US sergeant retired his rodeo spurs a decade ago, but bomb blasts have rocked him plenty since

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Thursday, May 27, 2010

US soldier is a veteran of war and rodeo

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan — Paul D. Bliss has, in his words, “pretty much destroyed my knees, dislocated my right and left shoulders, busted my left arm, fractured my right arm, been kicked in the face here,” — he motions to a scar — “right above my right eye: 28 stitches from that. Busted my nose four or five times. Bruised my back a few times. I’ve also dislocated both my ankles.”

That was before the 36-year-old U.S. Army sergeant went to war. A rodeo cowboy, he rode bulls for fun and money, and got tossed and trampled plenty of times.

So far, through two tours in Iraq and now a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan that ends this summer, he has escaped serious injury.

“I have gotten very lucky,” Bliss said. “When your number comes up, that’s what you have to face.”

His unit, the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of Task Force Stryker, is operating in a fairly quiet area near Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan, though it took high casualties last year. Bliss, a Catholic, keeps the dead in his prayers: “Their names and their faces just stay in the back of my head.”

Riding and fighting intertwine for Bliss, whose ancestors battled on opposing sides in the American Civil War. A great-great-uncle opened his own stagecoach line. His father worked in Air Force intelligence.

Raised on a ranch in Willits, California, he broke his first horse, a Shetland pony, when he was 5 years old. He became a “jack of all trades” in rodeo, roping and riding wild horses and bulls — “2,000 pounds of raging hamburger.”

Bliss competed part time along the U.S. west coast. He joined the Marines in the early 1990s because his family didn’t have enough money for college, serving in the Mideast. When he returned, he took up rodeo again. All told, he won $40,000 in prize money over about a decade.

“The camaraderie was a lot like the military,” said Bliss, whose wife is a National Guard truck driver at Fort Lewis, Washington. “You travel with friends. You got to be physically in top shape, mentally tough, you never know what’s going to get thrown at you. Every animal is different.”

Blue-eyed and blond, he hung up his spurs at the age of 27, making way for younger competitors, and worked in construction. He loves off-road driving — his 5-year-old son is his “tool-getter.”

Bliss, who also has an 11-year-old daughter, took up arms again after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I was fitting pipe onto a water storage tank, and we were almost done with it, and I was listening to my radio and I heard the twin towers got hit,” he said. “I dropped my wrenches and I told my boss, ‘Hey, I’ve got to go.’ And that day, I went and talked to a recruiter.”

Bliss is one of two team leaders in a nine-man squad in Alpha Company. His commander, Staff Sgt. Dustin Vinyard, 37, of Austin, Texas, described Bliss as a family man who once offered him counsel and a place to stay when he was having trouble in his marriage.

“He’s eternally optimistic about everything, which is good because I’m kind of the opposite,” Vinyard said. “I would trust him with my life.”

Bliss remembers the first time an improvised explosive device rocked a convoy he was riding in — something he lived through many times at the height of the Iraq war.

“We didn’t hit it, but it was close enough to us that when it detonated, it rattled us really good,” he said. “The Humvee actually rocked side to side.”

That same week, a blast threw a buddy out of the gunner’s hatch of a nearby vehicle. His friend survived. Another time, Bliss said, “we almost ran over a ‘crush’ wire, and that was a 120mm cannon round that was wired up. They had the crush wire running into the middle of the road. We just barely missed that.”

There was the time a Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit two IEDs, showering Bliss’ Humvee with shrapnel. “It didn’t really phase me,” he said. Another time, a rigged artillery round exploded with a flash; Bliss’ head bounced off a rifle butt, dazing him. In 2007, his Bradley took a direct hit. Shaken, ears ringing, dust everywhere, he and two other soldiers climbed out and watched the vehicle burn.

Bliss said Iraqi bomb-makers were more sophisticated than their Afghan counterparts, who compensate with large volumes of explosives.

“In Iraq, they were very innovative in their IED-making. They’ve got the shops that are able to machine the pieces for the IEDs,” he said. The Afghans “use straight gas cans and an explosive mixture inside the gas can and a battery to detonate it. They use it in bulk instead of having the small IEDs that punch through the armor and punch through the engine block.”

Bliss is a methodical speaker. There’s no swagger. Surviving an IED blast without a scratch, he said, does not always mean you’re OK.

“In rodeo, you hit the ground. You get the wind knocked out of you and then you get up and you keep going. Whereas IEDs, sometimes you never recover” because of massive concussions and brain injuries, he said.

“They both have their extreme danger points,” he continued. “You have a chance of being killed in rodeo. You have a chance of being killed in a war zone.”

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