EOD NCO reaches five-year mark after tough, life-changing injury
July 23, 2009
Five years after a traumatic explosive accident, an explosive ordnance disposal Soldier continues his life as it was before the explosion.
Retired Staff Sgt. Ivan Westrick wanted to continue to serve in the Army, but he didn't want a desk job. He wanted to be out in the field even though his wife Ginger never wanted him to volunteer to become an EOD specialist.
"It was tough. I was scared - And he still misses it to this day," said Ginger.
Married a total of twelve years, Ivan continues to serve as a consultant, now assisting and training Soldiers how to recognize, react and report improvised explosive devices.
He loves to use his time well, play with his two daughters and family, and ride his customized Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His youngest daughter, Jennifer, 4, sees old pictures of him - "Oh, daddy had two hands," because she has never known her father any other way, said Ginger. For his oldest, Crystal, 11, it was tough at first, but she grew into it. Ivan still acts like a kid, and he will never grow up.
Early in his military career, Ivan wanted something different. He saw what EOD Soldiers did when he deployed in 1998 to Bosnia, and it showed him how much they made a difference and helped out. He became EOD qualified and deployed in 2003 to Iraq, where he served other Soldiers by assisting with IEDs and other ordnance requests.
"Do I ever regret becoming EOD' Oh no! If I was still in the service, I would be doing the same thing," said Ivan.
On July 9, 2004, Ivan was assigned to the 741st Ordnance Company here and was performing range-clearing operations with his unit at DoAfA+-a Ana Range to construct buildings and use the area as an urban assault range.
Even after the "it's a bad idea" remark by Ivan, he and his team continued to clear the live-fire range used actively for many years. They placed flags near anything identified as high explosive and spray-painted anything not explosive. Surveying the surface area for visual confirmation, one of Ivan's Soldiers found a 40 mm grenade he couldn't determine to be a high explosive or not. Looking at the dirt covered unidentified explosive, Ivan used his knife to dig left of the UXO, and swept the dirt when it detonated.
"I blacked out and then faded back," said Ivan. "I was looking straight up to the sky and the sun was in my eyes. When I looked up, I noticed my hand was missing."
Ivan, also a certified emergency medical technician, saw his arm wasn't bleeding much because the detonation had only happened seconds ago. When a person experiences a traumatic event, the body tenses up, to include the veins and arteries.
The first words out of Ivan's mouth, joking with a team member who began first aid, were, "'Hey dude, check out that bone,' to ease the tension. I didn't want anyone spasming out on me. ... I was barking orders to basically how to fix me. That was the NCO in me," he said.
With the medical evacuation helicopter en route, Ginger was approached at the bowling alley, where she worked, by two first sergeants, because of an upcoming change of responsibility. They informed her about her husband's accident, and told her they would take her to the hospital - she started to cry.
Ginger was told by her boss to "just go," and leave everything she was doing. She began to panic and worry even more when she arrived to the hospital, while a chaplain was waiting in the lounge near the emergency room.
In EOD, Soldiers form close-knit groups and hang out together, said Ivan. Ginger called one of Ivan's friends for answers, since she knew little information about the accident or of his injuries. Ivan didn't want her to see him.
Finally allowed to see Ivan, Ginger entered the red-covered floor. Bandaged hands and medical monitoring equipment around them, Ivan told Ginger, "I'm thankful I have my eye sight because I can still see you."
Three days shy of their wedding anniversary, for Ginger - three-months pregnant - and Crystal the accident challenged their lives, but Ivan is just glad to be alive, he said.
"For the injuries he sustained, he bounced back very well and very quickly," said John "Loco" Baird, American Legion Riders, Chapter 832 director. "Here he is, five years later, and has accepted it, and to him it's not a disability."
"Psychologically I was fine," said Ivan. "As for phantom pains, I still have them all the time."
The transition out of the Army in the beginning was very hard, said Ginger. Ivan attended many physical therapy appointments; it was summer time, so Crystal wasn't in school. Mortgages and car payments had to be paid until his compensation supplement kicked in.
"If it wasn't for the [American Legion] Riders, we wouldn't have made it the couple months after he left the Army," said Ginger.
A fundraiser was held for Ivan because he was going to have trouble paying bills while in the hospital and trying to take care for his family, said Baird.
"The support from my job was excellent and they offered any assistance," Ginger said. "Without the support from Ivan's unit, I wouldn't have made it without them. The only thing that's really changed is he has a positive outlook and it doesn't stop him from doing anything."