A Heroic Return to the Hill

Staffer Is Back After Near-Death Iraq Experience

Posted April 23, 2007 at 4:14pm

“It is sort of amazing how the body works,” said Sean Barney, a former Marine and current Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) staffer, in a recent interview, “because my body allowed me to get that far, and as soon as I knew some of my buddies would take care of me my body was like ‘I’m out.’ And that was it. I was gone. I came through briefly again on the Humvee on the way to the surgical unit and then not again until Bethesda, [Md].”

Such is the way Barney, 32, explained the immediate aftermath of getting hit by an insurgent’s bullet on the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, less than one year ago. That he is even alive, much less working full-time for Carper, is a miracle. If a hero is defined as someone willing to sacrifice himself or herself to defend the values of his or her community, then Barney surely fits the bill.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Barney’s career seemed on an upward trajectory. Having served as a speechwriter for Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-N.J.) short-lived presidential campaign soon after earning a master’s degree in political science from Columbia University in 1999, he went to work on Carper’s Senate campaign as policy director. Barney then came to Capitol Hill as a senior legislative assistant in Carper’s office dealing with a wide array of issues. But when the towers came down that September morning back in 2001 and America began to brace for war, Barney started to wrestle with serious philosophical questions, such as: How could a man of his age and privilege justify staying out of the coming conflict?

“The formative experience was 9/11,” Barney said. “My father worked in New York City and took the subway in under the World Trade Center everyday and so part of that day was spent trying to track down my father to see what had happened. So that experience combined with sort of debates I had had going back to college as a philosophy student about sort of service and citizenship” led him to consider joining the military, he said.

As an undergraduate philosophy major at Swarthmore College, Barney had read many of history’s great works of philosophy and wrestled with their meaning. What responsibility did a citizen have to his political community? What was once theoretical resurfaced in a very real and practical way for Barney when it became clear that he lived in a nation at war.

“I know that it was the center of a lot of certain debates about citizenship and duty,” he ruminated about one of the ancient texts he wrestled with, “whether you just sort of act on your own views of things or whether you hold some obligation to the democratic process and the views of the community … I do tend to be on the side of believing, but particularly when you’ve been relatively well favored growing up in your community, that you have responsibilities.”

Barney brought his thoughts to Carper. Initially, the Delaware Senator argued that Barney was serving his country through the work he was doing in his office.

“I think I slowed him down by a little bit,” Carper, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, relayed in an interview along with Barney, “but not very much. He came back after that and said he had made up his mind and that he wanted … to be a Marine.”

Barney ultimately enlisted in May 2002. He entered boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., that November and The School of Infantry in North Carolina in March 2003 as the Iraq War began.

“My home unit, the reserve unit that I was joining, had actually shipped out to be a part of the initial wave, so they had already left by the time I finished training, so I didn’t go with them,” Barney explained. However, when he was told that another New England-based battalion was shipping out and needed volunteers from other units “to fill the holes,” Barney stepped up.

“Since my unit had gone [to Iraq] right before I got out of training, I was one of the more senior [members] in our unit that hadn’t gone before,” he said. “It seemed to me if you were a Marine, if you wore the uniform at some point, you needed to do your part.”

So in March 2006, Barney was deployed to Fallujah, one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq.

“It is interesting because eventually once you are there you learn physically that you can’t be on edge 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for seven months. You eventually get into [the] groove of your job. But definitely that first day I remember sitting there in our vehicle just waiting for an [improvised explosive device] to go off,” he said.

Barney was not the victim of an IED attack that first day, but violence was not far removed from his experience in the Sunni city. His unit faced attacks on a regular basis leading up to the incident that almost claimed his life.

“We conducted what is called a psychological operations mission in the morning” on May 12, 2006, Barney recalled. “Basically we were frustrated because we were doing these daily patrols through the city, and we were getting a lot of these hit-and-run attacks … but then as soon as we could respond they would sort of fade away into the city.”

After going around the city in Humvees trying to draw the insurgents out of their hiding places, Barney and his comrades set out on foot.

“We went out, after having sort of riled things up in the morning, and we basically went out in this big circle in the worst neighborhood in Fallujah and stood out on the street corners,” Barney said. “I ended up getting hit by a sniper that I never saw.”

Despite being hit, Barney was able to keep his composure long enough to get to a safe area where his fellow Marines could treat him. But immediately upon reaching that point, he passed out.

His injuries were serious, and had it not been for a series of fortuitous occurrences, he may not have been around to tell his story today. The bullet hit a nerve trunk and, most seriously, severed his carotid artery. When his cousin, a neurologist, heard about his injuries back in the United States, she replied that if he was alive he probably would have lost half of his brain.

“Fortunately, the heat of the round had sort of cauterized part of my carotid artery to my jugular vain,” Barney said. “So I bled out a significant amount, but it had limited it.” Adding to Barney’s good fortune — if anything could be considered good fortune in such a situation — a vascular surgeon just happened to be rotating through the military hospital on the outskirts of Fallujah.

Within 48 hours of being shot Barney was back in Bethesda and, remarkably, was out of the hospital within weeks. Yet the world he entered was different from the foreign land he had come from.

“It was very interesting to go to Georgetown on a Saturday night,” Barney recounts about the first time his parents took him out the hospital, “because it was a stark reminder of how far removed this war is from the center of life in the country. And I am always careful telling this story because I don’t mean to tell it with a sense of resentment because certainly since I’ve been back I have had my nights out … but it is an interesting contrast because there is such a sense of urgency in a combat zone. You spend every moment thinking about whether you are doing everything possible to protect the guy to your right and the guy to your left and to hopefully serve the civilians in Iraq. And then you go out in Georgetown on a Saturday night and the sense of urgency is not there. It doesn’t seem like a country at war, and it is a million light years away.”

Today, Barney is back in Carper’s office, at least until this fall when he is set to begin a joint degree program in which he ultimately will earn a law degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 2011.

Physically, his right arm has not regained full motion, though a recent cutting-edge surgery has yielded results and there is hope that his upper arm will gain more mobility over time. The only other visible sign of his near-death casualty is the scar on the right side of his neck, which bears testament to his life-changing ordeal and his tremendous courage.

“I think I am as patriotic as I was before,” Barney said when asked how he has changed since fighting in Iraq. “I think I am much more sober and realistic about the democracy that I love.” His experience also, he said, “gives me a lot more sort of realistic assessment of what the military experience is like, what we owe to those who put themselves on the line, and what we need to demand of people here in terms of levels of scrutiny of policy.”

Carper sees some changes in his longtime staffer as well.

“He was never someone who sort of looked at the world through rose-colored glasses,” Carper said. “But he’s seasoned, and he’s been at … the edge of death, looked it in the face. So I think that changes anybody.”

Asked whether Barney has a future in politics, Carper quipped that he thought “Sean probably has more sense than that.” Carper added: “My hope is that after he finishes law school or whatever else he does in his furthering of education that when he finishes that he’ll continue to find ways to serve. My guess is that he’ll have plenty of opportunities, even greater opportunities than he’s had up to this point in time.”

“I was very fortunate,” Barney said in summing up his life experience. “I grew up in a sort of middle-class suburb. My mother was a teacher, my father was an actuary. [I was] fortunate to get a good education … So things worked out very well for me. I think that is one of the reasons I felt post-9/11 that I was pretty blessed and I had an obligation to do my part.”