When battle-hardened Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Bee was finally awarded the Purple Heart in August 2016, he had a rare moment to celebrate after nine years of torment.
The Marine veteran broke down in tears as he clutched the medal he has waited six years for and immediately walked over to his wife and son who he had had to leave behind as he fought for his country.
The 35-year-old is behind one of the most iconic images of the War on Terror and killed a Taliban commander during one of his four tours in Afghanistan.
He received the award for bravery after a cluster of IEDs blew up four feet away from him in 2010 while his platoon was taking cover in a firefight, during one of the most intense periods of fighting during the campaign.
Despite his heroic act, the father-of-one from Jacksonville, North Carolina, suffered traumatic brain injuries and watched two of his close friends die in the blast – something he blames himself for every day.
As a result he has tried to take his own life more than once, is a heavy drinker, admits he is violent and suffers frequent horrifying flashbacks that keep him up at night.
Sergeant Bee shows his hard-won Purple Heart. It took six years for him to be awarded it +15
Sergeant Bee shows his hard-won Purple Heart. It took six years for him to be awarded it
When he returned to the United States, he was all but forgotten by the government he served and almost died for.
His struggles were compounded by the fact he couldn’t get medical or psychological help from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).
But his life changed in December 2015, when DailyMail.com told his story. Two days after the article was published about his plight, a representative from the VA called and scheduled an appointment.
The coverage also prompted an investigation into why he didn’t receive the Purple Heart. A GoFundMe campaign also raised $13,000 for him, his 34-year-old wife Bobbie and eight-year-old son Ethan.
His life has now taken a turn for the better, and he firmly believes his family is what is keeping him alive.
In the last 18 months he has bought a new house near woods and a lake – and he wants to teach his son to shoot, hunt and fish.
He also sees a specialist, who has managed to control some of his psychological issues. Just recently he celebrated being able to walk down a high street during rush hour without breaking down.
Despite the improvements, he admits he still has problems.
But it’s a stark change from the days when he would have bursts of anger so severe that he punched holes in the wall of his home, and suffered periods of lost time where he would find a pack’s worth of cigarettes in a milk jug and sweaters stacked neatly in the fridge but couldn’t remember doing any of it.
Sergeant Bee still criticizes the fact that it took him a news article to get the attention he needed from the VA, and says many soldiers are still left behind.
He told DailyMail.com: ‘It has been a crazy 18 months. In many ways I have your article to thank. I was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds I received in 2010.’
Sergeant Bee says he was proud of the award, but admitted it came with mixed emotions.
‘I’ve seen men awarded the Purple Heart for losing their legs, and I’ve seen Staff NCOs receive one for bumping their chin on a steering wheel that required a band-aide.
‘In reality, some deserve it and some don’t, but that is not for me to say.
‘Mine was awarded for having both of my eardrums blown simultaneously about four feet from a wall that had multiple IEDs in it.
‘I’m willing to look anyone in the eye and tell them I rate it. I can say that I’ve been wounded in the service of our amazing country but that’s not the reason my wife pushed for so long to finally get it approved. I look at it as more of a legacy to pass to my son.
‘I want him to understand down the road how important our service is to our country, and the sacrifices that may entail.
‘And if, once my son turns 18, he decides to serve, he needs to understand that there is a certain degree of risk involved.’
Speaking of the help he’s received in the past two years, Sergeant Bee said: ‘I’ve been assigned an amazing Case Manager with the VA, and they have finally directed me to a specialist for my head, enabling my treatment to progress.
‘I was able to be treated by a specialist outside of the VA, who treated me with a process known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
‘Dr Tanya Glenn in Austin, Texas, along with the Cowtown Warriors and the Chad O foundation helped cover the cost.
‘By the end of one week of therapy, I was able to walk downtown in Austin during lunch rush hour, and not break down. It is nothing short of amazing.
Sergeant Bee says he still has problems and struggles in his home life – something he shares with many ex-servicemen who have seen combat.
‘While some of my brain issues are getting worse, the ability of my wife to adapt and overcome all of them inspires me every single day.
‘To be brutally honest, I am by no means a good person. I am angry, violent, and have little to no patience.
‘I swear too much, drink too much, and sometimes go internal for months at a time, not talking to any friends or family.
‘But Bobbie is always there for me. She will take me by the hand, look me in the eye, and calm me down.
‘This 4’11” angel can talk me down from anything, and is literally the only reason I am still alive.
‘She keeps me on the straight and narrow, and if I start to drift, she keeps me in place.
‘Has my home life gotten any better? As long as I’ve got my wife and son, I’m as happy as can be, even if I don’t look like it.’
One of Sergeant Bee’s main focuses, away from his family, is his job.
Despite his long-term, recurring health problems, he manages to teach classes to veteran soldiers at the VA, helping ex-servicemen and women transition back to their normal lives and use their skills to find new careers.
But he finds it hard to speak to them about the horrifying stories concerning veterans in the press that seem to appear on a daily basis.
‘My job, as always, is amazing. Being able to still work with Marines and Sailors would make any job great,’ he said. ‘Being able to help guide them through the VA process, as well as showing them all the things the VA is willing to do for them, makes me look forward to every time I teach.
‘While my experience with the VA was not exactly the best, I am able to use those experiences to illustrate to the transitioning service members how to avoid my mistakes and use the VA how it is designed to be used.
‘The biggest difficulty I face during my classes is addressing questions from the students on current VA news.
‘For example, I was teaching a class on Monday when a student asked me about the media report on the veteran that passed away under VA care in Florida, when the nurses left the body in the shower for nine hours.
‘How am I supposed to respond to something like that? I want these Marines to know that the vast majority of individuals in the VA are passionate about veterans, and count it an honor to treat them.
‘Then there are the others. Individuals that are charged with the responsibility of caring for our most grievously wounded veterans, both young and old, that treat their responsibilities with contempt.
‘Individuals that receive ridiculously huge bonuses, while the clinics they run are falling apart.
‘Millions of dollars spent on artwork for clinics that the patients can’t even see. Thousands of veterans dying because of a waiting list. The remains of veterans treated like trash.
‘Rather than accept responsibility and get rid of employees that should be sent to prison, the VA engages in a game of three-card monte, shifting blame around until the media picks up a different story and the nation forgets again, until the next atrocity.
‘I look my students in the face and am completely honest with them. I don’t have the answers for those questions. I don’t know why the one organization in the U.S. government that is responsible for our care and support consistently drops the ball.
‘I’m not going to lie to them. But, I still use the VA as much as I can. While not the best, the VA is what we have.
‘My relationship with the VA remains much as it has before.
‘The implementation of the Veteran’s Choice Act has enabled me to receive the care that the VA has said I need, yet did not have enough doctors to cover.
‘Basically, the Veteran’s Choice program allows any Veteran to be seen by a civilian provider if the VA schedules an appointment greater than 30 days or 40 miles from the Veteran’s home.
‘The system is not perfect, but it has enabled me to be seen by a doctor in Jacksonville rather than all the way down in Fayetteville, which is where they send me if any specialists are required.
Trump made David Shulkin the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Sergeant Bee has one simple message for him: ‘Good Luck’
He said: ‘The VA as a system is not broken. It is the individuals in charge that are the problem.
‘Getting an individual who is passionate about veterans is the first step, but it is a long and winding road.
‘If people are not held accountable, chaos will ensue. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs needs a career leader in charge.
‘Don’t put someone who can handle a Fortune 500 company in charge, especially if he or she only has five years in the military.’
‘Take somebody who understands the concept of “mission accomplishment”, who has held the lives of warriors in his or her hands, then give them the necessary tools in order to accomplish the job.
‘We are planning on staying in eastern North Carolina for the foreseeable future. My wife and I both have great jobs helping people, which we love doing.
‘Having that stable employment allows us to do the things we enjoy.’
Sergeant Bee’s heroism was captured in a May 2008 photo that shows sniper fire blowing up a sandbag just inches from his head, while he wasn’t wearing a helmet or Kevlar vest.
His brush with death was shown on TVs and published in newspapers around the world – and quickly became one of the most iconic images of the War on Terror.
Sergeant Bee was deployed to Afghanistan four times. His first tour was one week after 9/11. He transferred and started his first offensive on Christmas Day.
It was during his first tour that he earned his combat ribbon and experienced his first of many firefights.
After another stint in Helmand, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay on his 21st birthday to provide fence line security at the controversial detention center.
His fourth tour – his third in Afghanistan – was during the Battle for Garmsir. It was on May 18, 2008, when the famous photo was taken by embedded Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic.
While the father-to-be was frantically carried away on a stretcher through the streets, Tomasevic told him he had accidentally captured the terrifying close call.
‘I noticed movement in the building to our north, and immediately drew down on it, leaning against the wall to stabilize myself prior to taking the shot,’ Sergeant Bee said.
‘I noticed Goran getting ready to take a picture, but paid him no mind, I was more focused on dropping the guy I believed had maneuvered on our position and shot at one of our posts.
‘The second I had my sights on the window, the world went dark.’
Sergeant Bee woke up on a stretcher, surrounded by green smoke.
He believes the Marine on post thought he was hit, so immediately called for their platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Orjuela (Gunny O.J., now Sergeant Major O.J.) to get him out of there.
They threw smoke grenades to obscure the team’s positions, as they evacuated him, thinking he was unconscious. But soon he assured them he was fine.
‘Goran (the photographer) then came over with a huge grin on his face,’ Sergeant Bee said.
‘He told me he had been testing a new lens on his camera, and had accidentally set the camera to sequence shot, and showed me the pictures.’
Sergeant Bee remembers the first time he spoke to Bobbie about it – and she made her feelings very clear.
‘She took it about as well as could be expected, alternating between telling me I’m a dumb*** for not having my gear on, and switching to how much she loved me, over and over.
‘The biggest thing I can remember from that conversation was her telling me: “From now on, you wear your gear. I don’t care if you are doing your laundry, or eating, or going to the bathroom, you will always wear your gear. Do you understand me?” ’
‘Like I said, if it wasn’t for her I’d have been dead long ago, and that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve put her through so much, and I owe my very life to that woman.’
Two years later, Sergeant Bee was deployed again, during Operation Moshtarak (Translated from Dari, a language spoken in Afghanistan, into Together), in the Battle for the town of Marjah, Helmend Province.
More than 15,000 troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were involved, making it the largest joint operation during the War on Terror.
Ethan was only 15 months old when his father left him for war again. It would be Sergeant Bee’s last tour, and he says it was his most intense.
During the previous tour Garmsir, they would be engaged in gun battles three times a day, at ranges from 200m to 300m (600-700ft), almost like clockwork.
But in Marjah, the firefights would come at completely unexpected times. Sergeant Bee said it would get to the point ‘where we would actually use grenades to clear rooms and buildings’.
On his first patrol he fired an anti-tank missile at a group of insurgents. He said it was a ‘one in a million’ shot.
Later he found out that he had killed a Taliban commander. ‘I got so excited I literally spiked the expended AT-4 like a football, gave them the finger, and was laughing so hard tears were running down my face,’ he said.
Quality time: Sergeant Bee and his family now live in a house near woodland and a lake +15
Quality time: Sergeant Bee and his family now live in a house near woodland and a lake
During the same deployment, Sergeant Bee would endure another brush with death that would end his military career and leave him facing one of the toughest, personal confrontations of his life.
It was the night two of his friends were killed.
He was hunkered down in a building on patrol with a group of eight Marines during one of the most intense periods of his your.
Then one of the Marine’s guns jammed.
‘I remember being frustrated with him, because it should have been a simple fix,’ Sergeant Bee said.
It turned out, the jam saved Sergeant Bee’s life.
‘All I remember after I took a knee to help him was a roaring sound, and the sensation of my entire vision turning into what you would see if you were trying to look through a straw. The next thing I remember is waking up in a CAT scan machine, in a hospital.’
From what he heard about the incident, the Taliban had planted IEDs outside the building that were large enough to blow the walls inward.
He said: ‘Almost every one of my Marines in the building had to get CASEVAC’d to Camp Dwyer – a forward operating base that had a hospital.
But two Marines were killed instantly.
‘My decision to place my Marines in that building, along with the fact that I failed to make my team leaders sweep the building with metal detectors, cost two lives, and caused the rest of them to be injured.
‘Some have heavy scars, some carry their scars on the inside, and some still have pieces of the wall stuck in their bodies to this day.’
Bobbie remembers that she was driving on the I-95 when she got the second heartbreaking call of her husband’s military career.
She returned to their home in North Carolina to try and maintain some normalcy and got her friends to help look after Ethan, until her husband got back.
She says: ‘When he got home he was completely different. The person I said goodbye to is not the person that came home. We have since had to adjust to our new normal life.
‘He knows that he is not the same person that boarded that bus the second time.
‘But he’s alive, that’s what I keep saying, it could be a lot worse. We have friends that aren’t that lucky.’
He described how he went to speak to the mother of one of the Marines who was killed.
‘I had to look his mother in the eye and explain how I got her son killed, ‘ he said. ‘That was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in my life.’
Following his injury, he was sent through Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, to Landstuhl, Germany, for treatment.
After two weeks, he was allowed home.
‘I had to go through rehab and therapy, along with a battery of tests. I had suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), with brain damage to four sections of my brain, along with damage to my vestibular system (balance and senses) and hearing loss.’
In the interview with DailyMail.com last year, Sergeant Bee gave a stern message to people who want to become Marines in a message that still resonates today.
‘If someone came to me, telling me they were thinking of joining the Marines, the only question I would have for them is: Why?
‘Yes, you can get a job skill, you can get free college benefits and free healthcare. But if that is why a person wants to join, by all means go for it. But do it someplace else. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all offer the same benefits.
‘People who join the Marines typically do it because of the challenge it offers but if an individual is looking to become Marine infantry, they need to take some serious time to think about it. Men don’t join the Grunts to learn a skill, or for the college. It is out of pure patriotism.
‘A man who wants to be a grunt needs to realize, you will suffer: You’ll go to places that are so cold you have to keep your water close to your skin to keep it from freezing, and places so hot a plastic bottle will warp because the water inside is near boiling.
‘You will go months without a shower, with your underwear rotting away from you, all while holding a position in a town you’ve never heard of all because some General decides they want to take over that town.
‘But you’ll actually get the chance to kill the enemies of our country. Whether people are willing to admit it or not, there are people in the world who not only deserve death, but require it.
‘These are the ones that will decapitate a little girl and sew a dog’s head onto her body because of the girl giving information, the same people who will decapitate a mentally handicapped man for the same reason, or execute a child and put it in a bombed out building to make it appear to the media that Marines kill innocents.’
Sergeant Bee’s son was born on July 29, 2008, while he was still in Garmsir, and didn’t meet him until he was three months old.
The youngster knows what his father did, but he isn’t old enough to grasp the nature of what happened. He has only seen the iconic image of his dad being shot once, and it was a chance encounter.
‘He saw it in a Marine Corps book at the local Barnes & Noble, there’s one picture in there of it, but he’s too young to really understand,’ Sergeant Bee said.
‘But it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
‘All he knows about what I used to do is what the understanding of young child will allow, to this day, if you ask him what Daddy used to do in the Marines, his answer is invariably “He used to go shoot bad guys”.
‘I like to leave it at that with him. When he gets to become a teenager, I’ll set him down and explain to him the stuff that has happened during my time in, so he can reach the decision himself on whether he wants to follow in my footsteps or not.’
DailyMail.com has reached out to the Department for Veteran Affairs for comment.