In a matter of seconds on a dusty highway in Iraq, James Brobyn's eight-wheel, 14-ton armored vehicle shot up in the air and its armor-plated siding was torn open like a sardine can.
The first lieutenant of his Marine division witnessed the death of his driver and injuries to seven other members of his platoon due to a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) that day in September 2006. Hit with shrapnel himself, Brobyn's hand was slammed in the hatch, bleeding bright red onto the dusty desert highway in Rutbah, western Iraq. But he remained calm and orchestrated a plan to catch the insurgent who planted the IED.
They initially thought the tank had been hit by a grenade, he said. But after they realized what happened, Brobyn, a Purple Heart recipient who was 28 years old at the time, instructed the crew to pursue the man he spotted and whom he suspected had planted the IED. With his radio down, Brobyn relied on his wingman, Staff Sgt. David L. Walter, to help relay orders.
Walter recalled, "I just remember Brobyn saying, 'Harris is dead, call in a nine-line (helicopter) and block traffic to the west.'"
Their patrol unit had been out on a routine check for IEDs and was coming over a hill running parallel to the highway. The tank had hit the valley and come upon a pressure-plate IED, composed of two pieces of wood with styrofoam in between, requiring just three pounds of pressure to activate.
The insurgent who was suspected to have placed the bomb was within close range and was holding a rifle, hiding in a spot on the highway with a radio, cell phone and a video camera, likely used to record the incident for propaganda, Brobyn told The Huffington Post.
Brobyn quickly worked to clear the area to ensure it was free of other explosives, sent two vehicles to block the highway so the insurgent couldn't flee, coordinated Medivac and secured the highway.
"This was a team effort. I'm most proud of my Marines all the time. They had restraint, even after their brother was killed."
His patrol ended up detaining the person whom they suspected of placing the bomb. But perhaps an even greater task was taking the patrol out the next morning for the same IED check, Brobyn said.
"Getting out there and leading the guys the next day through this trying time encapsulated everything I was taught as a Marine," he said.
But Walter attributed the Marines' morale -- and the capture of the insurgent -- to Brobyn's nature as a strong-willed, inspiring leader. "With him, it's not surprising at all," Walter said. "It would be easy to sit behind your machine guns and wait for someone to solve it for you."
Brobyn described dealing with the pain of numerous shrapnel wounds throughout the ordeal -- a fragment had even embedded in his sunglasses. From his injuries, he sustained severe traumatic brain injury and resulting memory issues.
The patrol group, responsible for protecting the city of Rutbah, was charged with searching every vehicle that passed through a highway checkpoint to ensure it didn't contain explosives.
One 2010 study estimated that IEDs were responsible for 63 percent of deaths resulting from combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and as much as 78 percent of all combat casualties experienced by an Army Brigade Combat Team between 2006 and 2007. The U.S. is set to hit about 120 IED deaths this year, down from 252 last year and 368 in 2010, according to the Washington Times.
The frequency of encountering such devices inspired a regular dread on any mission, Walter explained. "Anytime you drove through a soft, sandy spot, you'd say, 'No whammies, no whammies,'" Walter said of potentially entrenched IEDs.
A year and a half later, such mutterings under one's breath were fewer and farther between. Walter described the symbolism of driving on that same highway in 2008 after handing over the area to the Iraqi Highway Patrol.
"We had trained them, and they were conducting their mission. There was a semblance of authority and structure there that was so far away in 2006," said Walter, who is now pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at UCLA.
Brobyn now lives in Philadelphia and is executive director of the Travis Manion Foundation, which empowers vets and civilians to launch service projects, send care packages and honor military members within their local communities. He has also blogged for HuffPost.
Brobyn said he feels blessed to be able to continue to serve through his foundation.
"I cannot do enough each day to honor the Marines we lost and those who continue to put themselves in harm's way," he said."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story improperly identified the armored vehicle as a tank.
This story is part of an ongoing series, "American Heroes," which recognizes extraordinary actions beyond the call of duty by our military members, police force, fire fighters and many others.