‘There was an unsaid understanding between us’: the Dallas Veterans Day Parade, 2004

Marine staff sergeant Mark Graunke recalls being embraced by Pearl Harbor veteran Houston James in Dallas

There’s an unwritten rule in the Marines that if you get caught in the media, you have to buy everyone a case of beer. So when this photograph went viral, my first thought was: “Uh-oh, I owe a lot of people a lot of drinks.”

As a staff sergeant, I was part of the initial effort in Iraq, entering from Kuwait in March 2003. My first job was to keep routes open, making sure there were no explosive hazards near the roads. Then I worked in explosive ordnance disposal, the military version of the bomb squad. Our job was to prevent things blowing up, or explode them in a controlled environment. I handled everything from bombs to grenades and mines.

In July 2003, I was leading a team working near Karbala, encouraging local people to come forward if they found a suspect bomb. We made a list of them and worked our way through it, clearing unexploded devices from their land. By that point I had handled more than 40,000. You pick one up, make it safe, set it aside and move on to the next one.

On 2 July, I woke up, called my wife, jumped in the truck with my team and headed to a farmer’s field. I’d been at work for half an hour when the cluster bomb I was holding in my left hand – the size of a shot glass and designed to disable an armoured vehicle – detonated.

I lost my sight and hearing briefly; when my sight came back, it was in black and white at first. I knew exactly what had happened, I never lost consciousness: I thought I was going to die, but I was OK with that, as long as my wife and fellow Marines were safe.

I noticed one man had been hit by shrapnel. I found out much later he’d died at the scene. I was taken by helicopter to a trauma unit, where I was in a partially induced coma for two weeks. Apparently I died twice; they had to restart me, like a car. I had five blood transfusions.

I lost my left hand, left eye and the thumb and index finger from my right hand. I made the decision to have my right leg amputated above the knee: they had salvaged my leg, but it was getting worse and I’d only ever have 20-30% bend in it and would need medication in the future.

In November 2004, I was asked to take part in the Dallas Veterans Day Parade; I sat in the front vehicle with other vets, then watched the parade from a podium. I noticed this man look up from the crowd below. I knew he was a Pearl Harbor veteran because of his hat. He climbed the podium, walked up to me and gave me a big old hug. I loved how emotional he was. Afterwards, we exchanged a few words, but there was an unsaid understanding between us.

I’d heard cameras clicking while he was hugging me. The picture was in the Dallas Morning News the following day, and then I started hearing from people – initially in Dallas, then from out of state, and then from people around the world.

I’ve never wanted attention, but I appreciate this photograph has touched a lot of people. If it’s helped anyone move past hardships, then that’s great. But I’m not special: I’m just a guy who had a job to do, did it to the best of my ability, got hurt, came back, and had a picture taken.

• Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


Interview by Hannah Booth

The GuardianTramp

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