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Departments : In the Hood

When Tragedy Struck, the Army Was There to Help

As police officers, you’re no stranger to tragedy, but that doesn’t make it easier when it comes knocking on your door.

May 01, 1998  |  by Al Valdez

On March 9, 1998 at 2:30 a.m., the telephone rang.  When I answered, the person on the other end said, "Mr. Valdez, I am First Sergeant Cline, 43rd Engineers, Fort Carson. I'm sorry to inform you that your son, Joshua, has been seriously injured and is in intensive care at a local hospital."

To my horror, the first sergeant told me that my son, who is active-duty enlisted with the 43rd Engineers in the United States Army, had been shot in the head and was not expected to survive.

Thoughts started to rush through my head and I got a very sick feeling in my stomach.  I was in shock.

I was informed that my son had been attacked by some gang members in the Colorado Springs area.  He was on life support and had been given his last rites.  First Sgt. Cline did his best to comfort me and assured me that members of the 43rd Engineers would be helping my family through this.

I immediately made plane reservations and flew, along with my father, to Colorado Springs later that afternoon.

The plane ride was long and our conversation minimal.   All I could think about was getting to my son.  Frankly, I did not know if I would ever see my son alive again.

I remembered talking to Josh on the telephone just a few days before this happened.  He had just re-enlisted and was planning to make the Army his professional career.  He had just qualified for and was accepted into the Army Ranger and Jump schools.  I was very proud of his accomplishments.

When we landed, my son's platoon sergeant was waiting to escort us directly to the hospital.  The ride was made easier by Sgt. Sarracino's demeanor and courtesy, but you can't imagine the anxiety that had built up in me during the six-and-a-half hours it took to arrive there.

To my surprise, the Army had arranged for us to stay in a quiet, comfortable room in a small house on hospital property.  Sgt. Sarracino helped us drop our luggage off and then led us to my son's room, about a five-minute walk away.

When I saw Josh and was told his status, the reality of the situation set in.  Josh, my oldest son, had been shot in the head with a 9 mm round which blew up on impact.  The bullet fragments had done severe damage.  Josh was unconscious and on a respirator.  Any hopes of him surviving quickly disappeared.

Like many of you, I had seen this scenario many times before, during my investigations.  Few victims, if any, ever survived.  No matter how much you prepare yourself for what you will see, it's never enough.

The decision was made to remove the breathing tube to make my son more comfortable.  There was a good chance, however, we would lose him on doing this.  We prepared by saying our goodbyes to Josh.  This is probably the most unnatural act a parent can do for his child.  It's almost like something dies inside you.  The only thing I can relay to you, is that the intensity of those feelings changes you forever.

When the tube was removed, a miracle occurred: Josh continued to breathe on his own. No one slept that night.

Josh was still in critical condition, his vital signs fluctuated with every labored breath.  He was unconscious most of the time but occasionally would have short periods of consciousness.  He was also in excruciating pain.  Plastic tubes protruded from every orifice.  The sight was really overwhelming.

As family members began to arrive, the members of the 43rd Engineers, from the squad leader and platoon sergeant, to the platoon leader and platoon commander, continued to come to the hospital.  They showed us their support through little things like bringing us drinks, reminding us to eat, staying with Josh while we ate, being there, ready to help at a moment's notice.  Everything was done without request or question.

Josh continued to surprise everyone, including the doctors.  He began to stabilize and grow stronger.  His periods of consciousness would last longer as the first few days went by, and he began to mumble for water.

Josh had to be restrained because it is common for people with head wounds to become combative.  At one point, he began screaming, "Dad, please cut me out of this! Dad! Dad! Please help me!" I could do nothing, for fear of him hurting himself. But I will never forget those words.

It is an awful feeling to listen to your own child scream for help and beg you to help, especially when you can do nothing.  Again, the Army was there to assist.  The sergeants would take turns watching Josh during these periods, so we could have a break.

I was so upset, I cried until there were no more tears. I was so frustrated that I could do nothing but be there and listen to my son suffer.  Every hour or so, a member of my son's unit would check on us, just to make sure we were all right.

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