April 11, 2008. just thinking about the date makes the hair stand on my arms. The Siege of Sadr City is about to kick off and the Echo Company 1/68 Angel Makers platoon have a front row seat. It was supposed to be just another route clearance mission for us. This was a simple mission. Clear route Delta up to route Gold, sweep the traffic circle and return home. Super simple right? We had our mission brief and began to load up. I did my usual checks for my vehicle and we rolled out just as everyone else did in their vehicles. We halted for approx 7 mins. As I looked down route Delta, I see a flash light up the sky followed by a loud boom, I am thinking to myself, tonight we are going to see some engagements. I am sitting there looking at our vehicles and thinking about all the guys that are on this mission. I am thinking about my soldiers that are attached to me and if they are ready for tonight. LT, gives us the go ahead to move out. Janssen takes flow lane and I take counter flow lane. To my right is half of the platoon looking onto an open field with a clear view of the 12 to 6 o'clock with a few buildings. I have an awesome view of a wall to my left and a market about 300 meters to my 11 o'clock but its hidden for now, and a median that been littered with debris of past explosions. Janssen comes up to a Possible Improvised Explosive Device and calls it out. EOD moves in place. Looks like a small mortar shell and they blow in place. "Boom" clear! Let's roll. I get up to the end of the counter flow lane and we have to rejoin the other team in the flow side because of the jersey barriers, "BOOM" 237 Engineers Husky has been struck by an IED on route Bama just one street over, FRAGO, Dennis comes over the radio, 237 Engineers Husky IED strike. The Husky is a total loss, but the driver is fine. They are having to extract the driver and vehicle and their mission is over. We now have to conduct two Route Clearance missions because 237th was not able to complete their mission, At this time we are at the corner of Gold an Delta. We now have to clear Route Gold to Route Bama and then we get to go back home. Janssen and I sweep the traffic circle and we all fall into place.
Now our new mission, Clear Gold to Bama, and Bama down and return to base. As I move my Husky into position, I look out in front of me, all I see is trash and a market off to my left with buildings. Buildings and lots of rooftops to my right. I have seen some screwed up scenarios for IED placement but this, this was bad. Literally everything looked like a bomb. 30 ft into Gold. Boom, an Improvised Explosive Device goes off between Janssen and I on his side. We halt momentarily and check for damage, Husky 1 and Husky 2 good! LT says, Keep pushing. Roger! 20 seconds later, BOOM another goes off in front of me where a hotdog looking stand that was used as the device to fire the EFP no damage report, LT say's Keep pushing. 70ft in BOOM! Another goes off on the left side just barely missed LT's truck, again without hesitation LT says, Keep pushing. Pop, pop heavy machine gun fire, we are now under heavy engagement. Shit! We are being ambushed. At this time I know I cannot shoot back to engage the enemy but I can clear the route. I drown everything out but Lt's voice and we continue mission. The flow lane is sketchy as it could be and LT pulls Janssen into the front Husky position onto the counter flow lane. Now it's Janssen, Me, and the entire platoon being heavily engaged. 5 seconds later Janssen is hit by an Improvised Explosive Device and all of his lights are toast. I call out and no word... My heart begins to sink 10 seconds goes by and then he comes back on and says he's good. Whew. it just momentary knocked out his com's. Then, Lt. asks if Janssen can continue. Most of his lights are blown out and he cannot clear. Lt say's, DeFino I need you to take lead. Roger. At that moment I knew something bad was going to happen to one of us, We have been hit by 4 Explosively Formed Penetrators in a matter of minutes. A lot went through my head at that moment, all I could respond back to LT. with was "Fuck it let's go bowling" I pass Janssen and give him a wink, and a thumbs up, I clear all the way to the corner of Gold and Bama.
I run my truck into the trash and making sure no bomb is placed. As I start to back up to make the left onto Bama, I look to my right and the 5th IED goes off. I am hit by a multi array 13in EFP Instantly I realize what has happened. My night vision was blown off my head, and immediately it feels like someone cut me open and poured boiling water into me, at the same time I am on fire and then woosh, the pressurized air tank blows up behind my seat putting the fire out and clearing the view all in a matter of a second. Now I can see. . I am choking from the Explosive they used to detonate the blast. I yell out in agonizing pain trying to catch my breath. I reach for my med pack and it's fucked, I reach behind to feel my back and I pull my hand up, my glove is dripping in blood my seat begins to fill up with blood and I realize at that point I'm pretty fucked up. All I can think about is my wife, the conversation we had about having a little girl, and starting a life when I got back home. I thought about everything and anything that happened in my life for those few mins. I thought I was going to die, I felt myself passing out and I kept fighting it, don't close your eyes, I kept repeating that to myself. , I am not fucking dying here. I slow my breathing down trying to calm myself down while I apply pressure to my lower back. I see two tanks roll up to the flow side, BOOM a tank fires into a building BOOM, BOOM, both tanks are lighting shit up. Every vehicle is firing everything they got. Friese rolls his Bradley up to me to try and see what my condition was. My coms are totally destroyed, I didn't know if he could hear me, so I pressed my glove up to the glass that had blood all over it so he could see. Then I threw out a red chem light.
The extraction process, what came next felt like twenty mins but in reality only took about 5 mins. I watch the guys set up a secure perimeter Johnson, Doc, Eddie , Avi are providing ground security for Johnson, so he can extract me. Johnson climbs up and say's, DeFino how you doing? I said, I'm really fucked up and don't know how bad it is. Johnson, while taking fire tries to pull me out. DeFino, Johnson says, I can't pull you out. You need to get yourself out. At this point I cannot feel my lower body. Honestly, it hurt so bad pulling myself out I don't remember it. I only remember hitting the ground after I was out of the Husky. Johnson and Avi are providing security while DOC and Eddie are taking me to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Oh no!! BOBO my Monkey was blown off when I was hit that rides on the front of my vehicle. So Avi, goes and saves BOBO the Stuffed animal from certain destruction, risking his life. As we move to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, The ramp comes down and BOOM the Tank fires a round into a building that was holding at least five hundred to a thousand pounds of explosive ordinance and the entire building goes up 70 feet away from me and the entire platoon. The 2nd most intense heat blast I've ever felt, The blast almost blew me over. Doc and Eddie load me in the Bradley. At this point we have left the engagement area. Mitchell opens the gunner door, asks about my status. Doc says I should be fine. Thanks Doc. Even though I knew he was lying. Eddie is checking me out to make sure everything is still there. We pull up to Combat Operations Post Ford. The medics grab me and rush me inside. They give some morphine and then I look behind me for the first time and realize a pretty big piece of my control box I used to control the discovery arm was imbedded in my back. So for the next 45 mins. I am trying to stay positive. At this point I don't know what is going to happen to me. Then my right leg goes completely numb. Something is wrong and we need a bird to grab me. 20 mins later a Black Hawk lands and the medics wrap me up. I say good bye to Doc, and Doyle, and Dennis. As I fly away I pray for all the rest of the guys to get back safe. I lay my head down and look out thinking about this surgery I am about to endure. 22 mins of thinking is this it.
The Black Hawk lands, 29 people come out and get my status. It looks like every doctor with every specialty is there ready for whatever I may need. They pull me in the back room and are checking over me. Hello sir, my name is so in so, how much pain are you currently experiencing, I look at miss so and so and I said, Umm Pretty sure a 10. Can you get me some pain meds now. IV started, Pain meds are administered. Sir, you have a large piece of shrapnel sticking out of your back. I hear doctors discussing if it is safe to remove, doctor comes over. Hello Corporal, I would like to remove the piece of shrapnel sticking out of your back, it looks safe to remove We would like to remove it if that's alright. I asked if it was safe, he said yes. They removed it and it didn't really hurt considering the pain I was already in. For the next 11 hours I was in surgery, they removed a 3 inch copper slug and about 8 dime sized pieces of copper and over 100 pieces of shrapnel consisting of concrete, fiberglass, aluminum, copper, explosive . At one point they had to remove a 5 inch section of muscle and tissue because it was so heavily damaged. When I woke up. I was on a breathing tube and I was stuck everywhere and had every wire in the hospital room attached to me. After they removed the breathing tube I was able to talk and the doctor walked in to tell me what had happened. Broken pelvis, fractured hip, my spinal chord had shifted forward from the blast, I had two spinal injuries. That was not even the worst part. I had also woken to a 5 in wide by 8in deep hole in my back that you could literally touch the front of my pelvic bone. You could reach in and grab my Iliac crest, next to my spine all the muscle and tissue was removed exposing my spine. I was told I may never walk again because of the extensive amount of injury I had sustained, two surgeries later, I was still losing blood. I had to receive 3 blood transfusions in 6 hours. Finally I stabilized. Once I was stable, they decide to move me to Germany. There they tried to conduct surgery to change my internal bandages out but deemed it too risky since it took so long to stop the internal bleeding.
For the most part I was doing alright until they loaded me onto the plane back to the United States, At that point in time it all hit me at once, what happened, what I was going through, and the unknown. Five days later I make it back to Colorado after receiving three surgeries in Bethesda. April 17th, four days after Jennifer's Birthday, I get home and it's snowing, I meet Jennifer at EVANS hospital on Ft Carson and meet the doctor. For the next 30 days I am in surgery every 3 of those removing more copper, explosive material, concrete, fiberglass, and seat cushion. The pain sucked. Laying there not being able to walk anymore. Feeling helpless. My wife was worried about me. I was worried about me. A lot went through my head sitting in the hospital. for the first two weeks. I wondered if I would be able to live a normal life anymore. My life had just begun and ended so abruptly It felt like. Day in and day out, I wondered how I continue. I was told by two doctors I would never walk again. Sitting there feeling like my life is over I slipped into darkness. My wife tried to keep me positive but nothing was going to do that. One day after my 11th surgery. A piece of metal came to the top of my hip. when we removed it. I felt my toes, I wiggled them, I was so excited. After that every day I was able to move my leg a little more. Then within a week after taking out more metal I would walk lap around the hospital floor with a walker. For months after I got out of the hospital I had to go in and have a Wound VAC change. A "Wound VAC" is a sponge that is placed on a wound that pulls the nasty infection and anything else out by creating a suction and seal over the wound. To give you an idea of how much pain that was. It felt like I was being hit by that bomb every three days they had to change it. They had to pull the sponge off the freshly healing flesh in my back. It still hurts just thinking about it.
For the next year, I was on a walker and a cane. I had a total of 60+ surgeries in one year on my back, over 100 shrapnel removal procedures and 2 years of physical therapy 3 times a week. I had to relearn to talk since the blast caused me to develop a stutter. I had to relearn to write because my nerves made it look like a I had a Parkinson's Disease, I would randomly fall over walking because my right leg would just give out. Reading became impossible because words would move all around the paper. Simple math was difficult, and lining up numbers seemed impossible. My right eye would stay in one position while I could move my left eye. For months I Would play memory games and line up the dots like a child. 3 fucking years of every therapy imaginable. It was hell on me, I contemplated suicide daily I honestly felt like my life that was so full of opportunity was taken from me. After experiencing all that therapy. I felt nothing inside. Sure I was able to walk and talk but I had become a hollow shell that just existed. I would laugh in front of my friends and put on a really convincing show like, He's alright. Inside I was dead. I stopped showering, going out, talking to people. All I wanted to do was kill everything. I would slam on my brakes and swerve under bridges and drive double the speed limit or faster because I didn't care. Life to me was no longer special. I had been through so much I felt like, I had been cheated. I felt like, I had let everyone down. You go down a dark place when that happens. Throughout all of this I went through dozens of therapists never getting any better. The Army just loaded me up on scripts. Take this for this, take this for that! 25 prescriptions later I went from 195 to 280 pounds from all the crap they gave me. I felt like a Zombie. I was ready to kill myself daily. I pushed everyone away and I didn't want anyone to see me that way anymore. Sadly my family received the brunt of my trauma. for years they had to endure my trauma through my aggression from my experiences. I hated myself and what I thought I had become. I would flip out daily, and cause problems. I drank heavily and popped pain meds like it was a piece of candy. I would go to therapy but I would fall asleep from all the pills I was on. Nothing got better.
August 26th,2012 I leave the Army and walk into the civilian world expecting a simple transition but I was met with a bigger surprise. I sent out over 1000 applications, received back over 300 responses. Had over 100 qualified jobs, 50 of those jobs I met the specifications exactly. After many email interviews, it always came down to Special needs. I.E. breaks, special chairs, bending, sitting, standing. This is the part all my motivation went out the window. This is the part of the interview where they start looking into other files of other applicants, like I didn't see them doing it. Well I gave up. Fuck it. Everyone say's they want to hire a veteran, but what they don't tell you is they don't want a broken one! Let's fast forward to now. After this long road of hell my battle still continues, the pain and the memory is still very vivid to me. As I work on my EMDR therapy while using cannabis, I am finally starting to heal and become a normal person again. This year, because of great support, and amazing medicine, I have been reaching out to lost friends through my isolation and sudden disappearance after I left the military.
Today I can hold a firearm, go to loud concerts, be around large crowds. I no longer have nightmares, day mares, flashbacks, scan rooftops, look for IEDs, swerve under bridges, road rage, think about killing people, have panic attacks. Most of all I can control my temper a lot better. My mornings can still be shaky until I consume my medicine but things are definitely getting better for my mental state. For the first time in 8 years I am finally ready to move forward. Life has once again become special. I hope you learned something about me today. I hope a veteran reading this finds the motivation to seek help for their PTSD. I did and I am getting better. If you don't know where to start, get on social media, call a team member and ask how they are doing. Here in Colorado, veterans are once again uniting to help our fellow soldiers in a new battle, 22+ veterans are committing suicide daily. If you know of a veteran or a soldier in distress, reach out and help them. So many of us are in different stages with our PTSD and most of us could just use someone to talk to. Included are the photos of my Husky after the EFP blast. I owe my life to each one of the men that fought for me that night. Thank you all for the sacrifices you have made. The soldiers I served next to are some of the most respected soldiers in the Corps of Engineers. No could lead the way like the Angel Makers did. If my memory serves me correctly, we are the highest decorated engineer platoon ever out of Iraq. #VeteranFarmersAlliance#CombatEngineers Here is the Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6Atr3Cfo8Aagraph here.