An injury suffered in an April 2007 battle left Navy SEAL Mark Robbins with only his left eye. Retired from service for three months, Robbins says he misses the SEALs. (DAVID BANKS)
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CORONADO, Calif. — The story floated around this naval amphibious base last year: An instructor of SEAL candidates yanked out his prosthetic right eye, presumably while lashing out at tired-out candidates suffering from the chilly Pacific surf.
The sun's rays would reflect the SEAL trident symbol etched onto the surface of the eye. The effect of the trident coming alive, in a way, unnerved quite a few first-phase students who hoped to earn themselves the famous pin.
The story was no tall tale. The Trident eye belongs to retired Special Warfare Operator 1st Class (SEAL) Mark Robbins, who lost his eye in combat in Iraq.
"[The students] didn't want to look me in the eye. It's intimidating," he said. "I tried to use it as a motivational tool, a reason to stop thinking of themselves, maybe to think as a team."
A bullet went through Robbins' skull during a battle between a close-knit SEAL team and well-armed insurgents in a farming area near Habbaniyah, Iraq, on April 2, 2007. That day, Robbins' teammates thought he was dead. Even after a medevac helicopter took him to a military trauma team, they feared that since the bullet cut through his head, he would not live to see another day.
The events that led to the loss of his eye remain fuzzy. "I remember what people tell me," Robbins said, speaking by telephone from Chicago. Details relayed by his teammates from SEAL Team 5 have helped paint the picture of what happened that day, events that earned one of the SEALs the nation's third-highest combat award for valor.
Navy Times interviewed several SEALs involved. Some asked that their names not be used. Here is their account.
A wall of lead
During a lull in a morning peppered by some firefights and sniper fire, Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Mitchell Hall came off watch to grab some shuteye and stepped down a stairwell of rubble in a vacant house that was his small team's observation post north of the Euphrates River in west-central Iraq. The original roof had been blown off, and the third floor now provided an open-air perch for the operators.
Hall passed a room where another SEAL, scanning out a window, asked matter-of-factly: "Does that guy have an AK?"
Some two hours earlier, members of their platoon holed up in another house spotted a band of four or five insurgent fighters, two with Dragunov sniper rifles strapped to their bodies, and others with AK47 automatic rifles, moving deliberately through the fields, dirt roads and canals north of Habbaniyah.
Also that morning, Marines searching for weapons caches in a farmhouse got pinned down by enemy sniper fire; they asked for help from the SEALs.
The rare request got the SEALs' attention.
"The Marines don't ask us to do something for them," said a senior chief with the platoon with SEAL Team 5, who asked not to be named. "Something significant was going on." A good enemy sniper, he noted, "can influence your tactics."
Back inside the house, the SEAL's comment caused Hall to pause. Use the scope, Hall told the SEAL. A group of insurgents was approaching the other structures near their house.
"It went from, ‘Hey, does that guy have an AK?' to, like, all hell breaking loose in, like, probably 30 seconds," Hall said.
Hall scrambled back up the rubble to the rooftop. Robbins, too, had just come off watch, and he quickly hugged the rooftop floor with his weapon at the ready.
Downstairs, several other SEALs and Iraqi commandos scanned the area. Two SEALs tossed grenades from the house into nearby palm groves in an attempt to flush out the insurgents.
Hall said he spotted a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on one man's back.
"So I took a shot," he said. "Mark took a shot, and as soon as I pulled the trigger, it was like a wall of bullets coming back at us.
"I popped up a few times and shot," Hall said. "Same response, a wall of bullets." Robbins was positioned to the right of Hall.
"I think in that second volley was when he was hit," Hall said.
Hall saw Robbins' head kick back and his body slump just several feet from him.
"Mark's been hit," he told the ground force commander, now also on the rooftop. "He was kind of slumped over, still in a kneeling position. He was still kind of exposed. I grabbed his left leg and brought him down, so he wasn't exposed the way he was."
The ground force commander helped pull Robbins away from the ledge, and he tried for nearly 10 minutes to get Robbins to a safer spot so a corpsman could help him.
Marines and Iraqis, joined by the Marines' military training team commander, a major, secured a makeshift helicopter landing zone on a grassy patch outside the house and marked the sight with a smoke canister.
Inside the house, a radio operator was trying to get the AH-1Ws that were flying overhead closer down to check the area, when he looked over and saw a CH-46E approaching. The sight of the twin-rotor, Vietnam-era helicopter, its door gunners firing away some covering fire into a "hot" LZ, got the SEALs' attention, and their respect.
"The CH-46 shows up ... a lumbering cow of a helicopter," the radio operator recalled, chuckling. "It comes by, all guns blazing."
A senior chief, an independent duty corpsman by training, rushed over to aid Robbins after leaving his spot in another house. Robbins' head was bandaged and he was seated in a Humvee awaiting the medevac. The senior chief quickly discovered that a round had entered and exited Robbins' skull. "I asked him a couple of times if he knew where he was, but he didn't answer me," the senior chief said. But "he was alert."
And he was grumpy. At one point, one of the SEALs told Robbins to get down, but Robbins "picks up some rocks and he throws them at the guy who was yelling at him," the radio operator said.
Robbins refused to leave the Humvee when the helicopter arrived. "I grabbed him. He pushed back," the senior chief said, noting Robbins spread his arms and legs to try to stay in the Humvee. "He just wasn't going to go."
With the help of the Marines' MTT commander, he wrestled Robbins out of the vehicle, at one point inadvertently hitting his head on the doorframe, as the helicopter arrived.
The CH-46 crew "was unreal," the senior chief said. "They were in, helped suppress the HLZ and their guy was waiting to jump off, ramp down. In broad daylight."
"It was textbook," Hall added.
The Marines tried to grab Robbins, but he wouldn't have it. "Mark walked to the helicopter. He didn't want anybody to touch him," Hall said.
With their buddy safely inside, the SEALs gave the air crew the thumbs up, and the helicopter flew to the nearby al-Taqaddum air base, just south of Habbaniyah, where a Navy surgical unit would provide trauma care.
Robbins, shot in the right eye with a 7.62mm round, had the only physical injury that morning. The blood that covered the ground force commander was Robbins', somewhat to the SEALs' relief. "We thought there were two" casualties, the senior chief said.
The SEALs say they appreciate the Marines' efforts, from the helicopter crew landing in a hot LZ to the reaction force that drove into a firefight. They haven't been in touch with them since, though.
"We worried about the Marines and the Iraqis coming in," the senior chief said.
"The Marines didn't really know where we were at. They were kind of coming into the blind, not really knowing as they were walking up here where bullets are coming from and what they are getting themselves into," said Hall, who Jan. 26 received the Silver Star medal for his actions that day for repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to kill insurgents, provide covering fire to protect Robbins and the other men in the team, and help secure the landing zone for Robbins' evacuation. "The bullets were coming this way, and they were coming that way," he said.
Life after combat
For Hall, the sight of Robbins hit in the eye, his head snapping back, a guttural sound coming from him, remains seared in his memory. "It was reasonable to think he was dead, after all the bullets flying by us."
"I worried the rest of the day," he said. "I thought Mark was a dead man."
While Robbins suffered a serious injury, considering the formidable weaponry and military-quality tactics the insurgents displayed that day, the SEALs said they know the morning could have turned more tragic.
"We took a really bad situation and didn't make it a hell of a lot worse," Hall said. "It could have been."
The best outcome of that morning, the SEALs agreed, was seeing Robbins walk out of the house, then walk onto the helicopter.
The bullet nicked the lower right eyelid as it entered his skull and exited from behind his right ear. He's had 15 surgeries, including reconstruction of his shattered skull, and has endured weeks in the hospital and countless medical appointments.
"At first, it was a full-time job," he said. "I couldn't be happier with the results that they got me. You could barely tell any of this stuff has happened."
Surgical teams couldn't save his damaged right eye, which was removed. In its place, Robbins wears a prosthetic eye. Along with the custom-made Trident prosthetic, he also has a normal prosthetic eye matching his brown left eye, which has 20/20 vision.
He has a tiny scar by his eyelid, but most of the other scars are hidden by his hair. He's suffered some hearing loss and tinnitus, and he's continuing with his recovery and rehabilitation, including injuries to his brain.
"I'd like to say my brain got a haircut, a little off the side," he said half-jokingly, adding, "I was actually lucky."
The Navy medically retired Robbins in December, after he had done short tours working for the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, which runs the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course and SEAL Preparatory School at Great Lakes, Ill.
"It was a little bit of a full circle there, just going from BUD/S to the platoons to the deployments and then, unfortunately, getting hurt, but still go back to BUD/S and contribute in a different way," he said. "It was nice just to get out of that funk, because a lot of the guys who get hurt get caught up. They never really get out of the hospital or get out of bed."
Robbins agreed to talk with Navy Times to give a "shout out" to the men in his platoon. "For the hell they put themselves out there, [it] definitely changed things," he said.
It's part of why he joined the Navy and became a SEAL six years ago. "This was the only type of unit I wanted to be involved with," he said. "I've only been out three months, and I miss it."