Army Spc. Eric Kuhlman could still hear the gunfire outside the building where medics tried to stop his bleeding.
A rocket-propelled grenade had blasted through the back of a truck where the Wichita soldier was riding with four others. Kuhlman sat in the back passenger-side seat of the truck, when the grenade tore through the spare tire at the back.
It ripped through 2 inches of steel body armor and into the cabin where the soldiers were riding.
"It went about 6 inches from my head," Kuhlman said last week, recovering at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
Since that day last summer, Kuhlman has come out of a dozen surgeries to repair injuries to his shoulders, neck and head. He was awarded the Purple Heart on Oct. 29.
Back on July 27 in the Paktika Province in southeastern Afghanistan, medics were just trying to stop the bleeding, after shrapnel slit his carotid artery.
"The entire time I was being worked on inside that building, I kept hearing the trucks going on in the battle, the machine guns," Kuhlman remembered. "I kept hearing the RPGs go off. But for the most part the RPGs were done after they noticed they'd hit one of the trucks. Then they just picked up on the small-arms fire. And finally the trucks were able to kill enough of them they were able to back off."
Two Taliban were killed, Kuhlman learned later.
The crew with Kuhlman escaped with only minor injuries, compared to his.
"I took most of the shrapnel for them, basically," said Kuhlman.
The soldier in front of him suffered what Kuhlman called "a little bit of shrapnel to the back of his neck." It was about the size of a golf ball.
Kuhlman graduated from Northwest High School in 2006 and joined three of his friends from his Junior ROTC class in enlisting. One of them, Chad Marsh, was killed in Iraq in 2007 — when a grenade exploded in a Humvee where he was a gunner.
When Cranford Bennett saw a photograph of his stepson receiving the Purple Heart in The Eagle, it showed his left profile. He didn't even look injured, Bennett remembered thinking.
"You really couldn't tell all he'd been through," Bennett said.
Bennett and his wife, Della, visited her son at Walter Reed in August for his 23rd birthday.
Della Bennett said she's prepared herself for how her son's injuries might look.
Before he arrived at Walter Reed, he spent time at a hospital in Germany.
"There's a 24-hour, 800-number you can call to find out about your soldier," Della Bennett said. "On slow days, when they have time, they will connect you to Germany."
She remembered talking to a nurse at the hospital, asking if they would take a picture of her son. The patient would have to give permission, the nurse said. And Kuhlman didn't want his picture taken.
"He hadn't even seen himself yet," Della Bennett said. "I don't think he wanted to alarm the family."
But within hours, a photo of her son arrived via e-mail at her work desk at McCormick-Armstrong printers.
"It took me 10-15 minutes just sitting there to open it," she said.
She looked. Then began laughing, drawing stares from her colleagues.
"I had prepared myself for the worst," she said. "But I could still see Eric there. I could see the twinkle in his eye, even though he was pretty drugged up."
Kuhlman had escaped a close call two weeks earlier, when another rocket-propelled grenade landed within 10 feet of him, blowing him back and giving him a head injury.
Jennifer Kriesche, Kuhlman's fiancee, skipped her last semester at Wichita State University this fall to go to Washington, D.C., to be with him.
"One of the bad things of this incident is my memory is not what it used to be," Kuhlman said. "She's helped me a lot in scheduling all my appointments. She's helped me out in just my recovery. I've known her forever. She's my fiancee. I love her. She's made it a lot easier on me since she's been out here."
When the Bennetts arrived at Walter Reed, they couldn't help but share tears.
"He was so happy to see us, and his face was so swollen, if it would have swollen any more it would have popped," Della Bennett said. "But I was just so relieved because he was there."
Kuhlman, who is in an out-patient facility at Walter Reed, said he hopes to be out of the hospital and back in Wichita in time for his daughter's third birthday next month.
As Della Bennett looked at her son in the hospital, she said he seemed nervous. He had something else to tell her.
"He said, 'Mom, I know you don't like my tattoos, but I'm going to get one more,' " she remembered him saying.
Kuhlman wants to get a tattoo of an angel on his shoulder.