Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Major was 10 months into his first deployment in Iraq with the Third Armored Division, having recently returned from a two-week leave back in Baltimore.
Lt. Col. Jim Reed was in the last of his four deployments to Iraq, having spent the second half of his 27-year military career pinballing between war zones there and in Afghanistan as a nurse anesthetist.
It was Nov. 10, 2006. As often happens between medical support staff and infantrymen in battle, their meeting was under the worst of circumstances — at night in a dark alley in Ramadi. Major and his company were chasing an insurgent when an IED blew up underneath the street. Reed's company, attached to a Special Operations unit nearby, was called in to attend to the casualties.
That night was also the beginning of a relationship that saved Major's life, helped validate Reed's career and forged a friendship that will continue when they attend their second straight Army-Navy game together Saturday in Philadelphia.
Much like he did on the football field at Towson High before graduating in 2003, Major was leading his team as it tried to capture the insurgent. There were nine soldiers injured and Major took the brunt of the explosion.
"Ryan was definitely [injured] the worst," Reed said this week. "It's a miracle he's alive. I've never seen anybody so hurt make it. … He was no longer bleeding when he got to us because he had pretty much bled out."
The medical personnel spent long hours trying to stabilize Major, who had severe head trauma, and lost both his legs and the tips of several fingers.
Reed admitted that he and a surgeon who worked on Major in Ramadi "questioned whether we did the right thing saving this kid's life, he was that badly wounded." But from the moment Reed gave Major a shot of morphine and later transfused blood from some of Major's fellow soldiers at the camp in Iraq where he was stationed, "he kept responding."
As Major was transported to a hospital in Germany and eventually to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he awoke from a coma nearly a month after the explosion, Reed was finishing out the last of nine war zone tours before returning to his family at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Major spent five months at Walter Reed and another three years in and out of private hospitals throughout Maryland undergoing countless surgeries and months of recovery. He returned to Baltimore to restart his life with his mother, Lori Knight-Major, and two younger brothers.
"That was a long journey," said Knight-Major, a nurse by training who had to leave her job in pharmaceutical sales when her son was injured. "It seems so long ago now, like it occurred 20, 25 years ago."
There were more than a few setbacks, but each time Major persevered. Around 2009, his injuries pretty much healed, Major started working with other injured vets, teaching double-amputees like himself to heal through water sports such as kayaking and land sports such as rugby.
"I am trying to stay as active as I can, trying to stay healthy," said Major, 31.
Getting in touch
In 2010, Reed was getting ready to retire. One day while reading the Army Times, he saw the name of a soldier he had saved. The article showed a picture of Major receiving an award from former U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and former Vice President Bob Dole, both war veterans.
"[The article] was about this kid who's an inspiration to everybody," Reed said.
After reading it, Reed was interested in finding Major. An anesthesiologist Reed was working with in Pinehurst, N.C., who had taken care of Major at Walter Reed, wanted to help. They found a contact number for Major's mother at a digital imaging business her son was involved with in Baltimore.
On Sept. 24, 2010 — the day he was scheduled to retire from the Army — Reed received a telephone call from Major's mother.
"I'm going in to do my retirement ceremony, his mother calls me in tears, thanking me for saving her son's life," said Reed, 45. "The following Memorial Day, I went up with my family to visit with Ryan."
"He was cool. I was the one who was emotional," Reed said. "I think for me it's been somewhat cathartic and for my family. I spent over 1,500 days in combat zones. My family needed to see some of the tangible evidence of all that separation."
Major said their reunion on Memorial Day weekend last year meant a lot to him, as well.
"For him to reconnect with me after all these years, and for him to give me the full, correct story of what had happened from the time that I was in his care, it was amazing," Major said. "I can't really explain how great a feeling it was for him to explain what he saw first-hand and to know that he cared so much that he reached out to connect. I was so happy that he did that."
Reed wanted to figure out a way to make the relationship permanent.
Last year, Reed was driving to Baltimore for the Army-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium and to see his daughter, then a first-year cadet at West Point.
On the road, he called Major and told him he wanted to start an annual tradition of taking the Marine he saved to the late-season service academy game.
The response to Major's appearance in the stadium of his hometown Ravens was remarkable.
"Ryan knows he's a rock star, especially at that game. We're flying into the VIP players, getting to meet the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Reed said.
Reed, who had retired from the military and was not in uniform, was asked if he was Major's caregiver. "Ryan very candidly told them that I'm the guy who saved his life," he said.
Major, who had attended two previous Army-Navy games with others at Walter Reed when he was at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, is hoping that the Black Knights can break their 13-game losing streak Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Admittedly, after what Major has endured, the outcome of the game is not as important as the traditional pregame pomp and ceremony.
"Obviously I want my Army guys to win, but honestly, it's a game," he said.
Reed has seen the rivalry shift dramatically in Navy's favor, not only because of the success coaches Ken Niumatalolo and Paul Johnson have had over the past 15 years, but because of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"There's no coincidence that we started losing when the war started," Reed said.
It hits home for Reed, who also has a son, a member of the North Carolina National Guard who will be commissioned this summer after graduating from North Carolina State. Reed looks back at the end of his long military career with some regret.
"I love what the Army did for me, but I wish we could have gotten more accomplished on my watch," he said. "My kids have inherited this from me and it breaks my heart."
It is why, when he picks up Major for their trip to Philadelphia, the emotions will again be strong. He knows how their relationship began, back in a pitch-black alley in Iraq nine years ago, with Major near death. And Reed knows how far Major has come in life.
"The kid is the most positive human being I've ever met," he said.