Mission accomplished

Bullets and rockets have darted inches from Lance Cpl. Ryan Mutek’s head. He has been cut by shrapnel from mine explosives, and he has witnessed some things he dreams he could forever forget.

Although many of us have only seen glimpses of these nightmarish images on television or in newspaper photographs, the local Marine has tasted that dark world himself.

He has changed.

He has grown.

And as of last Friday, April 11, he has returned to his parents’ East Bremerton home.

When Mutek arrived, he was greeted by a swarm of about 65 people. His mom had told her boss and her boss had passed the word to people like Bremerton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 239, and the local newspapers. He was thanked by the throngs for his bravery. “Thank you Ryan, you are a true hero,” said one of the onlookers, Elizabeth Broadnax.

Mutek left for boot camp with the Marines a couple weeks after he graduated from Bremerton High School in June 2001. Eight months later, he was deployed with his platoon to Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist incident that brought down the World Trade Center in New York.

Even though a military recruiter had tried for hours to convince him otherwise, Mutek wanted to go to the front lines of the action.

He didn’t want to hide behind another soldier.

In fact, Mutek passed all the necessary tests to join the Air Force and make a lot more money, but he wanted to combat injustice himself — with his own hands — as a United States Marine.

“I joined because I wanted to feel like I could make a difference. I didn’t want terrorism to be a part of our lives,” he said. “I’ve got a bum knee and a bum back now for the rest of my life, but I definitely feel like I gave something back.”

Mutek has always been motivated. When his parents talk about him, they cannot help but smile. When his friends talk about him, they tell funny stories or say he’s a charmer.

“He goes at life with reckless abandon, and our hospital bills attest to the fact,” Mutek’s father said at his high school graduation. “He will stop at nothing that comes across his way in whatever path he decides to go down.”

His neighbor Monica Armstrong remembers the snowball and blackberry wars they used to fight in, “but he went on to the real thing,” she said with a smile.

His ex-girlfriend remembers the time he stood up and told his entire class that he thought she was cute.

“I was really flattered,” she said.

When Mutek makes his mind up to do something, he just does it. While many of his Bremerton High classmates were beginning their summer vacation after their senior year, Ryan was already off to boot camp.

That was July 7, 2001.

When he was deployed later to Afghanistan he participated on classified sniper missions, as well as security detail work for diplomats. After sustaining numerous injuries in battle, Mutek was transferred back to a Marine base in North Carolina for rehabilitation.

In early June he expects be released from the Marines because of disabilities. Along the way to this point, both Mutek and his family have travelled the wildest, most horrible, and yet, most inspirational ride.

“He has seen more things in a year and a half than I will ever see in my life,” said his father Steven.

“Nobody could sleep, drink, eat. Everybody’s thoughts were on Ryan,” added his mother Patti.

These days, the soldier is thinking about his future. He wants to be a history teacher — maybe at Bremerton High. He has also been catching up with his family and old friends before he has to go back to the East Coast in early May. Meanwhile, he just tries to forget what he has seen on the battlefield.

“You want to forget but the worst part is not being able to forget,” he said.

Mutek has always loved kids, and one of his most haunting images from Afghanistan was the time he saw one perish.

“We were on patrol,” Mutek said. “We ran across a kid herding sheep. We made the decision to escort the boy home.” Mutek feared that the boy might be robbed of his flock if he was left alone.

As they crossed a side street, the young Iraqi noticed a friend about 30 meters away. Smiling, he shouted and waved to him. The other boy started running towards the Marines and his young friend, but he never made it.

The boy stepped on a mine, which killed him instantly. Mutek was the first to approach his body.

“I had to tell the other guys to go back,” he said. He didn’t want them to see what he just saw. “I try not to tell this with too much emotion, but it was devastating,” Mutek said.

In Afghanistan, his rotation included two days of post duty at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Then he spent one day training with the sniper platoon and running missions.

While he was on post for six-hour intervals he could usually count more than 100 people passing by that were missing legs or arms, bound to wheelchairs or crutches. Some were victims of combat, some of mines.

But that wasn’t the worst of what he saw.

“I’ve seen a lot of death I wasn’t prepared for at first. Then I became accustomed to it.”

He also learned to fight without sleep or sufficient food sources. The longest stretch of time he ever slept was six hours, but once he went four days without a wink.

“If you go without sleep then you start thinking more about what you’re really doing. It was killing me. It just gets you down. Sometimes you will sit in the same spot for 24 hours.”

Still, his resolve was as stiff as concrete. He believed he was fighting to free the Afghani people under the Taliban regime. He could see it when his platoon drove through town and local residents ran up to their tanks or trucks thanking them.

While Mutek was in Afghanistan, he talked to his family through e-mail nearly every day. He would call less often.

Mutek’s first e-mail, dated April 5, 2002, was addressed to his parents.

“It’s your son, I’m at war, things are rough, times are tough, short sentences for enemies, sorry can’t write much, love you all, i’ll get a long letter in later today, guarding right now, have to go.”

When he wrote or called, he would often tell his dad the details of his gunfights, but he would save his feelings with his mom, Patti.

“They were gut-wrenching calls,” she said. “He was crying. He was scared. His dad and I just felt helpless.”

While Mutek was away, he missed two birthdays and his brother’s wedding.

“Birthdays in the Marine Corps are quite different than birthdays back home,” he wrote in an e-mail dated April 19. “Whereas in the ‘civilian sector’ you get presents, and cake, here you get a beatdown by 40 other Marines. So far I’ve skated out a few punches, but it’s only a matter of time ... Just keep thinking about me ... and while, yes, it is a dangerous situation out here, I promise I will return, because it will take more than a few bullets to put me down.”

Mutek sustained three major injuries while in battle. One was to his knee. While he trying to get an injured Marine out of a bunker, a rocket landed nearby him. He was thrown and cracked his knee open. After surgery he now walks with a slight limp and uses the aid of a crutch. Mutek said he didn’t even feel the injury until after he had dragged the injured Marine back to the Embassy. Adrenaline sustained him.

Mutek received an injury to his hand as well. When the young Iraqi boy stepped on the mine, Mutek’s finger was cut by the shrapnel. The pain was so severe Mutek gave the doctors the go-ahead to amputate it, but after 13 surgeries, they were able to repair it.

Mutek’s third injury relates to his spine, which is currently twisted. He cannot relate a single incident as the cause, but he says it occurred while diving and being thrown by enemy artillery fire during his deployment in Afghanistan.

While discussing his injuries, Mutek also recalled the time he almost lost his life, and almost took another person’s. He calls it his “worst memory.”

“(It was) the time I was doing security work for a diplomat,” he said. Mutek was riding in a car convoy through the desert. “On the side of the road there was a little boy, he couldn’t have been more than 12 years old,” he said. “As he saw us coming, he pulled out a pistol and pointed it at our vehicle. I was trying to fumble to get a shotgun out the window, and he had the pistol pointed right at my face.”

Just then, the young Iraqi’s friend’s tackled the boy and Mutek’s convoy moved on, leaving the soldier with a storm of questions.

“I will never forget his face,” he said. “What if I had gotten the shotgun out the window? Would I actually shoot him? I can’t shake it. It was a boy that obviously didn’t know what he was doing.”

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