As It Happens

U.S. army medic who saved Omar Khadr's life calls $10.5M settlement the 'smart path'

Former U.S. army medic Donnie Bumanglag looks back on the moment he saved Omar Khadr's life and explains why he has no regrets about his decisions that day.
Donnie Bumanglag stands in the backyard garden of his home in Lompoc, Calif. Bumanglag is a former U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan and helped saved Omar Khadr's life. (Michael Owen Baker/CP)
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Full Episode Transcript

He'll never get the image out of his head.

In 2002, Donnie Bumanglag was a U.S. medic in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of a firefight, he saw a 15-year-old boy lying on a piece of wood. The boy was covered in rubble and had two bullet wounds in his chest.

That boy was Omar Khadr, and Bumanglag saved his life.

Fast forward to this month, when Khadr was awarded $10.5 million and an official apology from Canadian government.

The settlement has been a divisive issue across the country. But Bumanglag spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about why story shouldn't be so black and white.

Here is part of their conversation:

Mr. Bumanglag, you first encountered Omar Khadr 15 years ago. He has been on the radar in Canada for much of that time, but what was it like for you to hear that he was back in the news this month?

I've been following this story from far, just because I was involved in it in a sense. For me, I feel like it was 15 years. You know, that's a long time. People change. A lot of things change. I'm not the same person I was 15 years ago, by any stretch of the imagination. 
U.S. medic Sgt. Donnie Bumanglag, right, is seen with fellow medic Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Muralles at his Ranger graduation ceremony in May 2002. Two months later, Bumanglag would be frantically working to save the life of Canada's Omar Khadr in the back of a helicopter in Afghanistan. (CP)

Some Canadians see Omar Khadr as a child soldier and others as a terrorist. Who was he to you, back 15 years ago when you first encountered him?

When he was passed over to me they told me that he was essentially a terrorist and he looked essentially like a child. I mean, it's the same person. I had to deal with it the way that my body perceived it and that was a child who is possibly a threat to me. 
Canadians are deeply divided about Omar Khadr. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

And when you say a child, I understand that he reminded you of someone in your own family?

I'm half Filipino, half Hispanic. So we have the same pigmentation, same facial features. I had a close relationship to one of my cousins who was younger, about the same age as Omar, and they looked strikingly alike. When I first seen him that's exactly what I first remembered, my cousin who looked just like him.

What condition was he in? What did you have to do at the time to keep him alive?

Mainly, for him, it was managing his trauma. He had lost a lot of fluids. We stopped all the bleeding. We plugged all the holes and then we had to make sure we kept him alive.

We were soldiers. His father took him to a place where he probably shouldn't have been. And somehow we all met on the other side of the world.- Donnie   Bumanglag

You were ordered to do your best to keep him alive, as I understand it. I'm just wondering, you'd also been told that he'd thrown a grenade that had killed Sgt. Christopher Speer and seriously wounded another Delta soldier. Were you, at the time, conflicted about keeping him alive?

I wasn't told personally who he had killed. I still don't know what the truth is, I think it lies somewhere in between. But I knew that it was a medic and Omar was a source of information that I was supposed to keep alive.

There was a lot of commotion going on between me and my team and getting him back onto the aircraft. It was very apparent that most people were uncomfortable taking off his flex cuffs. We had a helicopter that had a ramp down in the back where the crew was providing cover as we moved through certain areas, and that left the back of the helicopter open. Blood is slippery, and so for me, I had to make a decision to take off the flex ties and take off our harnesses, which kept us attached to the helicopter because he was moving around and kind of chanting stuff.

A photograph taken by U.S. special forces soldiers on July 27, 2002, and entered as evidence at Omar Khadr's military commission hearing in Guantanamo Bay, shows a wounded Omar Khadr, who was found under a pile of rubble. (U.S. Military Commission/CP)

At the time, as a 21-year-old kid, I thought the ideology that I had learned about was supported by his actions. I thought maybe he could push me out of the aircraft or something like that. But at the end of the day, you know, he is still a guy with two gaping wounds and I was still an airborne ranger, so I felt we could still subdue him if we needed to keep ourselves from being thrown out of the back of the helicopter. And the right thing to do is to work on him — so that's what we did. 

Donnie Bumanglag stands in the backyard garden of his home. (Michael Owen Baker/CP)

You've indicated already that you saw him at the time as a kid. How much blame do you ascribe to his actions at the time? 

I have a kid that's older than Omar now. I would never think to take him to the mountains, to a militia group and leave him there and expect that this isn't going to be the end result.

So I don't know. I'm not his family. I'm not his father. But I don't think he totally was given a fair shot. You've got to put yourself in those shoes. None of us know what we would have done.

Mr. Khadr also spent a great deal of time at Guantanamo Bay, as you know. He was subject to sleep deprivation and other forms of deprivation in order to try and elicit information. How deserving do you think he is of the settlement that he got from the Canadian government?

Obviously, the Supreme Court made a decision that they felt that those rights were impinged or not upheld. Just the settlement alone is probably the smart path for Canadian taxpayers.

I know that there are a lot of things being said, that he is a terrorist, he's this or that. Like I said, I don't know where the truth lies. I'm a trained investigator. I understand forensics. I understand interrogation. The way that that stuff is being obtained would never be accepted by any other form of legal system in our country and it probably wouldn't be accepted by yours and so that's probably where things ended up the way they did.

Most of the people that I've seen that are out there on social media making opinions, you know, they don't have a say. They weren't there and if they would like to make those kind of decisions they should get themselves into the arena. 

What do you think of the comments, the reaction, of the surviving relatives of Sgt. Speer. His wife, Tabatha, is not only furious, she would like to see part of the settlement go to her to support her and her kids. Layne Morris is missing an eye because of this. What are your thoughts on their feelings in all of this?

I think their feelings are completely reasonable. If it was me, I'd probably be upset too. But I don't think being upset and this money in the sky isn't going to solve any of these people's problems.

Pain doesn't go away from that. It comes from reflection. It comes from dealing with these things. In order to do that, you have to be fully honest about the whole experience.

We were soldiers. His father took him to a place where he probably shouldn't have been. And somehow we all met on the other side of the world. And now we're here, picking up the pieces.

I mean, all of us are. I mean, this is war. I think that we should realize — together, all of us should realize — how ugly war is and really question why it is that we choose to do it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Donnie Bumanglag.

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