'I Want To Share What Happened'
October 22, 2010
- SSG Jonathan Ryall sustained severe injuries when an improvised explosive device detonated on a route clearing mission in Afghanistan.
- "I want to share what happened because all of us care about each other and we want to make our work safer."
- "I was blown up four times. But three of those times were OK because I was in my truck."
- "I told the other Soldiers to get away. We were going back to the truck when it detonated."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Being a spokesman for the recovery issues associated with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not an assignment Staff Sgt. Jonathan Ryall would have volunteered for.
But it is an assignment he shoulders with the same kind of determination and toughness that got him through the injuries he sustained when an improvised explosive device detonated during a route-clearance mission in Afghanistan in August 2008.
"I'm not going to have too much pride and say I am not going to talk about it. I think that's a little too selfish, especially in our career field," said Ryall, a 29-year-old explosive ordnance disposal Soldier. "I want to share what happened because all of us care about each other and we want to make our work safer."
Ryall, an EOD instructor with the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School, trains non-commissioned officers in the portion of the Advanced Leadership Course that is taught at McKinley Range in the southwestern section of the Arsenal.
The Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient is also undergoing counseling and treatment at Fox Army Health Center as he completes his recovery from massive head injuries he received in the explosion. And, occasionally, he is called on to share his story with the media, as was the case Aug. 4 when he was interviewed by CNN anchor Kyra Phillips during a segment on a new documentary detailing the effects of TBI and PTSD titled "Along Recovery" by Justin Springer, a former Army officer who deployed twice to Iraq.
"I liked what he did with the film and what he was trying to say," said Ryall, who was not one of the four Soldiers suffering from TBI who were featured in the documentary. "I wasn't crazy about doing the interview. But, Justin Springer was a Soldier. I like the light he's casting on this issue."
According to the documentary, explosive devices are responsible for 64 percent of all American deaths and injuries in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In August 2007, Ryall deployed on a 15-month mission to Afghanistan with the 720th EOD out of Mannheim, Germany.
"That's when things were starting to go south over there," he said. "I was blown up four times. But three of those times were OK because I was in my truck."
In August 2008, Ryall was conducting a post-blast analysis on a vehicle in Afghanistan's Khowst Province when a secondary IED detonated nearby.
"I was an EOD team leader and we had run hundreds of incidents since we had been there," he said. "This mission wasn't any different than what we had been doing."
The mission started out as route clearing, where Soldiers search out IEDs and, once found, the EOD technicians are called in to render them safe and remove the explosives for disposal. The Soldiers had already found some IEDs and had gone through the process of rendering them safe when the unit's lead vehicle got hit by an IED.
The standard practice, Ryall said, is to clear the area so that medics can check and treat the Soldiers in the vehicle. Ryall, who was wearing protective gear, was clearing the scene of explosive hazards when he saw part of an IED buried some 5 to 7 feet away.
"I told the other Soldiers to get away. We were going back to the truck when it detonated," Ryall said. "I was knocked out. I don't remember anything."
Three days later, he woke up during his transport to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He was suffering from second degree burns on his face and neck, pulverized bones in the left side of his face, broken bones in the right side of his face, a broken nose, crushed sinuses, a fractured forehead and skull, and a "broken thumb just to top it off," he said.
The explosive impact also caused two bleeds in his brain and the air from his sinus cavity to be forced into his brain.
Ryall underwent five surgeries. He now has six plates in his cheekbones and around his eye sockets.
Despite all that, Ryall made a quick recovery from his initial wounds.
"I was blown up on the 22nd of August and I was out of the hospital as an in-patient the Tuesday after Labor Day," he said. "My doctors didn't seem too concerned. They knew I would make it. I had good doctors. I am still surprised at what you can put your body through."
Even though he was still being treated for injuries as an outpatient, Ryall was determined to return to Mannheim in November of that year to welcome back his fellow Soldiers from the deployment.
"I had just had my last surgery a few days before that trip," he said.
One Soldier who did not return with the 720th was Staff Sgt. Brian Struder, who was killed by an IED within a couple of hours of the explosion that injured Ryall. Today, Ryall wears his name engraved on a silver memory bracelet.
"It was a rough day for everybody," Ryall said. "We lost two guys - me and Staff Sgt. Struder - on the same day in a unit of only 26 people."
Ryall underwent rehabilitation through February 2009 at the warrior transition unit at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and then was assigned to OMEMS.
"I am still getting treatment and some counseling at Fox," Ryall said. "Because of the TBI, I have a lot of migraines. I'd never had that before. I also am dealing with anxiety from the deployment.
"But these last couple months, I've been feeling a lot stronger and I've started feeling more like myself again."
During his recovery, Ryall relied on the love and support of his wife Stephanie and his son, 3-year-old Luke, along with the help of friends, family and co-workers. The Army has provided him with the best of care, and he has benefitted from being around other wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center.
"It was hard to be discouraged because there were a lot of guys walking round who were worse off than me. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself when you look around and you see guys who have a lot worse injuries, and they are laughing and joking," Ryall said. "I knew I could still have a normal, fulfilling life. You can come back from injuries."
Ryall, a native of Painted Post, N.Y., has served in the Army for seven years. He was a junior at Messiah College in Pennsylvania when the 9/11 attack occurred. He graduated and joined the Army in 2003, wanting to be a Special Forces Soldier.
"In basic training, I shattered my left wrist and they told me to find a new job. I talked to an EOD recruiter and that sounded like a good job for me," he said. "I really wanted to serve my country and make a difference, especially at that time.
"I've enjoyed my time in service. In EOD, you know what can happen. You hope it doesn't, but you are aware of the risks. I wouldn't change anything."
But his injuries have changed him. Ryall considers that change a part of living.
"Anything you experience is going to change you and mold you as a person," he said. "Going through something that traumatic does change you. Things are going to be different, but that's just the way it is. It's hard to say how things are different or if it's any different from how other people change from their own experiences."
Ryall said the Army has not held him back or discriminated against him because of his injuries. But he does acknowledge there is a stigma with seeking help for PTSD and TBI, although it may be more of a self-imposed stigma.
"What the Army offers is good for Soldiers who genuinely have to get help. But, for guys who genuinely have it, it can take awhile for them to seek help," Ryall said. "The biggest problem is a Soldier's own pride. No one wants to admit that things might not be working out right.
"But it's a matter of taking care of yourself, so that you can do your job and take care of your family. We're expected to maintain a certain level of physical fitness. Your body isn't the only thing that needs to be taken care of."
Ryall may not be in the fight anymore, but he does feel he is making a difference by sharing what happened to him with other Soldiers.
"Hopefully, I can give them the details and help them so they don't come home the way I did," he said. "That's how I can make a difference now."