MILTON — "Your Alive Day is the day you were injured, you were left to live and not die," Staff Sergeant Dustin Tuller said. His Alive Day is Dec. 23, 2003.
Now in Milton, the retired Florida National Guard infantry soldier was in Baghdad on a mission to 'take out' high priority targets on Dec. 23, he said. Tuller was forming a security perimeter around the suspected complex. The targets were an organization that was funding coalition attacks Tuller said.
Tuller's group initiated the attack. As soon as it started, one of his troops was shot, point blank, in the face. At the same time an enemy solider in a second floor window shot Tuller in the right calf. With his troops bogged down trying to enter the building, Tuller decided to draw the fire to himself and away from his troops trying to enter buildings. Tuller was shot again in the groin area.
"After the second bullet, I couldn't feel anymore," Tuller said.
He was shot more times than he can remember. He continued to return fire. "I shot everything I had," he said. His troops were able to make entry into the building, when something exploded on Tuller's body.
"That explosion probably saved my life," Tuller said.
A piece of shrapnel form the explosion had lodged itself in his femoral artery and sealed it from bleeding out.
He does not know how long the firefight lasted, maybe a few minutes he recalls. The next thing he remembers is being loaded onto a transport and taken to the U.S. combat hospital in Baghdad. Tuller's wounds were so severe that surgeons gave him a 5 percent chance of living and put him in a coma to stabilize.
Tuller remained in this state for five days until medical personnel could fly him to Germany. During the flight, all of his internal organs started to fail. He survived on life sustaining medical equipment.
Tuller went from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, to The University Of Hamburg, then on Jan. 30, 2004 to Walter Reed Military Medical Center. Tuller had been in a coma for 30 days. When he woke up, both his legs had been amputated and his left hip removed. He said the only thing he was concerned with was keeping his job. He left the hospital four months later.
Tuller said he was medically retired due to the wounds he received. His discharge papers say he is unemployable because of his injuries. He receives disability. In 2016, he suffered a heart attack due to the trauma his body had gone through. In January 2017, the army sent him back to Walter Reed for a triple by-pass operation that was successful.
Tuller said he does not have any regrets. He spent five years traveling the world speaking to people about his experience. He helps veterans groups and non-profits, and speaks to anyone that is disabled, military or not.
"I have helped thousands of men women and children realize that life doesn't end because you are disabled," Tuller says.
They did accomplish their mission on Dec. 23, 2003, and eliminated all the priority targets. Tuller said no one was killed on the American side but they did have wounded.
Veterans Day is "more significant," he said, now that he has lived this experience. Moreover, he now has a 20-year-old son that serves in the Army.
"We all have this freedom because of veterans," Tuller said.