For the tall, quiet Airman, speaking up about his injuries is difficult. His wounds aren’t visible, but they’re very real.
After two deployments and six bomb blasts, Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Wasnuk, of Hill’s 775th Explosive Ordnance Disposal flight, is receiving a Purple Heart for traumatic brain injuries he received in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wasnuk deployed to Iraq in 2006, after the Air Force began supporting the Army with patrols “outside the wire.” Before the deployment, he and his team trained at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. They were prepared for responding to calls for assistance with investigating and disarming improvised explosive devices in combat conditions.
When they arrived in the country, they put their training to use. Iraq was hot, dusty and very, very busy.
Things were a bit more high speed than his first job, managing a McDonald’s in South Ogden. But this is what he wanted to do when, tired of college and looking for a career, he signed up with the Air Force.
There was never a normal day in Iraq. On one day, the team might investigate a blast; on another day, interview locals with an interpreter; the next morning, render unexploded mortar rounds safe in the compound.
“We had three teams and we’d rotate calls, we’d try to make sure everyone had a little downtime, but there were a lot of times where we went out on multiple calls a day,” Wasnuk said. “I got a thrill every time we’d get a call, but it takes a toll. You’re constantly operating with a heightened sense of awareness.”
Three months into the deployment, Wasnuk’s team was returning from a mission in Buhriz when a suicide bomber launched a vehicle carrying a 400-pound bomb into the convoy. Instant pressure waves, light and noise.
Wasnuk’s team was inside a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The Humvee in front of his team was destroyed, components everywhere. Miraculously, no one was killed. His team was yelling at him to get on the radio with command. He couldn’t respond.
“Everything went a little hazy. My ears were ringing. I wasn’t unconscious, but I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Someone else in the MRAP had to take over as team chief,” Wasnuk said.
Disoriented, he heard popcorn popping. But it wasn’t popcorn. It was the sound of bullets pinging off the sides of their vehicle. A round hit the window right next to Wasnuk’s face. It was at times like these that he thought about his young daughter and making it home to her.
For nearly two hours, the team took and returned enemy fire in all directions. The patrol destroyed any vehicle it saw as a threat. A tank and a helicopter arrived, got them unpinned and allowed the team to return safely to base.
He didn’t know it, but Wasnuk had suffered his first of two traumatic brain injuries. He knew something was wrong, but if he reported himself as injured, they’d take him off of duty. In combat for the first time, with a team of fellow Airmen, that just wasn’t an option he wanted to pursue.
“The pressure waves from the explosion cause rapid acceleration and rapid deceleration. Your brain sits in liquid and it’s playing volleyball against the insides of your skull,” said one EOD Airman who survived a similar blast and received a purple heart, but did not want to be named. “The severity of the TBI depends on how close you were, how big the blast was and if your head had any secondary impacts. After taking a blow like that, symptoms can range from limited cognitive ability, memory loss and ringing ears, to migraines and seizures. When you start stacking TBIs on top of each other, that’s when you can really run into problems.”
Wasnuk kept quiet about his symptoms. He went on another patrol that night and another IED, this one not as large, detonated 50 meters from his position. More trauma to the already slightly scrambled brain. After the mission, the team returned to base and Wasnuk hit the rack. He woke up in the middle of the night, walked 10 feet and fell down twice.
“I was still really disoriented,” he said. “But you want to help as much as you can.”
Ten days later, his roommate grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
“Wasnuk, get your gear. I’m taking you to the clinic.”
“Because I’ve been calling your name for the last 10 minutes and you haven’t responded.”
Wasnuk went. What followed was exactly what he feared — tests, tests and more tests and five weeks of downtime.
“My memory was diminished, along with my hearing and my vision,” he said. “Little by little, they started to get better, but they never returned to a normal level. My ears still ring and I get headaches constantly.”
He returned to duty. He was back home in a month. Returning was a jarring experience. One day, he’s in a combat zone, getting blown up and shot at. Later in the week, he’s driving down an American street, casting suspicious glances at broken-down cars and things on the side of the road.
“I didn’t recognize it, but I had post-traumatic stress. When things like that happened, I just used to use them as little exercises, I would start running through the mental checklist of things I would do if that broke-down car was an IED,” Wasnuk said. “I wanted to keep my mind fresh for my next deployment.”
Wasnuk did deploy again, this time to Kandahar Afghanistan in 2009, which just like Iraq was hotter than summer baseball in Lampasas, and filled with ways to get killed.
Case in point: Hundreds of pounds of liquid explosives in jugs wrapped with detonation cord, sitting in a Toyota in a walled compound a few kilometers from Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak. The Afghan Army spotted the SUV, reported it to the U.S. Army, which then called Wasnuk’s team to investigate.
Once at the compound, the EOD team sent in the robot. While they were carrying out their procedures, the bomb went off. The blast and the aftermath were all too familiar to Wasnuk. He was disoriented. His ears rang. He lost memory. Later that day, he couldn’t even remember his address. In Iraq, Wasnuk had survived five IED blasts. Thankfully, in Afghanistan, this was his first and only. But it did its damage. Wasnuk was soon diagnosed with a second traumatic brain injury.
When he returned home in January 2010, Wasnuk filled out a post-deployment health assessment. He listed everything he’d seen and been through. It was a lot. Sergeant Wasnuk has been receiving treatment ever since, CAT scans and counseling. Tests and more tests.
“Studying TBIs in the military is relatively new,” said Wasnuk’s fellow EOD member. “The research history is just not there yet. Those of us who have suffered these injuries, we don’t really know what effects they’re going to have on us five or 10 years down the road.”
Wasnuk wants other Airmen and service members to know the importance of seeking help for TBIs and post-traumatic stress. They may not be able to see their own scars, or want to admit their injury for fear of being taken off duty, but treatment is crucial for a proper recovery.
“I still didn’t want to believe anything was wrong (with TBI or PTS), but because of everything I had been through, I was strongly encouraged to seek help,” he said. “I want to encourage other people with similar experiences to also seek help.”
Because of the continuing symptoms from Wasnuk’s injuries, his future in the Air Force is uncertain. He only wants to stay in if he can continue to contribute. But whatever lies ahead, he’s looking forward to the new chapter in his life.
Wasnuk is scheduled to receive a Purple Heart for his brain injuries on March 25.