Imagine signing up for the Ohio National Guard in 2004 to join your friends and expecting a time to mature and chart your life’s direction, believing that that this meant you would serve in case of emergencies in the U.S.
Brent Shane did so with that belief. After completing basic training and toward the end of tech school as a 21 Bravo Combat Engineer at Fort Leonard Wood, he heard rumors that his unit would be going to the Middle East. His commanding officer asked each newly- trained soldier where he was going and the answers were “Fort Sill” or “Fort Benning” or ____. When Shane was asked, he responded promptly, “Ohio.”
The CO’s response to his queries was always, “Iraq.” Shane thought that his commander was “just being tough,” until his unit was sent to Camp Atterbury for urban combat training, convoy tactics, strategies for working with real-life civilians, and rifle training with live ammunition. Then he trained as a combat medic with 30 hours of CPR, tourniquet use, splinting, and IV administration.
And the immunizations seemed to never end with everything from smallpox to anthrax. Also, there was teamwork training with a variety of scenarios, and they were issued uniforms (among the last to get the desert camos) and body armor. There was a mountain of paperwork to be completed, including designation of beneficiaries in the event of his death — wills.
By Jan. 6, 2005, Shane was on a flight to Kuwait where there was adjustment to the climate change, more paper work, and more training.
Next, “things started to get real,” as he was sent to Baghdad as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. Shane says, “I thought we would be there to assist. We were in Baghdad looking for roadside bombs. As combat engineers our motto was ‘We lead the way.’ I thought that meant we were to blow up bridges, create holes in walls, create spaces for the infantry to get through. We went from blowing things up to getting blown up.”
His job was three weeks of day mission, followed by three weeks of night mission. His task force was called Iron Claw Buffalo, named to honor the instrument used to help in identifying IEDs after which the EODs (Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists) were called in to explode them. In nine months his unit located 66 IEDs and 15 exploded. There was one death in his battalion , and five Purple Hearts were awarded for combat injuries.
Shane says, “There is nothing that can describe the sound of an IED going off next to you: so distinct, unbelievable smell. You feel death.”
For the next two months, Shane spent eight hours a day (8 a.m. to noon and 8 p.m. to midnight) pulling tower guard duty at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. As soon as his unit arrived, they were shown a video of an attack on the prison where Marines were attacked by dozens of suicide bombers carrying AK-47s. The concrete tower “pushed 130 degrees every day and was equipped with grenades, grenade launchers, and machine guns.” His role was to secure the facility from suicide car bombers and to detect prisoners attempting to escape.
Following this, he returned to Camp Liberty and again began searching for IEDs as his group waited for replacements which they were to train to do their job. At Camp Liberty, he learned that one of the men he was to train to replace them was his first sergeant from Fort Leonard Wood, “a mean SOB, and I was training him. A neat thing for me.”
On Dec. 25, 2005, he and his unit flew to Kuwait “and I ate a steak. We were safe. We were going home.”
It was back to Camp Atterbury for a post-deployment health assessment. “That’s when I first learned about PTSD. They had us complete a check list about what we had experienced in combat. I put my copy in a folder and forgot about it. I was going home to Ohio, and in February of 2006, it was back to monthly National Guard meetings.”
He attended the PTSD University at the Dayton VA “every Friday for eight to 10 weeks, and I was the youngest. You kinda graduate and you know you have PTSD.”
He reports that getting disability is grueling. “Mine is 70 percent for PTSD and a variety of other issues including some hearing loss and migraines. The migraines are debilitating.”
Shane studied sports management at Sinclair Community College after he discovered that golf was his outlet for feeling normal, for coping with the night terrors of reliving missions and hearing IEDs explode. He is now the Junior Golf Director for the Southern Ohio PGA: “I turned my therapy into my job.”
At times at the VA he felt he was not believed, and at times he became furious. And then there were other times. “Dr. Walters had been a medic in Vietnam, and he understood. And he had worked at Walter Reed Hospital. He had seen the broken bodies going home as well as those that were never going home. He knew.
“And there was a Vietnam War veteran in my class at PTSD University. He was an RTA bus driver in Dayton. One day in 2010 after my wife and I had our first child, he paid for our meal when he saw us at Frisch’s. He slipped me a note, ‘Merry Christmas to you and your family,’ and I still have that note.
“This shows the bond — Vietnam and Iraq are 40 years apart — but there’s still that bond, that special feeling that you know and they know.”
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or [email protected]