Standing next to his security team leader at a Kabul military site, Will Hoover scanned the busy scene by the water tanks for anything out of the ordinary.
Danish military were on nearby rooftops, watching. Below them, more than 90 American, British and NATO security personnel guarded a large group of high-ranking international military officers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees and civilian contractors. Hoover, a 25-year-old Army Reserve specialist from Sacramento, was part of the security detail.
It was noon on Aug. 5, 2014, a sweltering day on the campus of Marshal Fahim National Defense University on the edge of Kabul, where Afghanistan’s premier military academy was being built. The civilians and military officers were touring the campus’s newly engineered water facilities. Along a nearby ridge, a live fire exercise for Afghan soldiers had just concluded.
“As we stood there, there was an Afghan gate guard who was looking at the group,” said Hoover. “I was looking at him to make sure he wasn’t going to pull anything.”
In an instant, the day exploded into chaos. Shots rang out, one after another, from the frosted glass window of a bathroom in a nearby barracks. The gate guard turned out to be no threat at all; he simply ran away.
Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, the deputy commanding general of Afghanistan’s Combined Security Transition Command, died at the scene, the highest-ranking American war death since the Afghanistan war began. Another 18 people were wounded, including Hoover.
Will Hoover grew up on welfare in south Sacramento, a responsible and resilient kid who had always dreamed of serving his country. At home, he’s a technical whiz kid, a customer service troubleshooter for Apple. In Afghanistan, he was a seasoned and disciplined soldier, accustomed to daily missions.
His team had been assigned to guard two people that day. As he was shot at and hit, again and again, he made sure the primary dignitary assigned to him was safe. Then, he later told military investigators, he threw himself in front of a British colonel and two other people to protect them, all the while firing his 9 mm sidearm at the barracks window. Hoover saved three lives on Aug. 5. He took nine bullets, and he almost died.
The attack made international headlines. The shooter, an Afghan National Army soldier named Mohammad Rafiqullah whom military investigators later termed a “self-radicalized” terrorist, fired 30 rounds from the bathroom window before he was killed.
“Apple employee took assassin’s bullets for British colonel,” read a headline in The Canberra Times in Australia two weeks later, after information from a casualty report filtered into the media.
None of the coverage at the time mentioned Hoover by name. As his long recovery began at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the world’s press wanted to talk to him. But he wasn’t free to speak publicly until the U.S. Central Command completed its lengthy investigation. Last month, Cent-Com released a heavily redacted, 500-page unclassified report on the incident.
Last month, Hoover also learned he likely will lose his right leg, which is missing a chunk of tibia after it was shattered by a bullet. He faces up to two years’ recuperation.
“I just did my job,” he said. “Somebody who was supposed to be protected by his personal security detail wasn’t, so I got in front of him. There wasn’t anything else going through my head. I wanted to move him out. Standing there was my only option.
“I pretty much figured I’d bleed out and die. I couldn’t use my left arm or right leg. Everything hurt. I figured I was dead already.”
Although he downplays what he did, his loved ones don’t.
“Will is the thing that heroes are made of,” said his mother, Sandra, 46, a school custodian who lives in south Sacramento. “When I finally talked to him, he said, ‘Mom, I’d do it all over again.’ That doesn’t surprise me.”
A grandmother’s influence
Actually, it doesn’t surprise anyone who knows Will Hoover that he did the responsible thing in the line of fire, even though it came with great sacrifice.
“He’s always been selfless,” said his father, Scott, 51, on the phone from Wyoming, hauling a flatbed truck filled with railroad ties to Colorado. “He’s always been the kind of guy to do his job.”
The household of Will Hoover’s childhood was complicated and difficult. His parents married in the mid-1980s, when Sandra was 17, but the couple separated on and off, Sandra said. She stayed at home raising Will, his older brother and two younger sisters. At one point in the 1990s, she said, Scott lost his job, and the family went on the old Cal Works public aid program as well as food stamps.
The parents’ divorce was finalized four years ago. By that time, Scott had long had another partner and a younger daughter, who is now 11.
“He was a good man,” said Sandra. “But life happens.”
When Jim McDonald’s son, Sam, became Will’s closest friend in the second grade, McDonald and his wife noticed how Will stepped up, even at that age, to care for his sisters.
“My wife saw Will taking his two younger sisters in a red wagon to the grocery store to buy food with food stamps,” said McDonald, a video producer who lives in East Sacramento. “One of the sisters was still a baby. My wife thought, ‘Somebody needs to do something.’”
Somebody did: Juanita Hoover, Will’s widowed grandmother, asked if he wanted to come live with her in her home near Mack Road and Center Parkway. She was made of sensible stuff, this Missouri farm girl who moved to California with her family during the Dust Bowl years. Will came to her filled with optimism and an intuitive sense of how to endure a tough situation. Her household gave him a stable foundation. She died in 2010 at age 81.
“My mom tried,” Will said. “I’ve got to give it to her. But living with my grandmother was one of the best decisions in my life.”
By that time, Will’s mother was enrolled in welfare-to-work programs and had found a job at a Pocket-area drugstore. Her parents kept the younger kids while she worked long into the evenings, and Juanita always kept Will after school.
“He was spending more and more time there,” said Sandra. “One day I stopped him and said, ‘Billy, did you move?’ It was four months earlier that he had moved in with Scott’s mom. I said, ‘When were you going to tell me?’
“It was devastating. But without his grandmother’s influence, Will wouldn’t be the man he is.”
‘Lives were saved’
Will Hoover was 17 when he decided to join the military, a junior at a charter high school specializing in high-tech education, an athlete who ran track and played football for Luther Burbank High School.
“I wanted to sign up for the military to make a difference and play a part,” he said.
He was young, but he knew his mind: That’s what his mother thought when he asked her to sign the papers giving him permission to join the Army Reserve before his 18th birthday.
“Everybody tried to talk him out of it,” Sandra said. “I said, ‘Have you really thought about it?’ He’s a black-and-white person who makes good decisions. People said, ‘I can’t believe you signed the papers.’ But he asked me to.”
He did his basic training that summer, and the following summer, after he graduated from high school and turned 18, he did advanced training in military policing. In his civilian life, he went to technical school and community college and worked as a nightclub bouncer. Then he found work with Apple.
In 2010, he deployed to Bahrain and in 2013, to Guantánamo. Between deployments, he returned to Sacramento, often staying with the McDonalds. In May 2014, he left on a six-month mission to provide security for the civilians and officers helping to rebuild Kabul.
“When he was deployed before, I didn’t have a premonition of anything happening,” said his father, Scott. “This time, I had a weird feeling it would be dangerous. I thought he was tempting fate.”
His early months in Afghanistan were unremarkable. Days grew into a familiar routine. Stationed at the United Nations’ Northern Kabul Compound, he would rise and work out. With his team, he would escort dignitaries, contractors and the brass to various locations around Kabul, driving unmarked SUVs and doing their best not to draw attention. Several times, Will said, his security detail was responsible for protecting Maj. Gen. Greene, the career engineer and Army officer who was second in command of American military forces during Afghanistan’s security transition.
“We always had generals with us,” Will said. “I’d been on missions with Gen. Greene, but I’d never walked next to him or talked to him much. When I saw him on the ground that day, I knew it was bad.”
When the shooting stopped on Aug. 5, Will lay on his back, shot repeatedly in the left shoulder and arm, the right leg and foot, his side and back. His staff sergeant, an Army reservist from Arizona named Lon Giancola, saved his life despite being wounded himself.
“Will was on the ground on his back, bleeding out,” Giancola said by phone from Phoenix, where he works in sales for Yelp. “His eyes were glazed over, and his skin was ghostly white. I started cutting off his body armor and packing his wounds with gauze. What saved his life was combat gauze treated with coagulant.
“He did not look good.”
Military investigators interviewed dozens of people who had been at the scene, including Afghan soldiers and officers, and concluded the attack was an isolated incident rather than part of a larger, organized plot.
“The actions of security team members in neutralizing the shooter, rendering first aid and evacuating casualties was superb,” their subsequent report said. “Execution was swift, and lives were undoubtedly saved as a result.”
U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett declined to elaborate. “The report stands on its own,” he said.
Within days, Will was airlifted to Germany, and by Aug. 11 he had arrived at Walter Reed. In between, the Army got word to his family at home in Sacramento, and he spoke several times by text and Skype to relatives, friends and the McDonald family. In his conversations, Will minimized the wounds he suffered.
By the night of Aug. 12, Jim McDonald and his wife, Cheryl Patzer, a registered nurse, were by his side at Walter Reed.
“My wife was there at his bedside for 40 straight hours,” McDonald said. “She didn’t want to leave him. He introduced us as Mom and Dad, and they gave us information. He was in a lot of pain. It was rough.”
Patzer was there a month, with McDonald spending several weeks at a time at Walter Reed. When they left, their son, Sam, now 24, stayed with Will in Bethesda for two months to help him as he moved from the hospital to Building 62, an outpatient barracks. Will’s father, Scott, visited him at Walter Reed, as well.
With his mangled right leg haloed with a stabilizing metal brace, Will flew home to Sacramento for the first time since the attack in the second week of November. Two dozen members of the Patriot Guard Riders, an honor guard group, greeted him at the airport. The McDonalds were there; so were his mother and a host of extended family members.
“Oh, my God, I was so happy to see him,” said Sandra. “It’s one thing to hear his voice, but it’s another thing to see he really still is who he is.”
In photos, Will looks thrilled to be home. He used a cane to get around as he made the rounds from friends’ homes to family parties. He also kept a plastic baggie of medications with him: anti-nausea drugs, time-release oxycodone, Tylenol, drugs to relieve constipation. He had left two of his medications back in Maryland, including one that turns off pain receptors so he could sleep.
He was ill and in increasing pain during most of his visit home.
‘Doing my best’
Will is in a wheelchair now, after surgery in late November to remove the external fixation brace. Repeated infections have delayed the bone-graft surgery that could save his leg. Now, he said, doctors are deciding whether the leg can be saved at all. Representatives for Walter Reed did not respond to requests for information on his care and treatment.
With Sam McDonald’s departure last fall, another friend from Sacramento, Kristy Guzman, flew back with him to Maryland and has taken over as his non-medical care assistant.
“I do everything he needs help with,” said Guzman, 26. “He can’t cook or get up and walk. I help him with his appointments and make sure he takes his meds on time. He really isn’t able to do a lot on his own.”
His days are filled with physical therapy and occupational therapy to help him regain use of his wounded limbs. Sometimes, he has lab tests and X-rays. Sometimes, he talks to his doctors. He remains in the Army Reserve, which covers his treatment expenses, and Apple covers him on disability.
His optimism and resilience continue to serve him well. He talks about returning to Northern California and Apple once his recovery is complete. As a small child, he knew how to make the best of hard times. As a wounded soldier, he still does.
“I’m a lot better,” he said by phone from Walter Reed. “I’m doing my best.”
Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.