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Live-fire training accident changed Fort Bragg soldier’s life in a flash

Clinical social worker Michelle Koeneke gives former patient Cory Muzzy a hug Friday at Duke Medical Center in Durham. Muzzy lost both legs and was left mostly blind after a misfire of a howitzer during a training exercise at Fort Bragg in February. The explosion also killed one of Muzzy’s comrades. He was visiting the hospital to thank the people who saved his life.
Clinical social worker Michelle Koeneke gives former patient Cory Muzzy a hug Friday at Duke Medical Center in Durham. Muzzy lost both legs and was left mostly blind after a misfire of a howitzer during a training exercise at Fort Bragg in February. The explosion also killed one of Muzzy’s comrades. He was visiting the hospital to thank the people who saved his life. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The Army training accident seven months ago that dimmed Sgt. Cory Muzzy’s sight and took his feet out from under him has not kept him from envisioning his future.

Muzzy, 24, was an ammunitions team chief in the 321st Field Artillery Regiment, part of the 18th Fires Brigade at Fort Bragg, when it happened. On Feb. 21, the unit was 60 hours into a 72-hour training mission – running on adrenaline and muscle memory, no sleep, Muzzy recalled Friday – when it was sent to the range for a live-fire exercise.

A few more hours and they would have been able to go home, to their beds, their families, their regular daily lives. Instead, everything changed in a flash.

When he joined the Army, Muzzy had hoped to go into the infantry, he said. “But they didn’t have any openings at the time, so they gave me the next closest thing” – artillery.

He learned to operate several of the weapons in the Army’s arsenal, including one of the big guns, the M777 howitzer, the one the team would use on the range that morning. The M777, rolled out in the mid-2000s to replace an older, heavier howitzer, can hit a target from 18.5 miles with a 150-pound, 155 mm round. A five-man crew can fire up to five rounds per minute.

The Army and Marines like the M777 because it’s several thousand pounds lighter than its predecessor and can be more easily hauled into combat. It was used during the war in Iraq and has been used in Afghanistan.

As the U.S. military has withdrawn from those conflicts and the rate of deployment has dropped, Fort Bragg continues to train with the M777 and other weapons as part of its efforts to rebuild as a “global response force.” The goal is to be able to deploy a task force at least the size of a battalion anywhere in the world within 18 hours, and an entire brigade within 96 hours, whether to provide humanitarian assistance or launch a full-scale invasion.

Practicing with live artillery

To prepare for the worst-case scenario, troops practice with the weapons – and live artillery – they would use if called to combat.

“You train as you fight,” Muzzy said, repeating one of the mantras he has heard so often during his seven years in the Army.

He was just 17 when he went in, responding to a recruiter’s phone call to his home in Pecos, N.M., and the promise of an education. At that age, he had to get his parents’ permission. His father was encouraging, he said. His mother, worried.

But Muzzy returned unscathed from a deployment to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He relocated to Roseboro, 45 minutes from Fort Bragg.

When he left home for the three-day training exercise in February, his wife Michelle didn’t think much of it.

“No big deal,” she said.

They got to the firing range in the dark, early morning. Manning the howitzer, it was Muzzy’s job to check the rounds before they were loaded into the gun to make sure they were what was called for, and to make sure the fuses were the right ones and were set properly.

But the unit was undermanned, Muzzy said, so he and other team members were doing missing crew members’ jobs as well, including ramming the rounds into the M777.

They were moving fast, Muzzy recalls, and so tired that their hands were performing the steps out of habit, before their thoughts could catch up.

The Army has not released a report on its investigation into the accident. But Muzzy said he believes that the crew got a bad lot of propellent, and a charge didn’t fire when it should have. So it remained in the cannon and then exploded when the crew opened the breach to re-load.

Crew member Pfc. James Groth, 22, of Ethal, Wash., was killed in the explosion. Muzzy and another soldier were critically injured, and five more soldiers had lesser wounds.

Muzzy was first taken to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, and flown within hours to Duke Medical Center, where trauma specialist Dr. Mark Shapiro and a team of doctors were waiting for him.

Six weeks at Duke

“My concern was that he wasn’t going to make the trip,” Shapiro said Friday. Shapiro knew from talking to the doctors at Womack that Muzzy had brain and spinal injuries, had already lost his right leg near the knee, and would likely lose his left foot and some of that leg as well. His hearing was damaged, and his eyesight largely lost.

Shapiro said the team had Muzzy in the operating room within 10 minutes of the helicopter’s landing. Neurosurgeons went to work relieving the pressure on his brain from a blood clot, and Shapiro went into Muzzy’s abdomen. Within two weeks, Muzzy had undergone more than a dozen surgeries, he said.

Without the hospital’s efforts, Muzzy said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

After six weeks, Muzzy transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he has continued treatment and rehab. He has been outfitted with two prosthetic legs and is able to walk with half-crutches. Hearing aids help him hear his son’s chatter, and additional surgeries on his eyes may bring back more of his vision.

Eventually, he plans to leave the Army, move back to Roseboro and enroll at Fayetteville Technical Community College. He wants to study to be a mechanic.

Right now, he said, he can see the contrast between light and dark, and make out general shapes – enough that he was able to recognize Shapiro on Friday when Muzzy and his family visited Duke for the first time since he left the hospital in March. Once again, he was on a mission.

“I came back to say thank you,” he said.

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