Local soldier receives purple heart after Afghan attack

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 31, 2011

SALISBURY — Shaking off the night’s cold, Army Spc. Thomas Gravitte took over his solitary guard position about 4:45 a.m.
He positioned himself on a makeshift tower, a perch on top of a wall of Hesco barriers, the kind that sometimes seem to go for miles in military zones such as Afghanistan.
Walls of sandbags at the top of the tower were framed around 2-by-4s, so that they fashioned a small observation window.
Gravitte felt relatively safe. Insurgents were known to take potshots now and then at these guard positions, but “nobody took it too seriously,” Gravitte says, “even though you’re always in a life-or-death situation.”
About an hour after assuming his post, Gravitte noticed the sun peeking over the horizon and a light fog still hanging on the ground.
Tired of sitting and still not feeling fully awake, Gravitte stood up to stretch. He wanted to get his blood flowing.
“I didn’t even hear this thing coming,” he says.
Usually there are two sounds connected to the launching of a rocket-propelled grenade, but Gravitte only heard — and felt — the explosion of the projectile’s hitting the MRAP below him.
It was the loudest noise he had ever experienced, and billows of smoke consumed the morning fog.
“I guess they were expecting someone to be in there,” he says of the enemy’s primary target — the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle used to carry troops over rough terrain.
The concussion from the blast knocked him out of the tower and onto the ground, where he lay for 5 minutes. The guys in his platoon first thought he was dead.
No one else was injured. The MRAP, which took a direct hit, had been parked and empty.
They finally dragged him back to a medical station and started first-aid, checking him initially for shrapnel. Gravitte had a terrible headache, one which would last for several days. His vision was blurred, and he had lost significant hearing in his left ear.
“That was a hell of a wake-up call,” Gravitte says today.
Doctors told him the blast had scrambled his head a bit, explaining his short-term memory loss. The medics wanted to ship him out of the platoon’s isolated position, but Gravitte resisted, pleading to stay with his Charlie Company at the Joint Security Station.
“I guess I shouldn’t have been so stubborn,” he says.
In October, Gravitte received the Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered in the May attack in Afghanistan. When he returns to Fort Polk, La., after the holidays, he will be recognized formally as a Purple Heart recipient, but he already has the medal and certificate.
Gravitte, a 2005 graduate of East Rowan High School, has been spending the past few weeks back home with parents Mark and Lisa Gravitte, brother Mark Jr. and Thomas’ fiancee, Erin Alexander of Salisbury.
His year’s deployment in Afghanistan ended in December.
“I was surprised,” the 25-year-old Gravitte says of receiving the Purple Heart, awarded to members of the armed forces who are wounded in war or given posthumously to their next of kin if they are killed in action or die from their wounds.
“People say, ‘Congratulations,’ but it’s not something you’re thrilled about getting.”
Gravitte clarifies that remark by saying the Purple Heart is an honor, of course, but it also serves as a reminder of how close he came to being more seriously hurt or dead.
“He’s fortunate,” says his father, Mark Gravitte Sr., a retired sergeant with the N.C. Highway Patrol. “… We’re proud of him.”
The father adds it’s just good to have him as is, Purple Heart or no Purple Heart.
An ex-Marine who intends to make the U.S. Army a career, Thomas Gravitte has been left with permanent hearing loss in his left ear.
“They said what I can hear now is as good as it’s going to get,” he says, comparing his hearing in the bad ear to the muffled sounds of someone yelling underwater.
In high school, Gravitte enrolled in the Delayed Entry Program, joining the Marines shortly after graduating from East Rowan High.
He eventually became a member of the Marines’ elite Silent Drill Platoon, stationed in Washington, D.C.
In 2008, he and other members of drill platoon were featured in two television commercials airing nationwide from locations such as the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge.
But when his time with the Marines was up, and though “I love the Marine Corps to death,” Gravitte talked to an Army recruiter and decided there were more schools and better war deployment opportunities with the Army.
He ended up with the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Polk, and soon had his wish — a year’s deployment in Afghanistan with Charlie Co. and the 3rd Platoon.
For much of the time, his unit was dealing with Taliban insurgents and helping the Afghans rebuild from prior wars.
If there were a high-value target, the soldiers would focus on it.
Gravitte’s platoon leader was killed during their first month in Afghanistan, but he voices strong support for the United States’ mission there.
“We are making a difference,” he says.
Gravitte would like to return to Afghanistan, but he’s not scheduled to go back until late 2013, or early 2014. At one point, he was hellbent to return earlier, but now he has persuaded himself to opt for more training, while teaching other soldiers what to expect on their deployment.
He and Erin have not set a marriage date, but first things first.
She’s just glad to have him home.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.