Citizen Staff Writer
For a horrifying 24 hours in March, the Bustamante family prepared for the worst.
“Get your passports ready,” Army doctors in Germany told the sister and parents of Army Spc. Jesus Edgardo Bustamante Jr.
The 22-year-old Tucson native and 2002 Sunnyside High School graduate had been shot during a sniper attack in Baghdad, Iraq.
The wounds were so bad, Army medics gave the unconscious young man a Purple Heart medal before flying him to Germany. They didn’t think he would survive the trip.
In Germany, “Edgar” developed an intestinal infection and a raging 106-degree fever. On March 24, doctors told his family he might not make it back to the United States.
“I didn’t want to think the worst,” his 28-year-old sister, Antoinette Bustamante, recalled through tears, “because I had to be strong for my parents.”
The next day, as the family frantically filled out paperwork for its passports, an overseas phone call brought word.
The fever had broken. Edgar had a chance.
He would be transferred to the intensive-care unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where his parents joined him within days.
Jesus Edgardo Bustamante Sr., 54, and his wife, Tracy, 51, have not left his side since.
The news of their son’s injury was devastating, but nothing could have prepared them for what they saw when they arrived in Washington.
“It wasn’t something we could see as parents,” Edgar Sr. said. “His stomach was wide open. Tubes were going in and out of his stomach. He was like that for nine days.”
The bullet that nearly killed their youngest child broke two ribs; collapsed the bottom of a lung; sheared his liver; obliterated the bottom third of his right kidney; mangled a small portion of his colon, which had to be removed; and then lodged in his hip, where it is doing no harm and will probably stay, his father said.
His parents kept a vigil at his bedside and sometimes spent the night if his fever spiked.
Edgar’s aunt, Tina Trejo, has taken over paying the family’s bills and feeding its two dogs, three cats and two birds. Edgar’s older brother helps out with care of the house.
The government provided the Bustamantes with housing as long as they needed it and a small stipend to cover eating expenses for the first two weeks.
Since then, they have gotten by with help from family and volunteer groups that provide food and clothing and donate airline miles to the families of wounded soldiers.
The time off work has taken a financial toll on the Bustamantes, though they’ve been too consumed with Edgar to think about it much.
Edgar Sr. works in maintenance for the Sunnyside Unified School District, where he had more than 200 sick days accrued.
But Tracy, who works at a gift shop, is not getting paid for her time away. She’ll return to Tucson next week to get back to work, which pains her. But she knows her son is in good hands.
Tracy manages Edgar Jr.’s schedule and makes sure he makes all his appointments, but her husband provides much of the hands-on help, such as cleaning his ileostomy bag.
“It makes me feel very needed,” Edgar Sr. said. “He has somebody to talk to. I can see soldiers who don’t have family members to talk to, and you can see the difference.”
The first in his family to attend a university, Edgar was a junior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff when he enlisted. He had been in the Army ROTC and planned to become an officer, but thought he should have experience as an enlisted man first. He was assigned as a gunner in the Headquarters Troop, 2nd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas.
He plans to return to college and finish a criminal justice degree. He’s not sure if he’ll go back into the military.
For now, he is focused on getting better. The 5-foot-9-inch soldier dropped from 195 pounds to 160 after his injury, largely from blood loss.
“I need to put some weight on him,” his father said, noting that he will need a lot of home cooking. “We’ll get him back there.”
Doctors believe Edgar Jr. will make a full recovery, though it will not be easy. He hasn’t learned to walk again yet and still has fevers. Part of his large intestine hangs in a bag attached to the outside of his abdomen.
Still, when he thinks back on what happened, he knows it could have ended very differently.
On March 20, Edgar Jr. was on foot, patrolling a rural area southwest of Baghdad with two other soldiers from his platoon. They found what looked like a improvised explosive device and were waiting for backup when they heard a shot.
They were looking for cover when another shot rang out and hit Edgar Jr. above the knee, and he went down. Another soldier went down. Edgar Jr. was on the ground when another shot hit him in his upper-right torso under his arm, in an area unprotected by body armor.
“The sniper knew what he was going for,” Edgar Jr. said in a telephone interview from the Malone House, a hotel on the hospital campus for wounded soldiers and their families.
He worried that the gunman would keep firing until they were all dead. So he propped himself up, loaded the M203 grenade launcher attached to his rifle and fired in the direction of the shots. There was a loud explosion.
“I hoped it would scare him off or kill him if I got lucky,” Edgar Jr. said.
The shots stopped. As soon as help arrived, he lost consciousness.
When he came to, he was back in the United States with his parents by his side.
“I’m really blessed to have both my parents here,” Edgar Jr. said. “They’ve been a real support, even when I didn’t feel confident.”