PLEASANTVILLE — On Andrew Taylor’s right shoulder are tattoos of an eagle and a biohazard sign. Next to them is another mark he got in Afghanistan that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.
Rita Taylor’s eighth-grade social studies class at Pleasantville Middle School gasped when the 22-year-old soldier showed them the image — displayed on a big screen — of the red-purple scar where a bullet flew out of his shoulder Nov. 12.
“I knew I got hit, but I thought it hit my body armor,” he told the class. “It felt like someone took a baseball bat and hit me as hard as they could.”
Taylor, an Army combat medic and private first class with the 1st Combat Brigade Team, 10th Mountain Division, visited his grandmother’s classes Friday, showing photos and videos of his time in Afghanistan. His visit had been warmly anticipated, and students decorated the room with signs welcoming him. Around the room, inflatable globes hung from the ceiling, and multiple maps decorated the walls.
He is one of more than 131,000 allied troops who have taken part in the war in Afghanistan, and one of the more than 9,700 American troops injured since the start of the war in October 2001 in the wake of 9/11.
Taylor told the students his unit was on patrol when mortar shells began crashing nearby. They moved forward to find and then tried to stop whoever was firing on them.
But as they crept amid the dun-colored, mud-brick buildings, the unit was spotted. A machine gun opened fire. The group was pinned down.
While some scrambled to set up a position on top of a nearby building to target the fire, Taylor’s sergeant was shot.
“I just got up and instinctively ran toward him,” he said.
As he and others aided the sergeant, Taylor was shot in the left shoulder, the bullet traveling beneath his skin from left to right, shattering a vertebra and exiting through his right shoulder.
The impact knocked him face-down into the mud. He took some deep breaths and flexed to check his condition. Satisfied he was OK, he got up and continued, seeking aid later.
Did it hurt, the class asked?
“I guess between the adrenaline and everything — nah, it didn’t hurt. ... A half-hour (later), yeah it did,” he said.
Taylor, who grew up in Mays Landing and eventually moved to Jackson Township, Ocean County, received a full scholarship to Rutgers University to study microbiology. But he felt dissatisfied by his second semester.
As a longtime volunteer and emergency medical technician, he decided to talk to a recruiter and traded schoolbooks for army boots on Feb. 3, 2009.
He quickly told the students, at his grandmother’s prompting, that he is now continuing his education in psychology and hopes to earn a master’s degree.
When in Afghanistan, Taylor helped train Afghan police, he told the students as he showed photos of Afghan children in a street and playing in a river.
But he also showed them the less pleasant aspects: the grim hole-in-the-floor toilet, as well as the weaponry used. He even passed around a small baggie with eight brass shell casings, and the Purple Heart he was awarded for his service.
Taylor described how he once weighed all of his equipment and found it totaled 115 pounds — quite a load for a place that he said hit 119 degrees in August.
Taylor said he recuperated in medical hospitals, including Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Currently on leave, he said he is going to receive a little more pain: he’s getting his wisdom teeth removed before hopefully rejoining his unit in February.
On Friday, Taylor remained the center of attention for his grandmother’s students.
“Current events are one of the most important things that I teach,” Rita Taylor said. “And he’s as current as they come. Besides, I’m so proud of him I could spit.”
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