War on Terrorism

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Warrior Games 2013: Games makes injured man feel like Airman again

by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service

5/7/2013 - COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFNS) -- Surrounded by his Air Force Warrior Games teammates as he trains to represent his service in archery, rifle shooting and sitting volleyball, Tech. Sgt. Alex Gaud-Torres feels like an Airman again.

Since his childhood in Puerto Rico, Gaud-Torres wanted to join the U.S. Air Force, a dream he realized when he enlisted after college in 1995.  He arrived at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., after space and missile maintenance training on his 21st birthday. But after he was injured by a car bomb while manning a checkpoint in Iraq in 2005, Gaud-Torres' feelings changed. He didn't feel he deserved to be an Airman anymore.

"A fire has always burned within me to be an American Airman, but when you get injured, you start feeling down on yourself because you're not the same person you were," he said. "That's how you measure yourself.

"I used to be in the Honor Guard. I used to be able to stand up for hours on end with a rifle or holding a casket, and I was a maintainer on 18-hour shifts in the frozen tundra fixing security systems or electronic equipment. I used to be able to do long-distance running and run forever. But I was thinking I didn't deserve to be an Airman anymore. I'm not the person they need to represent the Air Force that I love so much."

In 2005, then Staff Sgt. Gaud-Torres deployed from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to Joint Base Balad as a third country national escort to assist the Army with inspecting personnel and vehicles and staffing checkpoints. Earlier in his deployment, he was attacked by a group of Iraqi civilians, but was rescued by a U.S. Soldier. Then, in mid-April, he was among a group inspecting dump trucks for false compartments and weapons off base when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated. The attack left him with two fractured vertebrae, a bruised sternum and severe nerve damage on the right side of his body.

"All I remember was this rush of air on the back of my neck and then opening up my eyes and looking at the sky," he said. "To this day, whenever I feel air on the back of my neck, it sends a chill down my spine."

When the geospatial intelligence analyst went home a few weeks later, he began feeling pain in his right arm and shoulder, so much so that he was unable to render a salute to a lieutenant when he left his office building one afternoon. His arm wouldn't move.

Surgeons found that two of his vertebrae were damaged, with a mass of recalciumification. They inserted a titanium plate, and he had to regain his fine motor skills. His wife Alex helped in the months after his surgery by having him help her with her scrapbooking.

"I had my supplies out on the table, and I was aware of the problems he was having holding on to things, so I asked him if he wanted to sit and help me," she said. "One day, I pulled out some pictures he emailed me from Iraq and asked if he wanted to tell his story of what he went through. He didn't share his pain or any of his experiences. To this day, I don't think I know everything."

Gaud-Torres' motor skills returned long before he confronted the emotional damage left by the attack, although his wife and their daughters Alexis, Alexandria and Alexia, were well aware something wasn't right.

"What you are to your kids is you are a superhero, but they want to protect you, too," Gaud-Torres said. "Unbeknowndest to me, I was molding them. If we went to a place where there were kids running around like a birthday party, or a kid with a balloon, they'd find a way to stop it or get rid of the balloon. You don't notice, but kids learn so fast. They're like sponges. I was transferring to them what I thought should happen. People shouldn't be behind me. There shouldn't be loud noises. The next thing I know, I was training them."

When Gaud-Torres finally self-identified himself with PTSD through resiliency training in 2012, he insisted on counseling for not only himself, but for him and his wife and separate counseling for their daughters.

When his Wounded Warrior Program care manager told him about the Warrior Games, Gaud-Torres and his wife instantly knew it would be good for him.

"When I'm shooting, my coach says to empty everything that's in my mind, to concentrate, aim and pull in the right direction, breathe and release," Gaud-Torres said. "When I'm doing that, there's nothing else in my head. It's like I'm back before everything happened, before I even deployed. It's so peaceful when I'm out there on the line. You don't anticipate the shot. You just let it happen. It's just me and the target and perfect peace and harmony."

However, his individual events are almost incidental. What is most important is the feeling that he is an Airman again and has his Air Force family back, especially with his fellow wounded warriors.

"It's the Airman concept," Gaud-Torres said. "Not only is it on the battlefield that we need it, but also on the battlefield that's in your mind. We're fighting a battle, and we need to be there for each other.

"When you're in the (area of responsibility), and something happens, you take care of each other, and you expect that. But these are my boys, my Airmen. This is what wingmanship really is. Even outside of the uniform, they still have blue in them."

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