Shooting survivor, not a victim

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
"Control your breathing, lie still, play dead."

During the most devastating moment of her life Staff Sgt. Deondra Parks couldn't believe her brain behaved so rationally.

"So this is what a massacre is like?" she asked herself as a madman with a shotgun wreaked havoc around her.

Sergeant Parks, a 72nd Security Forces Squadron member, experienced danger and witnessed death during a deployment to Iraq. But, nothing prepared her for the night of April 20, 2010, at a bookstore and coffee shop in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she wasn't a target for being a police officer, or an Airman, but for being African-American.

After changing duty stations for the fourth time in almost five years, Sergeant Parks applied for retraining as an aerospace medical technician in 2009. She was accepted, and her training began April 6, 2010, at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

The night of the shooting, she and two classmates moved a study session from the base library to a coffee shop in town.

"We had a big test on the airway the next day. ... I'd been (there) before, so I suggested it," Sergeant Parks said. "I'd always been totally comfortable there."

Staff Sgts. Jade Henderson and Tanya Jesser were sitting with Sergeant Parks at a table in the bookstore's coffee shop when it happened.

"I wasn't really paying attention to him when he came in," Sergeant Parks said. "Then I felt someone next to me. I looked up into his eyes. I thought he was going to try and start a conversation, but his eyes were vacant, totally checked out, like there was no one there."

Then, 22-year-old Ross William Muehlberger, said, "Hey (racial slur), its Hitler's birthday." He lifted a shotgun and fired right at Sergeant Henderson's head, who was sitting across the table from Sergeant Parks. The first shot grazed her; the second shot did not.

"I thought he shot her twice in the head," Sergeant Parks said. "I found out later that she put her hand up, which saved her life."

Sergeant Jesser dove under a table. The shooter was standing between Sergeant Parks and the door.

"I got up and ran," she said. "I was tripping over tables and chairs. I just wanted to get behind the bookshelves. I heard another shot and felt something graze past my face and hair. Then I dove to the floor."

Sergeant Parks said she laid there trying to control her breathing. From the training she received as a member of security forces, she thought if she played dead the shooter would ignore her. Instead, he stood over her and fired buckshot point-blank into her lower leg, shattering her bones.

"I didn't scream," Sergeant Parks said. "I didn't move. I forced myself to be still so he wouldn't want to shoot me again, like a dead animal. About 20 seconds after he shot me, I heard someone scream 'He's gone.'"

Sergeant Parks screamed for Sergeant Henderson and dragged herself until she could look her in the eyes. Some people came to help them and waited with them until police and ambulances arrived. They were transported by helicopter to a hospital in Dallas.

Ross Muehlberger continued his rampage through Wichita Falls, killing 23-year-old Iraqi war veteran Timothy Donley before going to a house and shooting himself dead.

Wounded warrior care

From the moment Sergeant Parks went into her first surgery after the shooting until now, she said she knows the Air Force has been looking out for her.

"I woke up in the ER and Gen. (Steven) Lorenz (retired commander of Air Education and Training Command) was there," Sergeant Parks said. "The first thing he asked was, 'Is there anything I can do for you?' and he assured me that my family was on the way.

"'Don't take my training slot away,' I told him. He told me to focus on getting better and said when I was ready, I may return to training."

The recovery care coordinator here, retired Chief Master Sgt. John Wood, did everything he could to assist Sergeant Parks' family when her mother, sister and brother came to stay with her in Dallas for two weeks.

"In a sense, he was like a father," said Sergeant Parks, who, along with Sergeant Henderson, stayed at the Fisher House in Dallas while they were recovering.

"I never had to worry about setting anything up," she said. "It really proved me right. I always knew that when I joined the Air Force, if I put my all into it, they'd have my back."

That's not to say everything has been easy. After four surgeries in less than a year, Sergeant Parks felt like giving up. She didn't want to do rehabilitation anymore. She was tired of the struggle. She would have to work at getting her strength back if she wanted to maintain the physical standards required to stay in the Air Force and avoid a forced medical separation.

"Then I realized that anyone can quit, but not giving up when everyone else would understand shows true strength," Sergeant Parks said.

Her leaders here pushed her a little bit. She went from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches and she was told she would be out of commission for three months, but Lt. Col. Troy Roberts, the 72nd SFS commander, asked her to begin coming in every day, for as long as she could stand it, even if it was only to answer phones.

"At first I wasn't really happy about it, but now I'm so glad he asked me to do it," Sergeant Parks said. "I needed to be around people, and without them I wouldn't be as far along as I am."

Colonel Roberts said what he saw Sergeant Parks go through would have sent most people into a physical, mental, spiritual and career tailspin.

"Sergeant Parks has fought through and triumphed over multiple surgeries and hours of painful physical therapy," Colonel Roberts said. "She reached out to sources for strength such as wingmen, friends and family. She is one of the most resilient Airmen I know."

The after effects

The gunshot wound wasn't the only trauma Sergeant Parks suffered last April. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is receiving continuing treatment.

There were some things she had to deal with spiritually and emotionally on her own first.

"I was never bitter, because I knew what could have happened that night, but didn't; I'm still alive," Sergeant Parks said. "Putting all my trust in God, I don't carry a burden around day-to-day. ... Jade and I talked about forgiveness when we were at the Fisher House. Jade told me, 'His hate was not stronger than God's love for us.' Forgiving him was the first step in our recovery."

Spiritually she has moved on, but the trauma of the shooting has affected everything. She has terrible nightmares. Whenever she enters a business or a restaurant, she plays out in her head what she would do if a shooting occurred "as if I were already shot," she said. She's not as trustworthy of strangers and is aware of everyone around her, but these aren't all bad things she said, and she's learning how to deal with them.

Sergeant Parks credits her leaders at the 72nd SFS for their proactive response. Colonel Roberts and Senior Master Sgt. Melissa Garrett, the 72nd SFS first sergeant, contacted the 72nd Medical Group and had a mental health professional make contact with Sergeant Parks within days of the shooting. She said wishes more people would seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder instead of suppressing it.

"The therapy is awesome," she said.

Although she's willing to share her story with other Airmen who are looking for inspiration to continue through struggles, she doesn't want to always be known as "the girl who got shot."

"I am not going to let this control the rest of my life," Sergeant Parks said.

General Lorenz kept his word, and Sergeant Parks will return to aerospace medical service apprentice technical training in June. Her goal is to become a chief master sergeant and retire from the Air Force.

"The injuries she suffered could have negatively affected her Air Force career, but Sergeant Parks is back on track," Colonel Roberts said. "If you think you have a reason to quit, come talk to Sergeant Parks. You will come away with a new perspective."