Trials of the Wounded Warrior

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- A man walks home to his trailer in Balad Air Base, Iraq, from the movies. It had been his first day off during his deployment. With the dining hall on his mind, he dropped off groceries he had recently bought at the Exchange in his empty trailer and headed out the door for dinner. As he turned around the corner a blinding white light exploded next to him. The next thing his mind registers is that sirens are wailing across the base, but it usually takes one to two minutes after a blast for them to start. Was he unconscious for that long? He gets up and goes back inside his trailer to find his roommate inside and trying to talk to him, but the man hears no words spilling out from his roommate’s lips. All he can hear is a steady ringing through a jumble of noises in his ears. A moment of time is unaccounted for in his mind and miraculously he’s in one piece. Or so he thought.

This event and memory are those belonging to retired Staff Sgt. Chris Campbell, an Air Force active-duty and Army/Air guardsmen hailing from West Virginia.

Campbell’s family has a history of being in the military, reaching back to his parents, grandparents and great uncles. He grew up in a poor part of West Virginia and knew his options were limited within that area.

“You either go to the coal mines or college,” said Campbell. “I knew going into my junior year [of highschool], I wanted to join the Air Force. I had no desires for college, I just knew the military was the path for me.”

His first duty station as an enlisted Airman was Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, as an F-16 crew chief in 1994. His time was mostly spent working 12-hour shifts, six to seven days a week. But, the hard work could not make him love the military any less. However, the Air Force began to change over time and cutbacks on funding became intolerable.

“We had aircraft that we couldn’t repair,” said Campbell. “It was pretty much a bare-boned Air Force at the time. They would actually take one jet and cannibalize it to use parts on other aircraft just to keep them flying. [The budget] went from being very good to where we were begging and hoping, just trying to get parts any way we could to keep aircraft in the air.”

Campbell cross-trained into a Defense Travel Management Office in 2004 and was offered a slot to deploy to Balad Air Base, Iraq.
“We flew into Iraq, they had somebody at the air field to pick me up and I’d been up for about 20 hours before I hit the ground and my boss looked at me and said ‘Hey, I need you, can you make it today?’ and I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Campbell.

His boss needed to respond to a plane crash that occurred on Monday, May 30, 2005. Four Americans and an Iraqi crashed before midday. Campbell had gotten there just in time to help bring in the recovered parts of the crash and send them back to the United States to help determine the cause of the crash during the first 10 hours of his deployment.

“I’ve got their four names [on dog tags],” said Campbell. “They’re all buried in Arlington Cemetery. I go visit them every year. Whenever I go back home, I just remember who they were and what they were doing.”

Then that fateful day happened a month or so later. The rocket hit, and Campbell would spend the next two years wondering what was wrong with him and seeking answers from anyone who would help. From each duty station and each military doctor, Campbell would hear answers from ‘You’ll be fine, just get some more sleep’ to ‘It’s only PTSD.’

Campbell had continued giving what he could to the military by seeking any volunteer opportunities to serve. He volunteered to help with Hurricane Katrina just two months after being hit by the rocket, which he would find out only worsened his internal injuries.

“We all can still contribute in some way or some form,” said Campbell. “Never feel like you’re a failure or you’re hopeless. We all have a purpose. Don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. I’m always around if somebody needs anything.”

Campbell now resides in San Angelo and would like to support his fellow veterans.

It wasn’t until about 2007 when the studies began to reveal a deeper understanding of war injuries and as such, the term ‘Traumatic Brain Injury’ was given for one of Campbell’s conditions.

Campbell would undergo many tests, of which included the Water Test. Cold and hot water would be injected into Campbell to test the pressure against his brain. The test concluded that one side of his brain had a neurological deficit. The injuries known common symptoms would include loss of balance, walking problems, weakness of the arms or legs, abnormal reflexes and sometimes even the inability to speak. As the doctors continued testing, they found that the hearing in his right ear was only 44 percent effective because of the blast. The doctors would also eventually find that because of inhalation of debris in the blast and in Hurricane Katrina, his lungs had deteriorated to that of an 80-year old chronic smoker, despite the fact that he had not smoked a day in his life.

“In 1920, Calvin Coolidge famously noted ‘The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten’. If you are standing here today, you would know our nation is the greatest nation on earth and that it does not forget our defenders,” said Col. Michael Downs, 17th Training Wing Commander. “Staff Sgt. Campbell, you powerfully overcame the enemy’s attempt to take your life. This act only made you stronger, you are resilient and an inspiration to all of us. Thank you so much for your service and for your sacrifice.”