He went from riding horses to manning bulldozers.
Daniel Paul began life in Beatrice, Neb., learning about horses alongside his brother, Dustin. But when he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in January 2003, Paul was taken to some of the farthest reaches — Iraq, Japan, Russia. He saw the world beyond Nebraska, and found a calling out there — one that would follow him back home.
“It was a culture shock …” Paul began, “learning that you can be put to extremes.”
A third generation service member in his family, Paul became a heavy equipment operator, joining a unit that included generator mechanics, motor transportation, and combat engineers. He ran the big machines — forklifts, backhoes, wheel loaders — during overseas operations to build support bases for the military.
Paul was doing just that — pushing dirt while building a forward operating base in Al Qaim, Iraq — when he got hit.
“(I remember) hearing ‘boom, boom, boom,’” Paul explained, “and looking up and seeing where the mortars were hitting, about a kilometer away. ... Then (I) heard three more mortars fire. One landed in front of the gun post we had just built. Second one landed inside the FOB. The third landed next to the dozer that I was operating.
“It felt like someone slugging me in the leg. (I remember) looking down, seeing a discolored spot on my leg, thinking it must be diesel fuel that was spilled earlier. Crawling out the other side, Toothy behind me yelled, ‘Paul, you’re (expletive) bleeding!’”
Paul was later honored with the Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained that day, and he left the military in January 2007, honorably discharged as a sergeant. He didn’t leave the work behind, though.
After returning to civilian life, Paul sought out the profession he had learned during his service, becoming a machinist with BNSF Railway.
Today, he works on locomotive diesel engines, and keeps close contact with another veteran from his unit.
“We usually contact (each other) over Messenger and just see how each other is doing, and if there is anything we can help with,” Paul said. “It’s nice to have social media, that way we can watch each other’s families grow.
“(My fellow veterans) are some of the best people you could ever know.”
Katy Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.