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Coming to terms: Airman remains resilient through multiple TBIs

Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Wasnuk, an explosive ordnance technician with the 775th EOD flight at Hill AFB, Utah, is set to receive a purple heart March 25 for brain injuries sustained during combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Micah Garbarino)

Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Wasnuk, an explosive ordnance technician with the 775th EOD flight at Hill AFB, Utah, is set to receive a purple heart March 25 for brain injuries sustained during combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Micah Garbarino)

HILL AFB, Utah (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

For the tall, quiet Airman, speaking up about his injuries is difficult. His wounds aren't always visible, but they're very real.

After two deployments and six bomb blasts, Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Wasnuk, who is assigned to the 775th Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Flight, is receiving a Purple Heart for traumatic brain injuries he suffered during combat in tours 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 to respond to calls for assistance and with investigating and disarming improvised explosive devices (IED) in combat conditions.

When they arrived in country, they put their training to use. Iraq was hot, dusty and very busy.

Things were a bit more high speed than his first job, managing a McDonald's in South Ogden, Utah. Tired of college and looking for a career, EOD was what he wanted to do when he signed up with the Air Force.

According to Wasnuk, there was never a normal day in Iraq. One day the team might investigate a blast, another day they might interview locals with an interpreter, the next morning they might render unexploded mortar rounds safe in the compound.

"We had three teams and we'd rotate calls. We tried to make sure everyone had a little down time, 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.

Wasnuk's team was inside a mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle (MRAP). The Humvee in front of his team was completely destroyed, and components went 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," he said.

Disoriented, he said he heard popcorn popping, but it wasn't popcorn. It was the sound of bullets pinging off the sides of their vehicle. A round impacted 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 they saw as a threat. A tank and a helicopter arrived, got them unpinned, and allowed the team to return to base safely.

He didn't know it, but in the blast Wasnuk had suffered his first of two traumatic brain injuries. He knew something was wrong. He said he was worried that 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. 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, adding more trauma to his brain.

"The pressure waves from the explosion cause rapid acceleration and rapid deceleration,” said an EOD Airmen who survived a similar blast. “Your brain sits in liquid and it's playing volleyball against the insides of your skull. 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."

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 Wasnuk said his roommate grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him and said, “Wasnuk, get your gear. I'm taking you to the clinic.”

"What, why?," Wasnuk replied.

"Because I've been calling your name for the last 10 minutes and you haven't responded," his roommate responded.

Wasnuk went to the clinic and what followed is exactly what he feared -- tests, tests and more tests and five weeks of down time.

"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 and was back home a month later. For Wasnuk, returning was a jarring experience. One day he was in a combat zone, getting blown up and shot at; later in the week he was 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,” he said. “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. 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.

Wasnuk recalled one instance when Afghan Army spotted hundreds of pounds of liquid explosives in jugs sitting inside a Toyota SUV that was in a walled compound a few kilometers from Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak. They reported it to the U.S. Army, who then called Wasnuk's team to investigate.

Once at the compound, the EOD team sent in a robot. While they were carrying out their procedures, the bomb went off. The blast, and the aftermath, was all too familiar to Wasnuk. He was disoriented and his ears rang. He lost his memory and 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 later 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 and he has been receiving treatment ever since to include CAT scans, counseling and more tests. Later in 2013, Wasnuk started experiencing seizures.

"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 to an 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 said 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.

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