Wounded Warrior -- Fort Rucker Black Hawk instructor inspires others
March 19, 2010
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Growing up in the Pennsylvania hills, Kevin Reigel watched the skies, dreaming of the day he could become a pilot.
Shortly after realizing that dream, an Iraqi terrorist attack took that away from him, but thanks to the Army Wounded Warrior Program, Reigel now enables the dream to live on in current UH-60 Black Hawk students.
Reigel, a Black Hawk systems academic instructor, credits the AW2 program for helping him land his current job. According to the program's Web site, AW2 staff helps injured Soldiers, who are ready or need to retire, transition to civilian lifestyles.
The journey from the Iraq war zone to the Fort Rucker classroom was a long, arduous and trying path for the retired chief warrant officer 3, he said.
<b>Beware of smoke</b>
Reigel joined the Army originally as an aircraft electrician, working on CH-47 Chinooks and Black Hawks - the birds he would one day pilot. In 2001, he attended Warrant Officer Candidate School here and progressed his way through flight school.
He graduated in May 2003 and was assigned to A Company, 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, Fort Campbell, Ky. Reigel deployed shortly thereafter in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I.
The Black Hawk pilot had not served overseas long before an event changed his life forever. In July 2003, insurgents set a sulfur plant near Tikrit ablaze, creating "the largest man-made fire in recorded history," Reigel said, noting sulfur is a byproduct of oil refinery.
Thick smoke blanketed the surrounding area, including the base where Reigel served, for five weeks as fire crews constantly battled the flames. Smoke was even visible on satellite pictures, he said.
Reigel said no evacuation orders were ever issued because "it never happened" before and at the time, evacuations provided a logistical nightmare.
Unbeknownst to Reigel and possibly up to 60 other Soldiers, inhaling the smoke constantly was damaging their bronchial tubes in their lungs.
Reigel started noticing issues during physical training shortly after the incident. Despite performing more and more exercise, his times continued to slow, but he continued to make the necessary marks, so he thought little about it.
The problem progressed and really affected Reigel during his second Iraqi deployment from September 2005 to August 2006. Reigel said he became lightheaded while walking around and often had to pause to catch his breath.
"It started to scare me then. The doctors did what they could, but they didn't understand," he said, adding tests came back normal.
When the problem started to affect his job, Reigel knew he needed to find more answers. He said during one flight, he began to cough uncontrollably, so much so that he surrendered the controls to his co-pilot.
Finally, doctors performed a lung biopsy and discovered scar tissue in his bronchial tubes while he was stationed at Fort Campbell in May 2007. The diagnosis brought Reigel a wide array of emotions.
"I was downhearted about the diagnosis, but I knew what to expect (when) a friend of mine (went) through the same thing ahead of time," he said. "In some ways it was actually a relief. With this condition, with all of the testing you go through, you have the appearance (there's) nothing wrong. I started to think it was just in my head and I was weak. This started to bring on some depression."
<b>Some healing begins</b>
About the same time of Reigel's diagnosis, the Army created Warrior Transition Units, one of which was located at Fort Campbell. WTU Soldiers find jobs either within their units or in support activities such as Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, Reigel said.
WTU Soldiers' first job is to attend appointments when required, he said, a statement supported by the AW2 Web site, www.aw2.army.mil. Part of the WTU Soldier motto is "I am a Warrior in transition. My job is to heal as I transition back to duty or continue serving the nation as a veteran in the community."
Reigel designed and painted graphics for his unit while he tried to heal, but he never fully overcame his injuries. He still deals with the after-effects of smoke inhalation.
"I can't be on my feet 30 minutes standing still. I can't run. The worst part is with the kids. I can't play around like I used to," he said, noting even singing in church causes him breathing problems at times.
Reigel medically separated from the Army officially in October 2009 because he could not fly anymore due to shortness of breath. He also developed sensitivity to certain smells, including aircraft fuel, that agitated his condition.
He became a substitute teacher in the Fort Campbell area. AW2 staff continued to work for him, sending his rAfAsumAfA to staff here, where he was eventually hired in September.
"I praise the Wounded Warrior system. They took care of everyone," Reigel said. "I knew I wasn't going to be left in the dark."
Reigel said he rarely shares information about his injuries with his students, not wanting to cause them to fear deployments.
"I want to pass on my experience (as a pilot). I try to get them to think things through," he said.
Reigel's story, however, inspires his co-workers, who pile on numerous positive adjectives when describing him.
"He is a great inspiration. He keeps me cheerful. He's good at team spirit," said Frank Boles, another Black Hawk instructor. "He's eager to learn and a highly motivated instructor."
Forest Eagle, another Black Hawk systems instructor, said his story has the potential to inspire future Aviators.
"I think it gives his classes a gravity it wouldn't have if he didn't (experience injuries). He has real-world experience. He is an awesome addition to our staff," he said.
Despite the challenges incurred for chasing his dream, Reigel keeps a positive attitude.
"It would have been easy for me to be angry, but I never had that feeling," he said. "Part of the mission (in Iraq) was the hero mission where we transported fallen Soldiers. I thank God I came home. I'm glad I'm alive. I can make the best with what I've got left."