel. “When I ducked down, I thought I hit my head on the trigger housing of the .50 cal, but then I stood up. I felt dizzy, shook it off, grabbed the M-4 rifle, shot four rounds and after that, I felt pretty good. I saw I got a guy without aiming. Then I went to wipe away sweat and saw it was blood. My buddy saw I was bleeding and said, ‘Oh no, Keel’s hit!’ I said, ‘No, I’m good,’ but my words were slurring.”

The driver couldn’t get back into gear, because the enemy had shot the transmission. Keel had taken a class in December on how to drive the vehicle and any other time, he said, he wouldn’t have remembered the troubleshooting points the instructor had gone over. Fortunately for all of them, the special circumstances jogged his memory on what needed to be done and they were off.

“We’re flying down the road, and they were like, ‘Get down, get down,’ and I said, ‘No, they’re still shooting.’ There were civilian contractors in the road on the way back, we plowed through and put their vehicles in the canal. We get back to base, we didn’t even call it in, and came screaming in through the gate.”

Keel still wasn’t aware he had been hit by enemy gunfire, with a bullet passing into the top of his skull and cutting a path through the right lobe of his brain before lodging near the back of his skull. When his helmet was pulled off full of blood, Keel was upgraded to urgent surgical status and taken to battalion headquarters. From there he was evacuated by helicopter to another base, where the last thing he remembers is getting a CAT scan.

At home in Waterford, McClelland’s phone rang.

“At first I thought I was getting a call with their arrival date back home from deployment,” she said. “But instead of the recording it would normally be, someone asked for me.”

The voice on the other end told her Joshua was hurt. Panic overcoming her, she asked if he was OK. She was told he was shot and she asked again if he was alright.

“She said, ‘Ma’am, he was shot in the brain,’” McClelland recalled. “I asked again if he was OK and she told me there was still a bullet fragment in his brain, but he was alive and they would call back with further information. I only vaguely remember that conversation. I can’t remember most of that week. I shut down.”

In Kandahar, Afghanistan, doctors performed surgery, removing the bullet from the back of Keel’s head. He was placed in a medically-induced coma and woke up about a week later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., strapped to a bed and intubated. Because he was hit on the right side of his brain, he was paralyzed on his left side for about three weeks. The bullet had also nicked a part of the brain that controls impulse and during those early weeks, he was angry and yelled often. But he was alive, he could speak, and slowly he began to regain control, of both his impulses and the muscles on the left side of his body.

“I was an inch away from death, because it almost hit my brain stem and then I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” said Keel on Tuesday with his mom at his side and 20-month-old daughter Isabella on his lap. “They said if there is a perfect way to get shot in the brain, I got it. It went through the right lobe and they said if it had crossed over to the left side that controls speech and the ability to stay awake, it would have made me a narcoleptic knucklehead— unable to stay awake.”

Keel remained in Bethesda for six weeks, where he received the Purple Heart, an award given to military members wounded or killed while serving. He was transferred to the VA Hospital in Richmond, Va. for five weeks and then returned to Michigan. He is undergoing physical, occupational and speech therapy and strength training and is due back at Camp Lejeune on Oct. 20, where he will join the Wounded Warrior Battalion. McClelland will go along to assist him with tasks that are still a challenge. In January, when swelling in his brain should be reduced, he will have surgery again. At that time, the neurosurgeon will decide whether to replace the piece of skull currently stored in Keel’s abdomen or use instead a titanium plate to protect Keel’s brain.

Medical retirement from the Marine Corps seems likely for Keel, whose mother believes God saved her son because He has a plan for him.

Keel nods and points at his daughter, Isabella.

“I feel she is that plan and why I am here,” he says simply.