FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Staff Sgt. Thalamus Lewis did not know what hit him, but it was close. Too close.
On Oct. 4, 2012, in eastern Afghanistan, Lewis, a combat engineer, was with 41st Engineer Company, 1st Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, of Fort Riley, Kansas, when he was struck in the helmet by a bullet during a firefight as he and other soldiers were clearing a route during a dismounted patrol.
Now with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Combined Arms Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Lewis was invited to Fort Belvoir on Tuesday to receive the helmet that saved his life. He was accompanied by his family and former platoon leader, Capt. Alexander Dillon, who is now with 92nd Engineer Battalion on Fort Stewart.
The bullet that struck Lewis’ helmet entered above his right ear and exited through the front, leaving only a scratch on his forehead and giving him a headache.
“Within the first couple of bursts, one of them sort of found me and actually knocked me from the side of the road. And once I fell into the middle of the road, I just laid there,” he said.
After lifting his head and seeing the firefight around him, Lewis said instinct told him to “play like a possum” by holding still until he could get behind some cover to move to safety. Lewis did not know he had been struck by a bullet.
“I just knew I had a ringing in my ear and a slight headache,” he said. “That was it. … Originally, it was like a flash bang or something where it just hits you without even knowing it’s there and just knocked me over, ’cause that’s what it sounded like to me — like a grenade going off or something like that.”
His fellow soldiers were eventually able to get him off the road and to safety.
After checking him over for other wounds and impairment, the soldiers got him into a vehicle and headed to Forward Operating Base Airborne, where the unit was located. Once Lewis was at the medical facility, he began to learn about what happed to him.
After the medical team conducted more scans to make sure he was OK, Lewis said, “They told me, ‘You took a round to the (helmet).’ My first thing was I want to see it.”
After Lewis saw the damaged helmet, he said, he realized “it actually works.”
Lewis, who has been in the Army for 19 years, was on his fourth deployment when the incident happened.
“That belongs to me,” said Cynthia Boggan, Lewis’ mother, about what was going to happen with the helmet. “I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to do with that, but that belongs to me.”
She said she was going to put it in her house and when people ask about it, she will tell them the story.
“Because this is a blessing,” Boggan said. “Nineteen years is a long time to do what he does, ... and to know that he appreciate it because this is something that he can appreciate and anybody behind him can appreciate. To know that the Army does see about their soldiers.”
After seeing Lewis’ helmet Tuesday, Dillon, Lewis’ former platoon leader, said, “I’m still surprised that he’s standing here based on everything that went down that day. I don’t know what else to say. The equipment worked, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to sit here and see this.”
Dillon said he and Lewis were surprised that he only had a scratch on his forehead from what happened.
“I’m honored to be here,” Dillon said. “Very glad that he’s here with me as well.”