From his position at the back of the group of armored vehicles, Derek Butenhoff saw the cloud of smoke, and then all radio communication was momentarily lost.
It was day three of a four-day bomb-seeking mission in southern Afghanistan. Butenhoff ran to the smoking combat vehicle. Inside, he found his best friend: Alex Johnson, a 19-year-old soldier from Madras.
“The truck was on its side, and it looked like a smashed-up pop can, like it couldn't have humans in there,” Butenhoff said in a phone interview from Afghanistan.
“We opened the back door ... and I yelled into the truck, ‘Hey, you guys OK? You guys OK?'
“I heard Alex. He yelled ‘Boot,' that's what they call me over here, ‘Boot, bro, I'm hurt. I'm hurt,' and I knew he was seriously hurt ... It was a bloody mess. ... I knew it was bad.”
The roadside bomb that hit Johnson's vehicle in Afghanistan on Oct. 23 shattered the bones in his legs, broke three vertebrae and left him with shrapnel injuries. Two soldiers in the vehicle with Johnson were killed. Johnson is alive — partly because of his friend's actions.
“They are battle buddies. They are best friends. They did everything together,” said Alex's mom, Becky Johnson, who is with her son at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Becky Johnson said that immediately after the explosion, her son was knocked unconscious.
“When he woke up, he was screaming, ‘Boot, Boot,' and yeah, Boot was right there. He is our hero.”
The two soldiers, with the Army's 569th Engineering Company, met in Afghanistan and quickly became friends.
“We just started hanging out and became more than friends, you know,” Butenhoff said. “We became brothers.”
The men requested to go on missions together and spent their free time checking e-mail and watching movies together.
Since Johnson has been in the hospital, they have talked nearly every day.
“Alex has been talking to all the guys on the phone, and he's telling everyone, ‘You take care of Boot, you guys. You guys take care of Boot for me,'” Becky Johnson said.
The bomb that put Johnson in the hospital was the third one to go off that day.
The first one injured Butenhoff, which is why he was riding in the back of the convoy with the medics. The second bomb hit another vehicle Johnson had been riding in, totaling it, but leaving him uninjured.
“We do route clearance for the other patrols,” Butenhoff said. “We pretty much drive anywhere from five to 10 miles per hour and drive all day looking for bombs. That's what we do.”
“I'm not going to lie. We go some missions without getting hit, and some missions we get hit three or four times,” he said.
When Butenhoff reached the smashed vehicle after the third bomb exploded, he saw the medics helping the other soldiers.
He went straight to Johnson.
“I told him, I know it's going to hurt, but he needs to help me because everyone is busy right now, and he needs to help me,” Butenhoff said.
“I didn't know he broke his back. I knew his legs were jacked up,” he said.
“I don't know if he was going through shock. I've never been in a situation like that, you know.
“From what we've trained on and what we knew how to do, I kept him calm. I told him everything was going to be all right ... He kept passing out, and I was trying to keep him awake. He was screaming in pain. He was saying he needed morphine, but I'm not a medic. I didn't know where it was at. So I gave him a cigarette. So he was smoking a cigarette.”
Butenhoff hasn't slept much since Johnson left Kandahar, Afghanistan. He relives the blast in his nightmares.
“It's hard to explain, you know,” he said. “You know, explaining something I've seen, and seeing what I've seen, it's two different things. It's not like an everyday thing (that) you see that kind of stuff.”
On Wednesday, Johnson was able to escape his bed and took a ride in a wheelchair for the first time since the blast, according to his mom.
Both his parents, his brother and a friend from Madras are with him in the hospital. Although he has months of rehabilitation ahead of him and several more surgeries, Becky Johnson said doctors expect a full recovery.
On his Facebook page, Butenhoff wrote a message to Johnson: “I can't wait to see you in the states ... I love you lots, get well soon, bro. I am lost without you here.”
You can help
Donations can be made to the Alex Johnson Family Fund at the Bank of the West in Madras.
Cards can be sent to: Pfc. Alexander Johnson, Ward 68, Room 33, Walter Reed Hospital, 6900 Georgia Ave., Washington, D.C. 20307