Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story that originally appeared in Stars and Stripes.
Chris Mintz finished his six-minute deployment broken yet unbowed. He had been shot five times and was bleeding out, thousands of miles from the nearest battlefield.
Being wounded was a real possibility when Mintz enlisted as an Army infantryman, but taking fire in rural Oregon wasn't quite what he pictured.
He joined in 2004, between two vicious battles in Fallujah while an insurgency simmered in Afghanistan. He could have gone into water purification or finance or any number of jobs. But choosing combat arms in wartime takes a certain kind of soldier with a certain something to prove that cannot be done at home.
This Oct. 1, 2015, file photo shows authorities responding to a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore.Michael Sullivan /The News-Review via AP
For Mintz, home was Randleman, N.C., a small town by small town standards. It took more than a century to grow to 4,000 people — mirroring the stagnant opportunity for the town's younger population, who could work at the mill or at a fast-food chain where high school classmates stand in the parking lot and smoke weed, devising ways to leave town as soon as possible. Mintz's escape hatch was the Army, his “birth to the world” as he calls it, because Randleman was not a place where you find out who you are going to be.
That place, for Mintz, was going to be in war. There were two raging that fall when he was assigned to a Stryker brigade at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Equating the military to other occupations is often a futile act, but if the Army is pro football, then fighting in combat with an infantry unit is like playing in the Super Bowl.
Mintz was assigned an M-240 medium machine gun with dust and sweat still caked onto the sling — imprints from the unit's first tour in Iraq. The barrel and buttstock had been scraped and dinged on concrete rooftops transformed into quick fighting positions. Soon enough, Mintz would put his own mark on the weapon in his own war, he thought.
Except he didn't.
Among a large group of fresh recruits who joined the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, Mintz ran afoul of Army regulations and the law. He was held back from the deployment, where his unit secured volatile cities in Iraq during the surge, one of the most pivotal moments of the war. The Super Bowl was happening half a world away while Mintz wielded a mop instead of his M-240, waiting for his other-than-honorable discharge paperwork to clear.
When men in the unit were killed, they died never knowing that Mintz — the guy some men could barely recall and the rest scorned as a malingering loser — would help save lives under fire. It wouldn't be in combat, but at an Oregon community college on Oct. 1, 2015, when the classroom next to his became a murder scene in America's long string of mass shootings.
After the bodies of nine victims and the shooter were hauled away, every cable news and talk show in America called Mintz a hero — a meaningless term when applied to most soldiers. It's too clean a word to describe a man the Army declared a menace.
Nobody knew those things when a donation page was set up in his name, earning a half-million dollars in days from donors across the globe eager to show their support for someone who became the face of humanity in a grim era of high-profile killing.
In fact, almost nobody knew anything at all about him in that small town of Roseburg, where he moved after his discharge in 2007. That was, until he transformed into a hashtag before he awoke after surgery to stem blood loss and extract handgun rounds from his body.
Mintz positioned himself outside the classroom where the shooter was killing the last of his victims. The gunman opened the door and shot Mintz five times. Mintz went to the ground. The gunman aligned his sights on Mintz's broad forehead.
Those 60 seconds were pretty straightforward. What came after is much more complicated.
At 31, Chris Mintz is a big, muscular guy. Just ask one of his nearly 20,000 Instagram followers, who feverishly like his shirtless selfies and motivational slogans. His latest shows “how fragile yet indestructible I am,” a subtle reference to the injuries that put him in a wheelchair after doctors installed titanium rods into both legs, patched up a bullet wound in his stomach and later amputated part of his left ring finger. A pistol round still in his back protrudes like a marble under his skin.
Snyder Hall at Umpqua Community College.
Almost all of his followers, likers and commenters heard about him from the shooting. In mid-July, he was scrolling through his Instagram feed over a burger at the Jersey Lily, a dim tavern where his digital and physical notoriety intersect. There's not an inch of Roseburg that Mintz can stand on where he is not recognized, he said. An older man stopped him mid-conversation.
“Are you Chris?” he asked. Mintz offered a big smile. “I am, sir,” he said, and the situation played out as it had countless times at the Jersey Lily and elsewhere around town. A stranger offers kind words about bravery and sacrifice. Mintz sheepishly deflects and says the first responders were the real heroes that day. And it is always called “that day,” even though the mass killing coincided with the 6th birthday of his son, Tyrik.
After an awkward farewell, the man stopped at the cash register. Mintz found out when he went to pay that the man picked up his tab.
“Not the first time,” he said.
A stalled Army career
Chris Mintz was burly as an Army private in 2004 — stocky, not quite fat — although any extra weight drew flak as noncommissioned officers in Battle Company zeroed in on the fresh recruits. Mintz was assigned to a unit that had just returned from a grueling tour in northern Iraq after the insurgency ignited there. The stop at the Kuwaiti desert transit hub was an opportunity for specialists and junior NCOs to plot imaginative ways to break and reform soldiers untested in war.
“It was hell on earth” for the new soldiers in the sister company, Attack. You could hear the soldiers down the hall from the shared barracks enduring hours of forced and extreme exercises, Mintz said, describing what they called “smokings,” meant to jar and intimidate new soldiers and form new habits of subordination.
The men of Battle Company were a little more relaxed, but the smokings on that side of the barracks were still constant. Occasionally, all the privates were in the hallway in an endless cycle of pushups, flutter kicks and shuttle runs. The sweat and labored breathing turned the hallways into a sauna.
One particularly hated exercise, the Iron Chair, called for a soldier to put his back against a wall and squat, his legs forming a 90-degree angle for minutes at a time. If a penny rested on his kneecap fell when his legs started to shake, the exercise would begin again over taunts and screams.
“They punished us for a good seven or eight months. It brought everyone closer together,” Mintz said, though at times it felt extreme. “They were trying to figure out what they had just been through. They had to get their aggression out,” he said about their combat tour. Two men in the company were crushed to death in a vehicle rollover a few months earlier, on July 14, 2004. Their names — Cpl. Demetrius Rice and Pfc. Jesse Martinez — were often repeated by the veteran soldiers to the new recruits. You are their replacement, they told the green privates. But you cannot measure up to them.
One sergeant in the platoon, Jesse Williams, stood out early for Mintz. Williams was tough on the new guys but he would joke with them behind closed doors, away from the other NCOs. Over beers in the barracks, he told them to call him Jesse. Williams tried to keep Mintz out of trouble and reassured him as other soldiers riffed on his weight. “Just because you don't get along with them doesn't mean they won't have your back,” Mintz said Williams told him. He was Mintz's highest-ranking friend.
Mintz was assigned the M-240 Bravo, a 27-pound medium machine gun that serves as the anchor of urban combat operations. Gun teams would take a roof and provide support for infantry squads raiding houses and beating back close ambushes. In a firefight's opening salvos of rifle fire and light machine gun bursts, the M-240 team readies and surveys the battlefield for targets. The smaller weapons produce light, sharp pops. The M-240 bellows in a low and stomach-churning hum, the first rounds eliciting cheers from riflemen and sending the enemy scrambling to avoid cigarette-sized cartridges headed their way.
The gun sounds like salvation, so Mintz's first job in the Army was to be a savior.
Injured, then isolated
Even in training, infantry is a dangerous job. One Battle Company soldier shattered his foot, and another broke his tailbone after just a few months in the unit.
Mintz was the third to fall.
His platoon was practicing gun maneuver drills in the dense woods of the Fort Lewis training area in February 2005. He went prone and braced with his left wrist. He felt a pop immediately and his wrist began to swell.
Infantrymen can go entire careers without going to sick call, he learned quickly. A physical fitness test was the next day, and he knew how bad it would look if a burly private scheduled a medical appointment hours before the first big company physical fitness evaluation.
He said he took the test through excruciating pain, and after 17 pushups, he couldn't go further and failed the test. Mintz's wrist went untreated through smokings, regular duties and equipment hauling. He finally received a cast in June — four months after his injury.
Mintz was sidelined as his platoon trained for the upcoming deployment, and was relegated to a small collection of soldiers who were injured or got into trouble. They were called the ammo platoon, and they were removed from training to help organize the motor pool, sorted brass after the company went to the firing range and managed other menial tasks.
Mintz and the ammo platoon were wounded gazelles left for a pride of lions to devour. To be seen with them meant to be tarred by reputation. Mintz hung out only with others in the ammo platoon, going on details that further injured his wrist. His allergy to codeine-based drugs meant he could not take prescription painkillers. One of the soldiers knew a drug dealer, and Mintz, in constant pain and amid pressure to heal for the deployment, said he smoked a joint to find some relief.
That decision cost him his Army career and severed the last friendships he had within Battle Company. His positive urinalysis in April was a signal to everyone: Stay away from Mintz. He's not only weak and a malingerer but a pothead, too.
“Jesse wouldn't acknowledge my existence after I popped positive,” Mintz said of Williams, the sergeant who befriended him. Despite his isolation, Mintz was scheduled to deploy with the unit.
That is, until the day Battle Company geared up to catch buses to the flight line across the base. The first sergeant told him he'd be staying behind in rear detachment, Mintz said.
He was going to miss the deployment. Miss the Super Bowl.
He spent a month in a Navy brig for his marijuana use and for going AWOL.
Mintz finished the remainder of his military career mowing grass outside the barracks and mopping floors while the most consequential war of this century raged without him. He was discharged in March 2007 and “barred from entering the installation,” according to official paperwork. To this day, he cannot go on Joint Base Lewis-McChord to see the brigade memorial. It's a bronze statue of a soldier standing, rifle in hand, over panels listing soldiers killed on each deployment. On the panel for the tour that Mintz missed, the names stretch far longer than the others.
One of the names etched into the memorial is Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams. He was killed by a sniper April 8, 2007, weeks after Mintz was discharged. It has been nine years and he still cannot stop thinking about what he could have changed in combat to keep Williams alive.
“I don't get a chance to make amends with him,” Mintz said. “Jesse would be one of the few I hope would say I made Battle Company proud. But he can't. And I let him down.”
Homeless, not aimless
Mintz tended bar and worked odd jobs after he left the Army. His girlfriend, Jamie Skinner, gave birth to Tyrik in 2009, and the boy with bright brown eyes was diagnosed with autism shortly after. Mintz worked at Wal-Mart until Tyrik was 2, then became a stay-at-home dad, watching his son struggle to connect with the world.
Mintz was in a rut, and he was bringing his kid down with him. School became the only option for him. He decided to study nutrition at Umpqua Community College in 2014.
Tyrik was central to Mintz's world even as he started at UCC. He and Skinner had split by then, and he took care of Tyrik on alternating weeks. He mopped floors at the local YMCA at night and slept in his car a few hours before morning classes. He watched Tyrik during the day when he had him, sleeping two hours here and there. The Department of Veterans Affairs denied his ability to use the GI Bill because of his discharge status, which would have paid most of the tuition and about $1,000 a month in housing for a veteran with nearly three years of service, according to a VA benefits calculator.
Mintz put every cent toward tuition and food for Tyrik, forgoing his own place. He stayed outside Skinner's sister's house in his car, coming in to pick up mail or use the shower. Mintz said he considered himself homeless, but not aimless. “School was something that could make Tyrik's life a little better,” he said.
A refuge attacked
Umpqua Community College's Roseburg campus is nestled into a tight bend of the North Umpqua River, with the foothills of the Cascades shielding the school's eastern flank. The turnoff from bustling Interstate 5 is about a mile away. When you walk the campus, buttressed by enormous trees, you get the feeling the place was built as a refuge from the frantic pace of modern life.
In this Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 file photo, students, staff and faculty are evacuated from Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., after a deadly shooting. Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, fatally shot multiple people before killing himself as officers closed in.Brian O'Rourke
Mintz returned here on a hot and clear July day, recounting the 2015 shooting for Stars and Stripes.
It was a few minutes into his morning writing class when muffled bangs rattled the wall. Mintz said it sounded like books falling on the floor in the adjacent classroom. Amy Fair, Mintz's professor, went to investigate and knocked on the door that connected the two rooms. The bangs came faster than anyone could drop a stack of books. Desk legs screeched across the tile floors.
Mintz described how fast the pops became by maneuvering his fingers to look like a pistol, cocking his thumb rapidly. Bang-bang-bang-bang, he said, as if each was a syllable of a single word. He said Fair's face transformed when she understood what was happening.
She told the students to run.
The long-dormant infantry training jumpstarted Mintz's brain, he said. He waited for the class to stream out the door away from where student Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, was executing people with a handgun. Mintz fell to the back of the group heading for a sidewalk leading out from Snyder Hall toward the library — a hub in the middle of campus. Mintz remained at the tail of the group, recalling a concept of rear security in infantry movement that allows a column of soldiers to move securely as the last soldier keeps a lookout from behind.
Students and faculty were fleeing across campus. Someone knocked Mintz to the ground. “It was just like you see in the movies,” he said, standing on the exact spot where he went to the concrete. “Just complete mayhem.” He got to his feet and moved toward the library, which someone suggested was filled with students oblivious to the shooting. Mintz volunteered to warn them; his classmates split to find cover.
A school employee in the library suggested that students hide in place. Mintz offered a simpler suggestion: “Everyone needs to leave,” he said. Mintz ran through the stacks shouting at people to run, and chose a strategic departure: an emergency fire door that set off an alarm, sending students into hiding or straight to the exits.
He was outside again, and the tactical situation had changed. The shooter could be anywhere inside or outside Snyder 15.
As Mintz got closer to Snyder 15, his posture changed, his center of gravity lowering to the shooting stance of a soldier moving through an urban combat environment. A team leader had instructed him on that same stance in Battle Company. “It was just like a battle drill,” he said. He circled back to Snyder 15, the last room on the left coming from the library. Gravel crunched with his footsteps alongside the floor-to-ceiling windows — a loud but safe path outside a dangerous firing zone. In July, Mintz approached Snyder 15, which like the rest of Snyder Hall was boarded up and empty, waiting to be leveled. A single rose was stapled to the wall, and a bundle of flowers adorned the doorknob. A wreath hung close by. Mintz recalled what he saw that day: a doorway pocked by gunfire and a window blasted out. He put his nose right to the door of Snyder 15 and pointed to the parking lot. That was where Mintz stood when he saw a man watching him that day. “Don't do it, man,” he shouted as Mintz considered his options. “He'll shoot you!”
The man startled him, Mintz said, and he stumbled back toward the classroom next door, Snyder 16, realizing it was open and full of students. That's where he saw Sharon Kirkham.
They had met the previous year, when the 55-year-old grandmother was anxious about her appearance compared to younger girls in the pool. Mintz worked at the gym and saw fragility on her face. He walked over to her and shook her hand.
“My name is Chris,” Kirkham recalled Mintz saying in 2014 during a recent interview from Roseburg. “I want you to stop looking around the room and realize you're here to better yourself,” he told her. Kirkham was elated.
That was her fondest memory of Mintz, she said. Until their glances met on Oct. 1, 2015.
A six-minute deployment
At least two people approached the gunman that day. Chris Mintz was one. The other was Kim Saltmarsh Dietz.
Dietz, 59, walked with a cane, Kirkham said, and wobbled out the door to investigate what sounded like firecrackers. Dietz opened the door and peeked into Snyder 15. More shots rang out, and seconds later, Dietz stumbled back through the door, spouting blood from her chest.
She collapsed with her legs sprawled in the doorframe and Kirkham, a nursing student, knew exactly what to do. Chest compressions. Remove airway blockages. Kirkham was calling to her, trying to keep her conscious. Kirkham saw a shadow through the window. It could have been anyone — a cop, the gunman, a second shooter.
It was Mintz.
He kicked Dietz's foot into the room so he could close the door, and urged Kirkham to keep quiet. He thought it was too dangerous to evacuate with the gunman in the next room. He turned to go back out. “Chris, don't leave me,” Kirkham begged him as she knelt over Dietz, her face nearly unrecognizable under smears of Dietz's blood. “I'm not leaving you,” he told her as he slipped out.
Mintz leaned against the door, his back toward Kirkham, Dietz and more than a dozen students as he waited to confront the shooter next door. Mintz heard the occasional gunshot, louder now with most of the glass wall shattered. A student begged and cried out, and the gunman pulled the trigger, killing his last victims. Suddenly, the sound of sirens filled the air. Mintz called out to the man in the parking lot, telling him to direct the first responders to the correct location.
Harper-Mercer emerged from Snyder 15 when he heard the commotion.
He and Mintz came eye to eye, and for a brief moment the shooter was so close to Mintz that he could have whispered a secret to him. Mintz pivoted toward the gunman as he fired three shots in quick succession, then two more, the rounds snapping Mintz's femur, tibia and fibula, while one round pierced his stomach and another lodged in his back. Another nearly tore off his left ring finger.
He fell to the ground, and as the gunman lined up a final shot, Mintz told him exactly what was on his mind: Tyrik.
“It's my son's birthday, man. But you do what you gotta do,” he said.
A shot rang out, but not from the gunman. A police officer charged toward Snyder 15, striking the gunman in the stomach.
He retreated into the classroom among his victims, briefly exchanging gunfire with officers. The police were everywhere, at first pointing their rifles at Mintz in case he was one of the shooters. He's in there, Mintz told them, gesturing toward Snyder 15 with his bloodied hand.
The gunman committed suicide before police closed in, according to police statements, though Mintz believes he bled to death.
The 60-second confrontation was over. Mintz's six-minute deployment was over.
Ambulance sirens wailed, radio transmissions blared, police officers shouted, students sobbed and Kirkham prayed over Mintz.
The white crosses on her shirt had turned red with Dietz's blood. She was dead, and Kirkham's new hero was in bad shape.
Mintz was there, in Roseburg, losing blood and growing cold. But in his mind, he said he was across the country with his father and Tyrik, imagining a family trip taken years before.
They were on a beach in North Carolina, their toes digging into wet sand. Tyrik was chasing the birds. Mintz thought it might be the last image he would ever see. And he was just fine with that.
© 2016 Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.