When Tragedy Struck, the Army Was There to Help

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.

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.[PAGEBREAK]

During the first week, we were literally escorted every day by members of the 43rd engineers and the rest of the soldiers at Fort Carson. It was so comforting to know that so many people cared about my son. The young men and women in my son's unit even took up a collection and gave us a cash gift to help pay for expenses.  I felt bad that I'd never had the honor of meeting any of these people before, and here they were now, helping my family.

My son got stronger and stronger and began to regain the use of his mind.  He gradually became conscious and remembered his family. He knew who I was and wanted to eat pizza! By the end of the third day, though still a bit disoriented, Josh could actually talk, using small sentences.

There is a cost to everything and the price for my son's survival was his diagnosis: triplegic, which meant my son only has use of his right arm. As soon as he was stable enough, he was transported to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., for the long and difficult recovery.

The Army has taken my son under its protective cover. The members of his unit have not given up on him.  Their positive attitude and faith in Josh's ability strengthen our hope for a good recovery.  More importantly, they helped give Josh the courage and strength not to give up. My son was devastated when we described the extent of his injuries to him. No one knows if his injuries are temporary or permanent. All we can do is take one day at a time.

The Colorado Springs Police Department started investigating the case immediately and thoroughly. As a family member, I have been given case updates in a timely manner. The case is still under investigation and I am confident that there will be a successful conclusion to this investigation.

The Colorado Springs PD has a very high solve rate in their Major Crimes unit.  Being on this side of the fence, I now clearly understand the frustration which is caused by not knowing information. I appreciate the candor of the detective assigned to my son's case. He provided me with the details of what had happened, and this information, as horrifying as it is, helped me cope with the situation.

My son had driven a van to a popular under-21 nightclub, a hangout for young people from the post and the city.  When a gang fight erupted, Josh got caught in the middle.  Before he even got out of the van, he was hit.  The gunshot wound to his head caused his foot to slam down on the accelerator.  The van flew off with him and the other soldier inside.  It crashed into a concrete embankment and flipped twice, landing inverted on the front end.  It took the paramedics 20 minutes to rescue my son and his passenger.

As tragic and as ugly as this incident is, it is yet another painful reminder that gang violence can happen anywhere, any time.  I work in this field and my family and I had developed a sense of security.  This would never happen to us.

I am writing this three weeks after the incident and we all still have bad days.  Josh's youngest brothers, ages 5 and 8 were never told the truth. They believe Josh was in a car accident.  How do you tell kids about gunshot wounds to the head?

Enough can never be said about the compassion and empathy displayed by the soldiers stationed at Fort Carson. The kindness and gentle support offered by all the soldiers and, especially, Sergeants Cole and Sarracino, First Sergeant Cline, Lt. Stinnett and Capt. Benson, will never go forgotten or unappreciated. Without the help of the United States Army, my son's incident would have become just another statistic.

Thank you to the United States Army for going above the call of duty. I never realized until now that when my son joined the Army, my family grew by about 5,000.

Be safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.

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