SSG Terry Saffron, Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom
One of my favorite things about the project, is the individuality of each warfighter I cover. While I think a lot of civilians see our soldiers as one collective, robotic mass; when you join you see a very different picture. Each soldier comes from a very different background with different reasons for joining. I have my hard-chargers that join because they want to put bad guys in the ground, I have my veterans that served because their family did, the soldiers that joined to pay for college, those that enlisted because their life was headed nowhere, and the ones that signed up because it was an alternative to a bad lifestyle. Yet, there is no one specific reason for joining that makes up a great soldier. There are Medal of Honor recipients that were flippin' burgers at Wendy's before they charged up hills through a hail of gunfire, repelling the enemy like they were born to do so. That's one of the key points of the project; to show the veteran as an individual. The collective brotherhood is a forced participation into the greatest military force this world has seen. Yet from my time in the military, it works extremely well. You want to see a black kid from the westside of Houston hanging out with a white kid from the rural mountains of Kentucky? Join the Army. It happens. Men are forced into positions and relationships they'd never thought they'd form, and it works extremely well. The pressures and rigors of combat make men find common ground. I'll be honest. If you put me in a room and told me there was a veteran in there and I had to find him, Terry Saffron would be the last person I'd pick. He's left all the physical regs behind with long silver hair, a beard that would put some buccaneers to shame, tie dye bandanas, and gauges in the ears. Yet, that's one of the reasons I loved covering Terry. He's a perfect picture of there being no stereotype for being a warrior. SSG Terry Saffron was wounded badly in Iraq in 2004 after his unit was involved in a complex ambush near Baghdad. His vehicle was hit by an IED powered by two 152 mm mortar rounds, wounding him and killing two of his fellow comrades. Terry's story is one of faith in the Lord, and how that faith has kept him moving through twelve years of ongoing rehab.
Can you tell me about that day and what happened?
TS: We were actually in Sadiyah, which is in South-Central Baghdad. The town itself is on Route Irish but we weren't on on Irish when we were hit. We were in town when it happened and that's honestly pretty rare. Usually you don't get hit in the middle of a town. We were running a mission called BOLO (Be On the Look Out) and we were setting up snap checkpoints. We had four traffic circles, one in each corner of town. We'd setup a checkpoint in each traffic circle without notice. Normally we'd let them (Iraqis) know that we'd be in their areas establishing checkpoints, but for snap checkpoints you don't do that. You just show up and just start checking vehicles. Command had us on the lookout for a red Mercedes that night. Sometimes it was random and sometimes it was purposeful, as far as what vehicles we were looking for. It was based on intel as far as who we were looking for specifically. Our vehicle broke down and we don't really know what happened. I think it might've been a fuel issue. The humvee wouldn't start so they were going to have a maintenance vehicle come out and tow us; but they couldn't get the wrecker to come fast enough. They didn't want us sitting out there that long, even though it wasn't necessarily a bad spot for us. We were in a neighborhood that was considered pretty safe at the time. We decided to do a hasty-hookup. Every humvee already has a tow-strap hooked up to it already. If something happens you just undo the zip ties and hook it up with a ratchet strap. We towed it with a light vehicle, so we had a M-998 Humvee towing a M-998 Humvee. There was a lot of confusion and that might've not been the best decision.
The vehicle got hooked up and we had to ride in it, because there was no place else for passengers. Towing our vehicle with the same type of vehicle made our convoy slowdown tremendously, so we were going about 30 mph instead of 60 mph. It made us a much easier target. They were aiming for the last vehicle and they hit it. It went off center to my vehicle. The explosion happened and I just saw a flash. I was sitting behind the driver at the time of the blast. We had that Mad Max armor that wasn't very good but the best we could do at the time. When the IED went off it knocked two of our guys on top of each other. I had no idea what happened at first. The shrapnel hit millimeters from my jugular vein. There was some pretty bad bleeding, and in fact, I almost bled to death. I came very close to bleeding out from a few different areas; my neck, my jaw, my arm, my legs, and my side. One of the shrapnel wounds was millimeters from my spinal cord. I just remember trying to move my arm, and it seemed like everything was moving in slow motion. I remember I had my M-16 raised before the blast, ready for whatever might happen. When the blast went off shrapnel hit my arm and forced my hand away from the gun. I was trying to pull the trigger because I knew we'd been attacked. I kept wondering, "Why can't I shoot? Why isn't my weapon firing?" I felt my finger squeezing but my hand was down at my leg just scratching my leg. I tried to pull my arm up but I couldn't do it. I thought I'd lost it. We were still driving. I looked over at Kreitzer and Marshall just laying on top of each other (the blast had stacked them on top of each other) andI heard some moaning. I couldn't tell who was who because they were so messed up. We had to go over a median and that's when the tow strap on our vehicle broke. We were going to trans-load everything but we ended up getting into a firefight. I didn't know what my guys were even shooting at because I was still kind of in shock. They told me to get out of the vehicle and I was just wandering between the trucks asking the guys what they were shooting at. I was still in a daze and lost all sense of where I was. Honestly, I didn't know what we were shooting at. Our interpreter was the one who got me safely to the lieutenant's vehicle. My unit might've expended more ammo in that one firefight than was used by our FOB in an entire year. After that, I remember getting to the aid station, and they cut all my clothes off of me. We'd had a guy in our unit die of internal bleeding a few weeks before because they didn't see the wound. So, they changed the procedure to where no matter what they would cut off all of your clothes. They took me to Germany after that.
So what was the after affect of that attack?
TS: Well two of the guys in my vehicle were killed. One of the guys had pretty bad shrapnel wounds to the leg and our driver didn't sustain any physical injuries. He was probably the most mentally messed up from it all though.
Why did you join the Army?
TS: I originally signed up as a reservist under the split-option program in 1988. I was 17 years old and just went for the summer to BCT. I signed up as an engineer and once basic training was completed I went home to finish high school. It was join the Army or be stuck in depressing Beaver County. No jobs there and all the steel mills had closed. Plus one other word: patriotism.
Can you talk about the complications of the war in Iraq and why the battle against terrorism is so complicated?
TS: Honestly, I think that what we we are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan is a big distraction aimed at terrorism, if that makes sense. We are keeping them from messing with us in our homes. We are going to their territory. It's complicated because we are on their ground, or their sandbox so to speak. They know their territory much better than us. We are at least keeping them from coming over here for the most part.
What was the hardest part about coming home from deployment?
TS: Well I was medevaced first of all, and that pretty hard. I wasn't able to have a homecoming or any of that. That was sucky. I was on my way home and they were just starting things over in Iraq. I've got all my people over there and I was here. They kept telling me my wife was coming to see me in Germany and she should've been because I was VSI (Very Seriously Injured). They kept telling me, "Yeah your wife is coming," and nope. The doc never signed that paper. I was in Germany for five days for two or three surgeries to clean out wounds so they wouldn't get infected. I got some pretty bad infections from the trash pile that the IED was in. They called the infection the "Baghdad Bug." They couldn't touch me when I got to Ft. Hood. They had to wear this weird looking gown and apron around me. My wife couldn't touch me or kiss me. There was a "contact precaution."
What's the hardest thing about being away from home on deployment?
TS: For me, it's being away from my family. My wife and my kids are everything to me.
Did you feel stigmatized or detached from society when you got back?
TS: I still do. I don't know if being a civilian is a reality to me. I mean I'm not in the military anymore but I don't really know what being a civilian even means anymore. I don't have an amputation. You can can tell I'm not all here because of my brain injuries though. I'm missing a fibula and my face is missing bones, but I'm not wearing a prosthetic so my outward injuries aren't as obvious.
How many surgeries in all and what were the procedures?
TS: I quit counting at around 40, and I know I've had way more than that. The surgeries were everything from cleaning up shrapnel wounds from like ten different places in my body, to redoing the bar that holds my arm in place. They put one in there but it was a little too high. I could barely raise my arm at all when I first had the surgery. They ended up putting in a new bar. I've had three or four bone grafts from my hip bone to my facial bones. They took the fibula bone out of my leg and grafted it to my face to make sure blood flow went back into my face. Most of my procedures were outpatient but done by an Oral Surgeon. Not dental procedures, surgical procedures, so it makes for a lot of work. I'm still going through prosthodontic procedures at Lackland Air Force Base. I don't have any teeth from the middle of my mouth all the way back to my right side. I've had implants put into my jaw and I'm getting ready for more procedures on that.
If you could tell a civilian one thing about being wounded what would that be?
TS: I always get told by people, "Oh, I'm so sorry you have to deal with military doctors," and I just look at them like, "What?" Military medicine is on the cutting edge. I'm just so amazed that people think military doctors are some sub-category of medicine. It just amazes me. The technology and the things they are learning on people like me, they are using on people now who've been in car wrecks. You don't see people that get shattered jaws and shattered arms and shrapnel holes in a regular hospital. Regular hospitals wouldn't know what to do with me. Here in San Antonio we have the premier burn center for the world. They're using that stuff now in civilian medicine. The VA gets a bad rap, and there are a lot of things that need to be fixed. But for the most part, the system is leading the class. The trauma and medical care is amazing.
What's the defining factor in your recovery process?
TS: My faith has gotten me through it all. If I hadn't been in church I would've probably been suicidal, homicidal, or addicted to prescription drugs. I hear stories of guys talking about taking all of these medications or drinking just to get through their day; or you hear them talking about wanting to kill people. I hear them talk and just think, "Man you really need God." I know I wouldn't have been able to get to where I am without Him. That's the simple answer. My wife and kids have been there for me throughout everything, but you don't have that if you don't have God in the mix. If you don't have God in the equation, you truly don't have anything.
What's the most difficult part of your rehab process?
TS: Just knowing that it's never going to end. I'll never be done with my rehab. There's stuff that, rehab wise, I'll never have the option of just not doing anymore. That's pretty disappointing. I have constant reminders that I was injured on the 5th of May 2004. I have to use two hands to pour a glass of milk. I can't chew with my full mouth because I don't a lot of my teeth. Not even mentioning all the pain I go through on a daily basis due to my TBI.
Can you talk about the superhero mantra that soldiers are given by pop culture? What do you think about that?
TS: I hate that. When someone calls me a hero, I just tell them I was in the wrong place at the right time. There's nothing heroic about me. I wouldn't consider myself a hero at all. I was just doing my job.
Veterans taking their own lives has been a major issue. What do you think that stems from?
TS: There's a lot that plays into that. The disconnect of being a civilian again. We can't identify with the civilian life. I was in the military for over half my life. Then I get out and I'm expected to connect with the civilian world? It's hard for me to do that. Even though I don't want to be associated with the military anymore because I'm done with it, I'll never fully get away from it all. I don't think it's something that we can force. Guys are sometimes going to do what they want to do and there's nothing you can do about it. But there are things that need to be fixed in mental healthcare. They put me in a group of guys that were injured in car accidents. I was the only guy in my group that had been in combat. How am I supposed to identify with someone who was in a car accident? I was hit by an IED. There's no common bond there. I think if they'd put me in a therapy group with just combat injured vets, that would've been a lot more effective.
Can you talk about the polytrauma program at the VA and why it's important?
TS: It's a two week inpatient program. I see an occupational therapist, speech therapist, and physical therapist. That's what I've been doing for the past five days. They're dealing with my TBI issues and other physical injuries I have. I'm having trouble with balance and I'm having some vestibular issues. So, I'm going through vestibular therapy to help with my balance. They do things in order to purposely aggravate my symptoms so they can learn what affects me. There's crystals in your ears and when they get dislodged it causes major issues. When I was injured I thought I was good because I had earplugs in but apparently the force from the blast was so great that it dislodged some of those inner-ear crystals. I found that out three days ago. The shockwave from the blast knocked them loose. I was less than five feet from a significant explosion. Shrapnel hit my face and even though I wasn't knocked out, it still caused some major trauma to my head.
Obviously you're still experiencing the symptoms of TBI but what would you suggest to soldiers trying to stay mentally strong through that?
TS: I went through a lot of cognitive therapy and that's helped. To offer a simple answer, I'd say just keep your brain busy. I turn everything into a brain game basically. Keeping my brain working is a big key.
What does being involved in the production at Faith Point Church do for you and how did you get into that?
TS: Well, I was working in sound booths in small churches and chapels. Nothing like this really. I was just doing general production stuff at first. I didn't get into the video editing really until I got here to Faith Point. I was into photography for awhile. I worked on the Ft. Hood Sentinel for a little bit. I would've never thought I'd get into video. I kind of fought it but my photographer friend in Alaska told me once I got into it, I'd be stuck. Being involved in production makes me think. I turn everything into a brain game. From sorting the laundry to editing a video, I have to think about what I'm doing in order to make sure it gets done right. It's making me think and instead of sitting at home doing nothing, this gives me some mental purpose. It makes me think and gives me some purpose. I'm in a position where I don't have to work, but this gets me out of the house and makes me keep my brain working.
A big, big thanks to Terry Saffron for participating in the project. I'm glad he shared his perspective of faith, and how it's kept him going in even the toughest of times. Terry and his family are people that you feel better for knowing. I would also like to thank my good friend Lead Pastor Scott Hoxworth for opening up his church to me as I followed Terry around. It's extremely evident how much Terry means to the church, and it's good to see the community at Faith Point show him so much love. I truly believe that the church treats Terry Saffron the way all veterans want to be treated, as an equal. Nothing more, nothing less.