Warrior Stories

SSgt (retired) Zac Ruttman

My name is (retired) Staff Sergeant Zachary Thomas Ruttman. In July of 2001, I joined the Air National Guard. I was 23 years old. Two months later, 9/11 happened and I was put on active duty orders. I remained on active duty for the rest of my military career. Eventually, I was selected to join the Tactical Forces Group (Team 2), the Air Force’s only combat offense group. I deployed to Iraq for 7 months in 2004, and what happened there changed my life forever. I medically retired from the Air Force as a Staff Sargent in 2011. This is my story;

 

I live in Oklahoma, in a suburb of Tulsa. I’m in college full-time studying business. My wife’s name is Tarra, and we have an 8-year-old son. I also spend a lot of time coaching youth sports—basketball, baseball, and football. I’d like to start a small business, or be a high school or college football coach. That all seems pretty normal, but my experience of life can change in an instant.

It happens when I’m doing simple things, like going outside and checking the mail. I peer out the door and all around, not because I think someone is out there, but because survival has become my nature. Why would I want to turn off my vigilance? It’s what brought me home safe and to this moment.

Sometimes as I drive, I have to remind myself that I am in Tulsa and that no one is going to come out with a gun and start shooting at me, or try to blow me up. But then my mind shifts and I’m back in combat in Iraq.

My time there wasn’t all bad. When I first deployed, I loved it. I was 26, and a part of a small team that bonded quickly. I felt we had a good reason in being over there. We didn’t have the mindset that we were an occupying force; we were there to build relationships, help people, and get bad guys.

Over a million people lived in the area. We would hang out with the locals and play soccer with their kids. We showed them we cared and we became close. So many locals would give us a heads up if something was going on, if there was talk of planned attacks against us or other groups.

When we received a tip, we’d set up a mission to see what we could find out. We had over 120 successful missions. Every time we went to and from our objectives, we would prepare ourselves for death. As we drove through heavily populated areas, we’d hear gunfire and explosions. There were a few times where gunfire, rockets, and mortars were just near misses. Until, for me, that day in November.

On November 22, 2004, we headed out on a mission. There were three teams in HMMWVs. I was in the lead vehicle, riding on top in the turret wearing protective equipment as I sat behind the M240Bravo. As we rode along, I assessed the area for any oncoming threats. As we continued driving to our destination, I saw three men out of the corner of my eye standing to our left behind a couple of cars. They seemed out of place, and their body language screamed with shifty unseemliness. I distinctly remembering thinking, “What are they up to?”  

As soon as the thought entered my mind, it happened! Our 13,000 ton vehicle was lifted off the ground. My helmet flew off and thick, grey smoke engulfed us in a dry surge. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything. I had hot, sharp, burning metal shrapnel in my right shoulder, neck, and head. There’s something silent and sacred about being in the epicenter of an explosion. Time stands still and you become one with it. If you are far away from the center of impact, you feel the energy that comes after the sound wave. But when you are inside of the explosion, there isn’t a bang that hits you milliseconds later. It’s instant shock, without warning. And then I found myself hanging in the turret, hunched over in a dream-like state fading back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness. Finally, the smoke started to dissipate. I opened my heavy eyelids, blinking through the dust. The smell of smoke, sweat, diesel, and blood saturated the air. The driver was leaned forward, propped over both the steering wheel and the passenger who had been flung onto his lap. There was another guy in the back, but I couldn’t see him. I took the worst of the explosion, as I was exposed at the top of the vehicle. The others had minor injuries, but thankfully we all survived. We were rocked, but alive. The rest of that day is a blur, but I know the other teams we were with took us to a nearby base for immediate attention.

The medics cleaned up my shoulder and neck, stabilizing me pretty quickly. My right ear was completely blown out. I lost my eardrum and my middle ear was torn up. They filled my ear with wound packing. It would be months before the swelling would go down enough for me to be assessed for surgery.

They were able to simply pull out most the shrapnel, as the piercings were mostly superficial because of my life-saving body armor. I still have a few pieces of shrapnel in the back of my head that weren’t worth fishing out; they are about the size of thumbnail clippings.

A later investigation revealed we had rolled over two giant tank rounds—155mm Howitzers—buried in the ground, which were remotely detonated. They exploded on the rear passenger side of our HMMVW. Those three suspicious-looking guys were exactly who I thought they were. It is so wild to think about how that one single moment made such an impact on my life.

People ask me what was the worst part of what I’ve gone through. I am not sure I would consider the actual explosion the worst moment. The whole 7 months I was deployed, every single tenth of a second could have been my last moment. Living with constant anticipation was worse than the actual event.

I don’t think I could have ever prepared myself for what I went through in Iraq. Before I deployed, I didn’t know the extent of how evil the world could be. Deployment was like flying in a spaceship to another world, a place where everyone wants you dead, and a small percentage of them actively seek you out to kill you.

Every day I would pray, “God, if you are going to take me today, please just make it quick. Let it be a shot to the head.” I didn’t want to look down and see my legs gone. I couldn’t not think about stuff like that. I had to make peace with it. I couldn’t let it affect my job. I knew I was going to have to deal with injury if it came. But in the moment, I had to focus on whatever mission was in front of me.

I wasn’t physically ready to patrol with my team for a couple of weeks after the attack, but I really wanted to get back out there. There wasn’t anything severely wrong with me and I wanted to keep working. When I heard there was talk of sending me home, I balked.

“If you send me home that is a win for them and a loss for us. I don’t want that to happen,” I said as I argued my case to the commander. He let me stay with my team and finish my mission, but nothing was the same after that.

My hyper vigilance became worse. I saw every single object, every piece of trash on the road, every person within eye sight, and car. We couldn’t probe everything that might be a threat or we would never get anywhere, so I just braced myself and plowed forward.

Four months later it was time to go home. During out-processing in Iraq, the doctor reading my file looked at me and asked, “Why in the hell are you still here?” He red-flagged me for follow-up in the states.

I knew I’d have some recovery time, but I had no idea how bad my injuries actually were, or how my experience would affect me mentally. Those first three years back home were bad.

I ended up having surgery on my eyes, ears, and neck. I had a lot of damage to my spine. The doctors put an electronic nervous system into my body to keep my nerves alive. I have 16 leads from my tailbone to the top of my head, and a battery source in my hip.

Along with the physical stuff, I was diagnosed with PTSD and a Traumatic Brain Injury. The realities of the gruesome things I’d seen lingered in my mind. I started having horrific and gruesome nightmares. My heartrate never slowed down and the hypervigilance never left. It wasn’t like I could just chill now that I was home.

The Air Force decided I couldn’t be in my career field anymore. They said I was combat ineffective, and non-deployable. I was enrolled into the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program and assigned to a Care Coordinator who helped me take a proactive approach to transitioning to retirement. Eventually, a Non-Medical Care Manager began to call me every month or so to ask if I needed help with anything. Everyone took good care of me. I didn’t feel discarded. But, I always down-played my PTSD with everyone and tried to move forward with that “tough guy mentality.” That attitude caused my recovery to be extremely difficult. I blame that on myself. The help was there, but I guess I was scared at first. I medically retired from the Air Force in 2011 with full benefits.

Though I had my physical needs met, that feeling of losing my sense of purpose and not knowing where to go from here was scary as hell. Of course, I didn’t act afraid or voice my concerns. I did what I could to survive, just like I did in combat.

To distract myself, I started drinking and gambling. I got married—it was a Vegas wedding and the marriage only lasted about a year. I did my best to hide a lot of my struggles, but when you’re married you can’t hide it. I needed recovery and my wife wasn’t prepared to handle all that came with that.

Then one of the team members who was in the HMMVW with me that day took his own life. I had a strong sense of guilt. Maybe he’d still be here if I would have kept that bond with my team. Or if I could’ve prevented the IED attack from happening. I became lost in negative thoughts, and I was ready to end my own life.

I knew I had to make a choice. I was either going to end my life, or do everything in my power to get better. I wanted more than to just survive. I wanted my quality of life back, or I did not want life at all.

I made the decision to fight for my life.

I packed a suitcase and took a one-way flight to Hawaii. I didn’t know a soul there. I stayed at the airport a few days before I found a hostel. In a few weeks, I rented an apartment.

Hawaii was good for me. I started taking proactive steps toward recovery. I re-gained physical strength along with a few much-needed surgeries. I went to an outpatient and two inpatient rehab facilities for PTSD where I gained the tools I needed to manage my life. I started finding purpose in living, every day.

Even though I’ve been retired for 6 years now, I attended my first two Air Force Wounded Warrior C.A.R.E. Events in the past few months. I am blessed to be a part of the AFW2 program, even though I’m an old guy that is already out of the system. I wasted so many years without working on my recovery, and I am thankful to have the opportunity to participate and meet other people who share similar experiences.

So many people have taken care of me throughout the years. I’m now at the point where I need to give back in order to keep going forward. I was recently trained as an AFW2 Mentor, and have found purpose in encouraging others to be proactive about recovery, instead of waiting for so many years and missing out like I did.

Being a Mentor is an awesome opportunity for people like me who are further along in recovery. We walk along side of other Wounded Warriors right where they are at. We give them hope for the future, and a Wingman for life. And they give that right back to us. I never had that.

I thank my friends and family, and AFW2 for being involved in my recovery. Without the help of others, I may not have wanted to live anymore. And I know other warriors out there don’t have a good support system. Or maybe they do, but refuse to ask for help. I hope my story reaches warriors and their families. And I hope it helps in their recovery. They fought for others. Now, others need to fight for them.

Timothy M. McDonough TSgt ( Retired)

I started in adaptive sports with the AFW2 program under duress. My NMCM Laura Newton contacted me when I had already been retired and was heading across country. I felt alone an abandoned by the Air Force and frankly by everyone. I was bitter and between mental health issues and my physical injuries I was Angry. Very angry even rude. Laura wasn't pushed off or to be deterred. No matter how I was she knew what the AFW2 program would do for me. 

  Let me explain my story . 

I was a flying crew chief and it was our role throughout both wars to bring home HRs—human remains—from the combat zone. The first couple of times you do it, you’re proud. You feel that you are blessed to take home our nation’s fallen heroes to their families. Over time, though, you become quite numb to the fact that there are HRs down in the cargo box. Numb to what is going on around you. Numb to your friends and family. All your emotions shut off. Then the sleep deprivation and the night terrors start.

Before long, your body breaks down as well. I had nine service-related surgeries—on my cervical spine, my shoulder, my wrist and an elbow. My doctor down at Bethesda Naval Hospital told me due to my arm damage, I would never again do things I loved again like archery, rowing and rock climbing—basically anything that required upper body strength. This made me bitter and angry at the whole world. It not only took me out of action; it also exacerbated the PTSD.

I would jump and startle at the drop of a hat. I started hearing things that weren’t there—”auditory hallucinations”—and the only time I felt comfortable in my own skin was when I was alone out in the woods. I would disappear for hours on end, and when it started becoming days, my wife was extremely concerned. I didn’t care if I lived or died anymore. I just wanted the pain and useless feeling to stop.

I thought I was doing well. my wife and I opened our own Non profit. we kept helping other vets and trying to make sense of the post military life. I was a successful business owner by day and at night I was a mess. No,matter how many pills or therapies I went through ( yes I tried them all) something was missing from my life. 

 In Feb of 2013. I went to my first Air Force Wounded Warrior adaptive sports camp. I was in the pool floundering and turning in circles. The swim coach jumped in with me and asked me what the hell was I doing. My reply—”Trying to swim”—didn’t go over well. She looked at me and said, “Stop trying so hard to not swim. Take your damaged arm put it in your hand in your pocket. Pretend it’s not there. Use the good one and the good one only.” She said she would swim with me down and back and if I did just that I could leave and she would leave me alone. Before I knew it I was at one end of the pool and back. On the way back Something clicked in my head. I literally felt the click,  What else can I do? What the hell have I been missing? I went and saw the shooting coach, and then cycling and archery.

A few short months later I was at the very first Wounded Warrior Air Force Trials. It was there I began an extreme passion for archery . 

At those trials I took a bronze in freestanding rifle shooting. Then I earned the first ever Recurve Archery Gold for the AF trials. I then become a mentor for others and was given the Care Beyond Duty Mentorship Award at the 2015 trials. Not only have I been pushing myself, I’ve also been inspiring and pushing other wounded, ill and injured airmen. 

 Through their unique family care giver program, I was also able to save my marriage and retain my most important title of Husband and Dad. The AFW2 caregiver program focuses on whole family healing. Without them I was heading into divorce court and losing my family a second time. 

 Through AFW2 I was able to get refocused on whole body healing. The weekly work we put in dealing with my traumas and with my  physical ailments allowed me to be an athlete and win a silver medal for the Air Force team in 2015. It also allowed me to be able to accept a position as the assistant Archery coach for the AFW2 program. 

Airman, Broken, warrior, Warrior Games competitor, Mentor and now Coach! 

 My adopted Mom gave me a saying " turn Disability into This Ability- I have learned to live that everyday now. 

To conclude I don’t believe you are ever cured of PTSD or TBI -  You learn to live with them. Adaptive sports are one of my tools for living with it.  I thank God for Adaptive sports and AFW2 "My Big Blue Family", because of them and more importantly With them I will survive. 

Craig Zeleski, MSgt (retired)

August 7, 2012 while stationed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, I was diagnosed with a softball sized tumor in my frontal lobe. August 10, 2012 I was medevacked to Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. On August 20, 2012 I had Tumor Resection surgery which lasted approximately 9 hours. They weren't able to get the entire tumor because it had grown around my optical nerve. August 22, 2012, I was still not awake from surgery and my brain is swelling from the assault of the surgery which was considered a Tramatic Brain Injury. August 24, 2012, I had an emergency craniectomy to remove my forehead to allow my brain to swell without damage. On September 1, 2012 I had a tracheostomy put in and a PEG tube put in my stomach for feeding. I finally woke up on September 10, 2012. Since I was awake now, I was going to be flying to the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. The rehab that I needed was offered there. I left Hawaii on September 13 and arrived in Seattle September 15. I'm still not awake very much at all. Found out on September 28, I had pneumonia and moved to the acute care wing of the hospital. On October 2 found out I had a collapsed lung and on October 3 I had lung surgery because of empyema in my right lung. October 5, I was finally able to sit up in my chair for 2 hours today. October 18 a small CSF leak was found on my brain and on October 26 an endoscopic procedure was performed and showed that my body healed the CSF leak on its own. Started to make some more progress by communicating with my family by faintly speaking to them and giving hand signs and small movements. I was moved from the University Of Washington Hospital to Kindred Hospital on November 7 because I am not strong enough for inpatient rehab. November 23 I had my trach removed and on November 29 I stood up with a tremendous amount of help and ate a mandarin orange. On December 3 I finally called my wife by her name. Up until this point I had been calling her Tracey, my sister's name. December 6, I was able to eat thick fluids and soft foods. On December 9, I was able to walk the length of the parallel bars with the help of a physical therapist. December 10, I was able to sit on the side of my bed without assistance. December 18, I was able to start eating a regular diet. December 24 my I.V. was finally taken out permanently and was able to go outside in a wheelchair. January 7, 2013 I went to the University of Washington for some pre-operation appointments for my upcoming cranioplasty. February 6, my prosthetic skull implants were finally finished and had a surgery scheduled for February 13. On February 11, I had a MRI and discovered a small amount of tumor left in the old tumor sight. Honestly, I really don’t remember anything from the middle of August 2012 until the Super Bowl in February 2013.  Once I finally had my skull repaired, I started more rehab.  During the time leading up to my skull replacement, I could talk but it was very small words and I had to concentrate on what I was saying.  It was very difficult to say the least.  There were times while I was talking with my family that my eye lids would close and I couldn’t open them back up.  My daughter would be kind enough to open my eye lids back up so I could continue to visit with them.  All and all I spent 200 days in the hospital.  But when I was able to be back at home, I had to continue my rehab.  I had 4 counselors come to my home 3 times a week each.  My struggle was not complete.  I continued in home therapy for a year.  When I was released from the hospital, my family had rented a house in Shoreline, WA.  In June of 2013, we moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.  This was difficult for me because I was still not able to help as much as I normally would have.  I would get tired quickly and had to depend on my wife and kids to do much of the work.  Even when we were in our new house, I still wasn’t able to help set up without getting tired.  It was a hard time for me.  Honestly, I wasn’t the same man I was before and it was hard for me and my family to get used to.  I was angry and short tempered most of the time.  Common disagreements were made into a bigger deal than what they needed to be.  There wasn’t the respect between my family and I that there was before.  So, in October 2013, my wife packed up my kids and she moved to Montgomery, Al.  I was left without my kids, my support system and a vehicle.  I wasn’t able to drive anyway due to the seizures that I had had pre tumor and post tumor.  Now I had to depend on my co-workers to take me everywhere I needed to go.  I also had a 3 wheeled bike with a basket on the back that I could ride to the store if I needed anything.  Finally, in February 2014 my medical board results came back and I was medically retired from the Air Force.  The Air Force was the only thing I had known since High School.  Even though I knew this was coming, this was a hard time for me.  I loved being part of something bigger than me.  I loved defending my Country!  I loved my job and wasn’t ready to retire the way I did.  I believe and have faith that this happened for a reason.  God wanted me to influence people in a different way.  Since my retirement from the Air Force, my wife and I have divorced.  I live in Montgomery, AL so I can be near my kids.  I have attended many Air Force Wounded Warrior camps and even participated in the 2015 Warrior Games.  I have also become an Ambassador for the Air Force Wounded Warriors.  I have spoken multiple times to new Air Force leaders and have totally loved telling my story and how the Air Force Wounded Warrior organization helped me through the most difficult time in my life!  Mostly though, I would like to say this.  When I was 18 years old, God guided me to join the Air Force.  Since I was successful at the military part of my life, God challenged me again.  This time he challenged me with my life.  Through my faith in Him, my doctors, and my family, I was able to press on.  I have continued to move on in my life.  I spend all the time I can with my beautiful children!  I have just recently got a job working in the VA to be able to work on a second retirement!  It brings me to tears to think that just 4 years ago I was fighting to live on and now I’m blessed to continue to watch my children grow up and turn into adults and to have another job supporting the Veterans that have served our great Country!  All of this has been blessed upon me because I have faith in God to guide me through the thick and the thin parts of my life.

Trent Smith, SrA (retired)

I enlisted in the Air Force in September 2011 after graduating from Southridge High School in Beaverton Oregon. His first assignment was to the 569th US Forces Police Squadron at Vogelweh AB Germany as an Entry Controller. Shortly after arriving to Germany, Trent suffered military sexual trauma from an NCO in his unit and In November 2012 SrA Smith received a humanitarian assignment to the 60th Security Forces Squadron,  at Travis AFB California. There he served as a search team member at the commercial vehicle inspection gate and then later laterally trained to become a contractor liaison at the Travis Visitor control center. In December 2013 a Formal Physical Evaluation Board met at Randolph Air Force Base and concluded that the PTSD he suffered from the assault would preclude him from continuing his service in the Air Force and he was medically retired the following year in September 2014. Almost immediately after Retirement the Air Force Wounded warrior program contacted Trent and invited him to an introductory sports camp in January 2015 held at Randolph AFB. 

The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program has introduced me to adaptive sports, music therapy, massage therapy, and chiropractic services as well as a myriad of alternative relaxation and destress techniques. This program has done wonders for my mental health and decreased my anxiety and aided in managing my symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress and Major Depression. Dealing with mental health concerns as well as some physical challenges quickly becomes overwhelming for me and the AFW2 program has helped tremendously in my recovery and allowed me to slow my mind down and truly relax. I know I would have succumbed to the 22 to veterans a day statistic long ago if it wasn’t for this program, and other helping agencies that have helped to get me back on the right path.

I am currently going to school full time studying Psychology, Sociology, and French at Portland Community College here in Oregon. I also am hoping to continue my track coaching career with the AFW2 but nothing is set in stone just yet.

Beyond Brave and New Headings International Inc are sister charities. Beyond Brave will receive all donations through Amazon Smile.

New Headings International Inc is a medical charity, created by a friend who is a military doctor, to provide medical care in Equador.