POCATELLO – As a 9-year-old living in Stockton, California, Carlos Lugo grew up in a very low-income family.
His mother, a single parent surviving on government checks to feed the mouths of him and three younger siblings, bounced around from house to house whenever the rent was too high or the bills began to stack up. That was difficult for Lugo, but watching his mom endure constant episodes of domestic violence inflicted by the men in her life was nearly unbearable.
At the brutal height of one such attack, Lugo got a signal from his mom to run to a neighbor’s house and phone the police for help – something he said she rarely asked him to do.
When the police officer responded and put an end to one of the most traumatic experiences of Lugo’s childhood, it was then that he knew he wanted to become a cop.
Fast-forward two decades and two tours with the Army in the Middle East. It was March 2017. Lugo was about to turn his childhood dream into a reality, but one obstacle remained in his way.
Lugo was missing half of his left arm.
As a 19-year-old fresh out of high school, Lugo enlisted in the Army because he thought the experience would help with the transition into law enforcement after his service.
“That and I wanted to give myself some stabilization and the military provided that for me,” Lugo said.
Lugo enlisted in the Army in 2006 and became what he called a “grunt” – also known as an infantryman.
Stationed at Fort Benning along the Alabama-Georgia border, Lugo deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with the 101st Airborne Division.
“It was basic combat,” Lugo said about his first deployment. “Getting shot at, shooting back and running through villages.”
Lugo decided to re-enlist in 2009, but he didn’t want to return to the infantry because that would have meant redeploying almost immediately. And that was something he knew would add unnecessary tension to his marriage.
So Lugo switched jobs to work as an Army water treatment specialist, and after nine months stateside he was deployed back to Afghanistan in 2010.
But once there Lugo found himself in combat once again.
“Because of my prior infantry experience they put me in the gun truck for convoy security service,” Lugo said. “That’s how I ended up getting blown up on Aug. 24, 2011.”
Lugo was escorting what many soldiers refer to as “Jingo trucks” when he was severely wounded by a roadside bomb.
“It’s the Arabic version of 18-wheeler semitrucks,” Lugo said. “They call them Jingo trucks because they deck them out in stuff that sparkles and jingles.”
While escorting the Jingo trucks from one forward operating base to another, Lugo’s vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.
Because the Humvees that Lugo operated as an infantryman during his first deployment were extremely susceptible to explosives, the Army replaced most with Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, also known as MRAPs.
When a Humvee triggered an explosive device, the hull of the vehicle was flat and therefore absorbed the highest concentration from the blast, according to Lugo.
“It would be like kicking a soda can,” Lugo said.
MRAPs, on the other hand, are shaped like a V at the bottom so that when an explosion occurs it deflects the blast away from the center of the vehicle.
Lugo was operating his MRAP’s turret-mounted .50-caliber machine gun when the vehicle crossed a drainage ditch running underneath the road and the roadside bomb detonated.
“It was cemented road and most of the blast went out the sides of the drainage ditch,” Lugo said.
Army officials estimated that approximately 300 to 400 pounds of explosives were packed underneath the road, and if it weren’t for the cement, Lugo likely wouldn’t be alive today.
“I was up in the gun and when it blew up it felt like magic to me,” Lugo said. “It’s like if you’ve ever fallen off your bike when you were younger or got into a car accident, time just slowed down.”
Lugo continued, “It was one of those things where you know IEDs happen a lot, but you’d never think it would happen to you. It felt like a big magic hand went underneath the truck and lifted it. Then it rotated and kept rotating. The truck felt light and effortless.”
The explosion forced the 15-ton vehicle up into the air, where it rotated a full 360 degrees and landed back on its wheels.
“I felt that moment where I was like, ‘Oh I hope this doesn’t hurt very much but if I go I hope I go quick,’ ” Lugo said. “(The MRAP) started to turn and then I blacked out. It felt like the computer was on but the monitor was off.”
Lugo regained consciousness when the MRAP landed and everything around him was eerily quiet.
“There was just dust and debris falling to the ground,” Lugo said. “I thought I was deaf for a second because nobody was making any noise. I didn’t hear the truck or anything on my radio headset.”
Luckily, Lugo said, the roadside bomb was not followed by an ambush, but that didn’t stop him from grabbing an M4 assault rifle.
After the dust settled and the adrenaline wore off, Lugo looked to his left arm to see two bones extruding from his skin through his military fatigues.
“My arm was just dangling like a dog with a limp leg,” Lugo said. “I saw blood on my boot and the bones sticking out and knew I needed a tourniquet.”
A helicopter soon arrived and airlifted him to the nearest medical base where he learned that in addition to a compound fracture of his left arm, Lugo had two fractures in his back, a torn ACL and torn meniscus in his left knee, a hyperextended left shoulder and permanent ringing in his ears.
“I was out for like two days,” Lugo said. “At one point, I remember a major handing me a Purple Heart and then I just passed back out.”
For the first month of his recovery, doctors attempted to extract veins from other parts of Lugo’s body to repair the damage to his arm.
“I was really sick during that first month,” Lugo said. “I was going to the emergency room two or three times a week and after four or five tries all I could do was wiggle my middle finger.”
Eventually, his fingers were turning black followed by random episodes where he started bleeding out. That’s when doctors made the decision to amputate his arm just below the elbow.
“It was a good solid year of recovery afterwards,” Lugo said.
In 2013, Lugo medically retired from the Army. He spent some time in California with his wife’s family before learning of a program in which a buddy of his from his first deployment, who was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and survived, was donated a house through the Military Warrior Support Foundation.
Lugo applied for a house and was awarded one in Idaho Falls.
“First time I came to Idaho was to accept the keys to the house,” Lugo said. “It was a bit of a risk but it paid off, because I do like it a lot here compared to California.”
While his wife stayed in Idaho Falls, Lugo went to Texas, where he interned with Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“After I got injured I tried to be realistic about becoming a police officer and just set it aside,” Lugo said.
Working in Texas wasn’t field work, and after sitting behind a desk for a few months, Lugo started getting stir-crazy.
After landing a job with a water company in Midland, Texas, Lugo spent a few months doing something physical before the hours slowed down. However, he credits that job for giving him the inspiration to get back on track to becoming a police officer.
“That got me out of the funk of not doing anything,” Lugo said. “It woke me up and made me realize I was still hungry for a physical career.”
As soon as he got back to Idaho Falls he applied to be a police officer but failed the test. So he started taking classes at Idaho State University to stay busy and discovered the ISU police academy.
That’s where Pocatello police Capt. Roger Schei first encountered Lugo.
Schei said Lugo never struggled to keep up.
“Everything that we taught he was able to do,” Schei said. “No matter what he was able to find a way. He never asked for special treatment or considerations, and he just figured out a way to get it done.”
Pocatello police Chief Scott Marchand has similar praise for Lugo, who has now been on the police force a little less than six months.
“That guy has had to overcome and deal with things that most people don’t even think about,” Marchand said. “He has dealt with a situation that some people would quit from.”
But Marchand said he still had concerns about hiring Lugo.
“I talked to a lot of people before I offered him the job and I never heard one negative thing about his work ethic, his attitude or how he adjusted,” Marchand said. “I sat during one of the classroom experiences and afterwards I asked classmates about him and I never heard anyone say Carlos couldn’t do something. He just gets after it. It’s that simple. He doesn’t let anything hold him back and that’s refreshing.”
Where does Lugo see himself in the future? If he had it his way, he would love to fly a police helicopter.
But for now, Lugo, who is 30, is content with starting a law enforcement career that’s been 21 years in the making.
“All I want to do is get the job done right,” Lugo said. “No matter where you go or what you do there is going to be pros and cons to it. But it all depends on how you picture it. If you look for the bad stuff that’s all you’re going to get. If you look for the positive and the good out of it, no matter what situation you are in you’ll see it.”
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