February 20, 2014
(This story was originally published in the May 20, 2011 edition of Collegiate Baseball newspaper. Joey Falcone is now a senior at Columbia University where he is a member of the Lions baseball team. In 2013, the outfielder hit .331 with 7 doubles, 1 triple, 5 home runs and 29 RBI. He was named to the All-Ivy League and ABCA Northeast Region second teams.)
NEW YORK. — Sergeant Joey Falcone has witnessed more suffering and death than anybody should be allowed as a medic for the U.S. Marine Corps infantry during three tours of duty in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 24-year-old freshman right fielder at College of Staten Island is a true American hero.
Collegiate Baseball is honored to tell his story of the horrors he witnessed during his tours of duty to remind people what sacrifices these brave men and women make to keep our country free.
Rarely does our publication focus in on the military. But with the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, we thought it was appropriate to take an in-depth look at what one of our own went through as he served his country.
At times, baseball coaches will refer to games as “war”. But veterans like Falcone take great exception to this because war is about killing enemies which causes death and destruction. Baseball is nothing close to war.
Falcone, who had five relatives working near the Twin Towers in Manhattan, N.Y. on Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorists forced two airliners into the buildings which killed thousands, has never forgot that day even though he was a young boy at the time.
His uncle was working in the North Tower while three cousins were doing construction across the street. And still another uncle was a fireman who was on the scene. All of them survived.
Since he was a 3-year-old, he had a bat in his hand and played baseball all the way through high school at Bolton High School in Alexandria, La where he was a right fielder.
His dad is former Major League LHP Pete Falcone who played 10 years for the Giants, Cardinals, Mets and Braves, and he taught his son how to play the great game of baseball.
After Joe finished high school, he decided to enlist in the Navy because he didn’t apply himself academically in high school.
“I didn’t take high school and grades very seriously,” said Falcone.
“I gave it a minimal effort. I was essentially a C student, and it just wasn’t that important to me. My favorite thing to do in high school was play baseball. Other than that, I could care less about academics. I didn’t feel it was even important to fill out applications for colleges because I just didn’t want to go to school any more.
“I wasn’t a great high school player and had close to a .300 batting average. That’s not outstanding. So I really didn’t have anything going for me. Since I didn’t have any interest in going to college, I enlisted in the Navy in 2004 as a 17-year-old kid.”
Falcone said that was the beginning of a seven year odyssey in the military that took him to some of the most dangerous places in the world in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for the United States and caring for soldiers who were shot or blown up by road side bombs as a medic.
After boot camp for nine weeks, he was trained to be a medic as he learned everything it took to keep wounded soldiers alive for an additional 16 weeks.
At that point, he was sent to Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md. After two months, Hurricane Katrina hit, and he was put on a hospital ship to help victims in the Gulf area. Once he got back to Bethesda, Md., he worked on the Casualty Ward at Naval Hospital and helped wounded Marines who came back from Iraq for the next couple of years.
First Tour Of Duty
In February of 2007, he went on his first tour of duty in Kuwait and didn’t experience much action as he served until September. Then he flew back to Bethesda, Md. and was then sent to the third Marine Division in Camp Lejeune (Lejeune, N.C.). At that time, he went through new training to become a Marine Corps medic.
When he graduated, he was sent to Hawaii to be with the Second Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division in December of 2007.
“They told me I would be going to Iraq in a couple of weeks. I had just got back from that area of the world in September, and here I am going back again.”
Falcone said the Third Marine Division then flew to Iraq in February of 2008 and performed numerous dangerous missions in the suburbs of Fallujah.
“That place was pretty nasty. We went to a forward operating base, and we were right in a middle of a third world, run down war zone slum with bullet holes in all the buildings. The place smelled like smoke, gun powder, crap and sewage. We lived in a little Iraq police station which was essentially a little hut of concrete.
“Me and another guy were medics for over 60 Marines. We worked out of there and pushed out on missions in incredible heat which was over 120 degrees as you were wearing uniforms complete with bullet proof vests over your chest, right and left flanks and back along with an 80 pound back pack and medical bag to treat wounded soldiers. You also had to carry ammunition and a rifle. Plus you have your Kevlar helmet on.
“You are extremely uncom-fortable in this oppressive heat carrying all this weight. But had to get used to hauling all this stuff and wearing it. Every day was just an endless march among these slums as you pushed out on missions for hours at a time and even days. At times, you were just moving like a mule and trying to survive.”
Always Being Watched
Falcone said you were always being watched by the bad guys during these missions.
“There were many times you get shot at, and you didn’t even know where the bullets came from. So you keep walking.
“You patrolled through these small towns which are mine choked in the ground with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devises). If you step on one, it will either kill you or take off your legs. They are hard to spot, but you are trained to look for the smallest things which tip you off.
“It was like Russian roulette going out on these patrols. You never knew if you would step on a mine, and you never knew if you would make it back alive. Every day was like this…an endless march with the possibility of dying.
“You had sniper fire and people who would walk up to you and detonate a bomb which would blow themselves up along with a Marine. The enemy would blend in with the people of the town. And you never knew who was who. A guy might come up to you and try to shake the hands of a soldier and praise him by saying, ‘American forces good’ or something like this. But that night, he might be the same guy who places an IED in the ground to kill us.
“When my men got shot, I would have to wrap them up and medivac them out. Hopefully they wouldn’t die. If one of my men was shot, you had to determine if it was safer for another Marine to get him to me or me go to them. In some cases, the victim might be 15 meters away and other cases 200 meters away. It depended on how big the ambush was and geography of the fire fight.
“Once I start administering first aid and made sure his heart was still ticking and air was filling up his lungs, that is when I call the helicopter to medivac him out. And I would tell them it was immediate, urgent or routine. I would usually tell them immediate so I could get them out of there as quick as possible.
“If my guy was dead, then he would be called ‘black’.
“In Iraq, none of the guys who died that I had to put in a body bag were in my company or platoon. As they were passing through our area, they got hit. There were four who died in 2008 in Iraq. In my three deployments, I treated dozens of wounded soldiers as a medic and would guess that the total number was just under 100.”
Falcone said that he medically attended to the enemy at times and the residents of the town who were caught in the middle.
“The reason we attended to the enemy is that we might possibly obtain information from them that might be valuable. Also, you would unfortunately see children under 10 years old who were absolutely mangled. They were probably better off dead because of the severity of the injuries But you at least have to try and help them. Nothing really prepares you for young kids being hit with gunfire and being mangled by mines in the ground. They got blown up just like other people did. My first time out when I saw a little kid mangled, it really bothered me quite a bit. But you also had to keep your mask of composure on at all times.”
“They were extremely messy, and they would lose one or both legs. I had a buddy who stepped on an IED, and the explosion destroyed both legs and his body just above his hips. You can’t live like that. He survived for a short period of time but eventually died from his wounds. When you are a medic and face a situation like that, you have to have tourniquets above the wound area to stop the bleeding because blood is just gushing out.
“You hold that tourniquet as hard as you can until the bleeding slows or ideally stops. You also utilize pressure dressings and something called Quick Clot, among other techniques. If the guy is conscious, you try to be a calming influence in the situation. But many times they aren’t.”
Falcone said most of the soldiers he took care of were IED explosion victims
“As a medic, you didn’t want to run directly to the victim because another IED might be waiting to blow you up. So you had to be extremely careful. Sometimes I would grab the victim if he was close and help him. Other times, they were brought to me. The last thing you want is for two people to be victims of IEDs lying in the ground next to each other.”
Falcone, who was never wounded during his three tours of duty.
But he came extremely close to being killed several times including once along a mountain road.
“We were in vehicles traveling on a mission. And an enormous IED explosion went off between my vehicle and the one directly behind mine. If the mechanism in the bomb went off two seconds earlier, the explosion would have destroyed the vehicle I was in or the one behind me two seconds later.
“The explosion was absolutely massive. I looked through my back window and couldn’t even see the vehicle behind us with the fire blast, smoke cloud and debris flying everywhere. Probably five seconds later, I saw the vehicle pushing out of a huge crater.”
Cleaning Up Body Parts
Falcone said that maybe the most horrifying situations during his deployments took place when vehicles ran over IEDs which then destroyed the vehicles and anybody inside.
“Often times it would be a big fireball. Out of the corner of your eye at the top of the fireball, the vehicle would get propelled over a power line almost as if it was a toy. And your friends were in there. Then you had to fight if necessary. If there was only the blast, you more than likely had dead bodies. You might be there for hours cleaning up the vehicle debris. In addition, you were required to clean up any human remains of your friends that were left. You put body parts in body bags. But sometimes you ran out and had to put them in garbage bags.”
Falcone said the smell of the decaying flesh was difficult to stomach.
“Keep in mind the temperature is 120 degrees, and body parts are just decaying in the bags. Mangled flesh has one of the most nauseating smells I have ever endured. Plus, you are looking at it and realizing that they were your friends. It not only smells, but it is so eerie as well.
“After one of these explosions took the lives of several of my friends, I had a recurring nightmare. But each time I had it, it would be in a slightly different scene. I had a great priest who helped me with my nightmare problem. We had chaplains come out to the base to help us with things like this. I remember telling this one particular priest about the nightmare I kept having. The guy was an absolutely genius who helped me get through it. I wish I could talk to him again some time. He was pretty special.”
Tough To Deal With
Falcone said the worst part of being deployed in Iraq was coming back to the USA and knowing that he would be deployed once again in the near future to Afghanistan.
“Being out there is difficult being in fire fights, people being torn to shreds with mines and cleaning up body parts and all that messy, gruesome stuff.
“But being back in the U.S. and knowing you have to go back to that was horrible. It was the worst feeling in the world which hit you in the pit of your stomach. I got back to the U.S. in September of 2008 and then told in November that we would be deployed in Afghanistan — only two months later.”
Falcone said when he arrived in Afghanistan, it was more of the same, but with a different landscape and different enemies.
“Afghanistan had more mountainous regions. I was in southern Afghanistan where a lot of the Taliban was. The best way I can describe the Taliban is that they were bullies and bandits. They took advantage of the local people who were extremely poor. Afghanistan is a third world country, and almost everybody is flat broke and live in mud huts.
“The Taliban would take advantage of that and roll into the houses of these people. They would take anything they wanted, and there was nothing people could do about it. If you resisted, there would be consequences. They might kidnap the mother and do whatever they wanted with her. Or they would just kill her right in front of the family.”
“They would bully the local people quite a bit. One time we saw the remains of a local school teacher who was filleted and diced into many parts with a knife. Maybe the Taliban thought the teacher was being sympathetic to Americans. Who knows? It was so difficult as an American to comprehend people doing things like this.
“I remember getting shot at by the Taliban. One of their techniques was to hold an infant in the arms of a soldier while his buddy, close to him, would be shooting at us an AK-47 assault rifle. And he knew we wouldn’t shoot back at him with his buddy holding an infant in his arms right next to him. I didn’t want to shoot at him with him holding a little kid. None of us fired back.”
Falcone remembered another situation which took place when the Taliban targeted a local family.
“This poor family was rolling down a dirt road in a car which was packed with people. There was a pregnant mother, two little girls, a dad and his son. The Taliban planted an IED specifically for this family in the ground of the road. The car ran over the mine, and the vehicle was pulverized. Amazingly, only a couple of people from the family died in the explosion.
“The Taliban didn’t care. They just wanted to kill all of them. They had no patience with families trying to work with the coalition forces. So they would murder the whole family.”
Falcone said in November of 2009 he got back to the USA from Afghanistan and was stationed in Hawaii. And then from November until July, he served out the remainder of his time in the military since he didn’t want to re-enlist and began playing baseball once again for his unit team.
“I was thrilled to be playing baseball again. And the level of play was superb in Hawaii. When I was discharged, I initially visited my parents in Alexandria, La. for a bit. Then I came back to New York to live.”
Terrific Season In Baseball
After a period of time, he decided to enroll at College of Staten Island since it was close as he took full advantage of the GI Bill and didn’t have to pay for classes.
As he was enrolling for nursing classes, he asked if he could try out for the baseball team, and he was told where to apply.
He made the team and has had an outstanding season as a 24-year-old freshman.
Late in the 2011 season, he was hitting .355 over 35 games which ranked second on the team. He also knocked in 29 runs and produced 7 triples, 4 doubles and 1 home run as he recorded a team-leading slugging percentage of .545.
Most freshmen would be thrilled at such numbers.
But the grizzled combat veteran gave an interesting answer.
“I have been in the infantry for so long that failing seven out of 10 times really bothers me as a hitter,” said Falcone.
“When you are involved in the military, there is no room for error during battles because people will die. It really bothers me to fail so often now. I am not thrilled with it. I don’t fail seven out of 10 times with my grades. I had a 4.0 grade point average my last semester at College of Staten Island.”
Joe Falcone is an American hero who can play on my ball club any day.
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