Last Updated: 07/31/2012*

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Bryan tells his courageous story and describes the importance of the Wounded Warrior Project

Bryan Wagner was in the danger zone that day, the lead gunner in a convoy rushing along the outskirts of Sadr City, Baghdad’s most notorious neighborhood.

Behind him stretched a line of Humvees carrying a high-ranking officer back from a meeting. They were a high-value target, and everyone in the convoy knew it.

As they swung past Sadr City, a hotbed of insurgents, a huge roadside bomb erupted near Wagner’s vehicle.

“I remember a giant ball of orange in front of my face,” Wagner said. “I woke up in the bottom of the truck and my toes and my heel were turned totally around.”

Over the coming days the 21-year-old soldier would have to make a gut-wrenching decision: whether to try to save his leg. He would endure months of physical therapy, then tackle the transition to life as civilian.

This month Raytheon is honoring wounded soldiers like Wagner with a campaign aimed at raising awareness about Wounded Warrior Project, which runs programs for veterans.

When bomb rocked his Humvee on Dec. 17, 2007, Wagner, of Exeter, Calif. had been in Iraq for only three months.

Dazed from the explosion, Wagner pulled himself to his feet and grabbed his machine gun again before passing out from blood loss.

The blast also set his clothes on fire. The explosion had destroyed the Humvee’s fire extinguisher, so the other soldiers dumped juice on him to put out the flames.

Another soldier in the Humvee received shrapnel wounds to the face; a third lost his tricep muscle in the attack.

The Army rushed Wagner back to the United States, where the young soldier soon faced a difficult choice: His right leg was mangled; should he try to save it or have it amputated?

After talking to other amputees at Walter Reed Military Medical Center, Wagner decided a modern prosthetic would give him more mobility. He told the doctors to remove his leg below the knee.

“I decided I could be more active than if I had tried to save it,” he said. His amputation was on Jan. 1, 2008 -- “Quite a way to ring in the New Year,” Wagner said.

During his first days in the hospital, Wagner also got an unusual visitor.

“They called him the milkshake man,” Wagner said. “He came up to me and asked me what kind of milkshake I wanted. I was really confused – how doped up am I? Why is this old guy asking me if I want a milkshake?”

The man’s name was Jim Mayer, a Vietnam veteran and worker with Wounded Warrior Project. Other workers with the group brought Wagner a backpack with clothes, playing cards and other supplies.

Their demeanor deeply impressed Wagner.

“When you’re lying a hospital bed you meet all these celebrities -- athletes, politicians, whatnot. It seems like they all just want to take their picture with you, and they want to talk about war, about how many buddies you’ve lost,” Wagner said.

“But the guys from WWP, they would just talk to you like a person. They wouldn’t want to know all the gory stuff. If you felt like you needed to talk to them about that, that was fine. But they would never initiate it.”

After being released from the hospital Wagner went on a Wounded Warrior Project skiing trip to Vail, Colo., one of dozens of retreats the group organizes to inspire and strengthen veterans.

He also enrolled in the group’s TRACK program, which offers preparation and mentoring for college students. Wounded Warrior Project also arranged a physical therapy internship for him at the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The group eventually hired Wagner as an assistant dean of the TRACK program. He’s continued to participate in retreats with the group, including Tough Mudder obstacle courses and a deep-sea fishing trip. Last year he and other wounded warriors climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“They do all these activities to show these guys that disability’s just a state of mind,” Wagner said. “That’s what Wounded Warrior Project does: show these people that life’s not over, that it’s time to drive on.”

“Honestly, without the Wounded Warrior Project, I have no idea where I’d be.”

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