By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
Staff Sgt. David Gaffney was moving a concrete barrier on a street in Baghdad on Feb. 23 when a shot fired from the second story of a nearby building entered his head just below his left temple. The bullet tore through his cheek and jaw and exited behind his left ear.
"That was all she wrote," Gaffney said Thursday. He serves with the 1st Cavalry Division's Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
He has no memory of what happened in the days following the shooting.
From the sergeant who tried to evacuate him and got hit by a rocket-propelled grenade to his medevacs from Balad, Iraq, to Germany to the United States, Gaffney's memories come from other soldiers and health-care providers. He doesn't remember getting treated in Iraq or Germany, and his memory was "hit or miss" after arriving in the United States on March 2.
During that week, Gaffney had a 50-50 chance of living. The left side of his face was torn up. Spinal fluid had leaked into his ear.
When he reached the U.S., doctors realized shrapnel from the rocket-propelled grenade that wounded the sergeant who tried to evacuate him came up under his helmet and injured the right side of his head.
Army officials called Gaffney's mother and father in tiny Bartonville, Ill., a town of a little more than 6,000 people 170 miles southwest of Chicago, and told them their son was in such bad condition they would have to travel to Germany to see him – possibly for the last time.
Gaffney's family members are no strangers to military life. His father is a 32-year Air Force veteran; his two older brothers served in the Navy and Army.
Gaffney's father always felt something was going to happen, the sergeant said Friday; he just didn't know when.
When Gaffney was well enough to travel, he was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His injuries were so severe, however, that he was then sent to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where his parents were able to visit him for the first time.
It took more than a week for Gaffney to even realize where he was and what was going on. He was discharged from Bethesda one month and one day after getting shot and sent to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the leading rehabilitation hospital in America, for nearly a month.
The hospital treats traumatic brain injuries, a common injury among soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among soldiers wounded in combat in the two countries, traumatic brain injury, or TBI, accounts for a larger percentage of deaths than in other recent wars, according to an article in the May 19, 2005, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
Of the wounded soldiers who have been treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, 22 percent have had injuries to the head, face or neck. A Walter Reed neurologist and psychiatrist said that this number "can serve as a rough estimate of the fraction who have TBI," though that is probably higher because some cases of TBI are not immediately diagnosed.
A Sept. 5, 2005, Army Times article stated that 10 to 20 percent of war fighters had a TBI while in theater.
The injuries are measured on three levels: mild, moderate and severe. Gaffney sustained severe TBI, which is measured by the loss of consciousness for more than 24 hours and post traumatic amnesia for more than seven days, according to information from the center.
After treatment and therapy, Gaffney has been lowered to mild TBI with a potential for moderate.
"I've got to try and stay there," Gaffney said defiantly.
Mild is the most common level of TBI sustained by troops, according to the center. It is measured by a loss of consciousness lasting from less than 20 minutes to 1 hour and post traumatic amnesia less than 24 hours. Of the patients admitted to Walter Reed following a blast, 59 percent have been diagnosed with a TBI. Of those, 56 percent were considered moderate or severe and 44 percent as mild.
The most common type of TBI in this war is known as closed and is caused by vehicle crashes, falls, and for a majority of the incidents, blasts or explosions from things such as roadside bombs. Of the injuries from a blast or explosion seen at Walter Reed, 41 percent had a TBI, according to the center.
During the Vietnam War, 12 to 14 percent of all combat-related casualties had a TBI and 2 to 4 percent had a TBI and a lethal wound to the chest or abdomen, according to the journal. However, most TBIs were classified as penetrating, meaning they were caused by things such as gunshot wounds or shrapnel fragments. The death rate from brain injuries in Vietnam was at 75 percent or greater, according to the journal.
Gaffney has endured more than 35 hours of surgery. Doctors removed everything in his left ear and placed fat cells from his stomach in the ear to seal it shut. They also removed a nerve from his neck and inserted it in his cheek. He has no hearing in his left year, limited sight with his left eye and balance problems. Gaffney isn't able to move anything on the left side of his face except for his eyelid. He has been told there is a possibility he'll regain muscle movement.
Gaffney will go in front of a medical board in March 2008, where he will face a potential discharge.
Still, it takes more than that to stop a 15-year infantryman who has always avoided sick call. Doctors are telling Gaffney that he is healing and rehabilitating faster than they are used to, he said proudly. He reported back to work on May 21, just three months after getting shot in the head.
He now serves with his unit's rear detachment at Fort Hood, keeping an eye on the other injured soldiers who have returned to Fort Hood and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio from Iraq. Though he puts on the uniform every day, he doesn't feel like he is at work because he is not with his guys in Iraq.
The feeling is hard to explain, Gaffney said. The bond shared between the soldiers is so strong because of how much time they spend together and because of the extreme situations they find themselves in.
"Those are the only friends you truly have," he said.
It's the kind of camaraderie built in a situation when the only person a soldier can rely on is the soldier next to him. It comes from being more worried about the soldier next to you than yourself, Gaffney said.
"It's going beyond what you could ever as a normal person do," he added.
"The way you think isn't for you anymore."
Eleven of the 18 soldiers honored at the 1st Cavalry's monthly memorial ceremony on June 21 were from the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. Gaffney knew most of them, he admitted with a hint of sadness.
"That's the worst," he said, because he was in the United States and not able to be with them.
"Could I have seen or done something more?" he asked.
Those unanswered questions leave him, and soldiers in the same situation, with a lot of guilt.
"How am I a hero if I'm at home with a Purple Heart and not over there?" Gaffney said.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547