By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, USAF
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., Aug. 23, 2006 – Whenever Air Force Tech. Sgt. Randy Gardner drove a short distance from the protected gates of Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan to pick up rental vehicles, he always felt uneasy. He told himself it was only for a few minutes, but he admits now that each time he left the protected bubble he was scared.
The sergeant, who was in charge of maintaining 30 rental vehicles and 117 government vehicles at his deployed location, never saw any "action" outside the compound. But, the action found him when a rocket slammed into his work center July 18. "It sounded like an airbag going off," recalled Gardner, a special purpose vehicle mechanic with the 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron here.
He said he was eating lunch in the break room when he felt as if he had been slugged in the arm and was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. At first, he thought the television exploded. In reality, a rocket sliced through the back of his left shoulder and peppered his hands and arms with metal shards. There was only one thing going through his mind at the time: "Survival! I just wanted to make it out alive," he said.
Even though he was hurt and dazed, Gardner kept calm and directed several airmen to grab rags and place them over his wounds. "Combat training and self aid and buddy care really prepares you for what you need to face," he said. "Everyone needs to pay attention to it when they go through training."
He was transported to the hospital along with a coworker who was pelted with shrapnel. The coworker remained in Afghanistan, but Gardner's injuries were more extensive. Within days, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Gardner accepted his Purple Heart Medal July 26 with what his wife, Kathy, described as a stiff, military upper lip.
"It's still hard to believe I got it," he said. "It felt pretty good to know they recognize you for what you went through." Gardner's wounds are a reminder of what he left behind in Afghanistan. "As soon as he saw his military liaison (for the first time), he kept saying, 'I've got to call the guys,'" said Kathy, who chuckled when she remembered how adamant her husband was about begging the liaison to make sure someone at Kandahar would finish writing a recommendation letter for a coworker there.
His wife said pushing his own feelings aside to help others is indicative of Gardner's low-key character. "He's pretty laid-back, although he gets uptight about his tool box," Kathy said. Gardner credits his training with helping him remain calm after the attack. "People need to pay attention to what they learn when they're going through training," Gardner said. "You have got to be real careful, keep your eye on your surroundings, and keep your ears open." Gardner is one of three Dover members to recently receive a Purple Heart, but the only one to suffer injuries that required prolonged medical attention back home.
"It's always shocking to find out this happened to someone close to you. At the same time, I realize the risk," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Fulton Morris, also a special purpose vehicle mechanic with the 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron. Morris said he safely weathered 85 rocket and mortar attacks while deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq.
Although Gardner takes pride in his newly acquired Purple Heart, the best part of his duty in Afghanistan was tinkering with vehicles and keeping them running in extreme weather conditions with sparse supplies, he said. "They send us there to fix vehicles and keep everything moving; nothing moves without vehicle maintenance's help," he said. "People couldn't drive to the chow hall or use vehicles that accomplish the direct mission.
"We are just over there doing our part," he added.
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips is assigned to the 436th Airlift Wing public affairs office.)