Jesse J. Wallace had only been in Afghanistan a few days when his convoy was ambushed near Kandahar. In a matter of seconds, the rounds began ripping through his truck and through the leg he would ultimately lose in the battle.
Over the course of a few minutes, Wallace managed to apply a tourniquet and crack open the truck's ramp so that he and his fellow soldiers could breathe through the acrid smoke. As they called out targets to the machine gunner, firing hundreds of rounds overhead, Wallace looked at his right leg.
"As soon as I looked down, I kind of knew it was done," said Wallace, an Aberdeen man, now 28. "When I got hit, I just kind of thought about what I needed to do in that immediate moment. When I actually got hit, I didn't feel any pain. I was the worst injured. And I was the most grateful."
Wallace was one of 50 service members — including eight from Maryland — honored at the White House on Thursday as part of the annual Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride, a four-day cycling event that is both a fundraiser for the organization and also a rehabilitation opportunity for veterans.
President Donald Trump spoke to the participants in an East Room ceremony Thursday, calling them "real heroes."
"I call them America's winners," the president said. "You've risked all that you have, all that you posses, to keep our people safe and our democracy secure."
Vice President Mike Pence and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin also attended.
Wallace, who uses a prosthetic leg, biked 8 miles Wednesday on a bike he powers with his arms. He is now studying mechanical engineering.
Wallace joined the Army in 2006 and retired as a sergeant in 2012. Before his deployment to Afghanistan, he had served more than a year in Iraq — sweeping for mines, clearing routes for convoys and escorting military brass.
He said it was an honor to spend time at the White House on Thursday.
"I thought I'd barely get a chance to stand outside and look at it through the gate — but to be on the inside?" he said. "It's amazing to be up and close — to kind of have free rein of the place."
As good as that was, the event brought about another surprise for Wallace.
He unexpectedly ran into Deven Schei in the days leading up to the White House visit. Shei, an Army sergeant who introduced Trump at the White House on Thursday, was sitting right next to Wallace on the day their convoy was hit. Though the two had spoken by phone, they hadn't seen each other since they were led away from the battle by medics.