Soldier's journey from Iraq to Scott AFB shows heroism, determination
March 26, 2012
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Traveling from the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command headquarters building to the base hospital or the Base Exchange, Sgt. Charles "Chas" Shaffer said he sometimes gets a few unusual stares. Occasionally, he said, someone will stop him to let him know he's not allowed to ride his Segway on base.
Those who know Shaffer's story can't believe anyone would stop him.
Shaffer said he understands. He said he normally just lifts the trousers of his Army Combat Uniform revealing his prosthetic leg. After a few kind words, he presses on.
Shaffer was born into a military family and spent much of his childhood moving from base to base until his father retired from the U.S. Navy and settled in O'Fallon, Ill., a community just outside the gates of Scott AFB.
He was in elementary school when his father retired, and he remained in the area, completing his high school education at O'Fallon Township High School.
"I always wanted to join the Army, but I promised my parents I would finish my degree before I joined the military," said Shaffer. He kept his word, earning a degree in welding technology before enlisting in the U.S. Army in July 2007.
Upon enlisting in the Army, he attended basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo; or, as Shaffer describes it, the "Land of the Copperheads."
Following basic training, he remained at Fort Leonard Wood for Advanced Individual Training where he learned to be an Army combat engineer.
Shaffer described a combat engineer as a combination of explosive ordnance disposal training and infantry training. As a combat engineer, he said he was trained to disarm bombs, perform route clearance operations, set explosive charges, and engage the enemy.
Following AIT, Shaffer traveled to his first duty station, Fort Carson, Colo. He wasn't there long; about a month after he arrived at Fort Carson he deployed to Iraq.
In Iraq, he primarily performed dismount operations, which involved route clearing,
forward observing, stationary overwatch, and intelligence gathering.
He said his route clearance duties involved traveling the roads in and around Mosul, looking for anything out of place; indications of an improvised explosive device, or IED.
"Things that are out of place are not good," explained Shafer. He said a few examples of IED indicators may include a bloated animal carcass on the side of the road, "ant trails" (wires covered with dirt), or unusually quiet areas.
Shaffer said he enjoyed his job and things were going well … until Sept. 1, 2008. On that day, during the end of a route clearance operation, everything changed.
He was on the tenth month of a 15-month deployment, and he and his team were headed back to their forward operating base -- Camp Diamondback in Mosul, Iraq -- when their vehicle was attacked by insurgents.
Shaffer said the insurgents, each no older than 15 or 16, attacked the vehicle with explosively formed penetrator grenades, commonly referred to as EFP grenades.
One of the grenades exploded just outside the driver's side window. Shaffer took the brunt of the blast.
He said he remembers everything.
"There was a flash fire in the vehicle. After the fire, I remember taking off my helmet because I couldn't hear anything. At the same time, I was trying to hit the brakes. The brakes were out, because we were still moving. We communicated up to headquarters that we had been hit," Shaffer said.
He said he knew something was terribly wrong. He looked down at his legs and immediately pulled out his tourniquet. Because of the extent of his injuries, he wasn't able to tie the tourniquet around the top of his leg, and after a second attempt, he gave up and turned his attention to his friend and fellow Soldier in the passenger seat.
After helping his friend, he turned his attention back to his own injuries; this time he was able to successfully apply his own tourniquet using a spare t-shirt he kept in the vehicle.
At that point, Shaffer said his adrenalin was still blocking the pain. He remembers other Soldiers pulling him from the vehicle, and he remembers how hot the water felt when he poured it on his hands and face.
Shaffer was evacuated to Camp Diamondback where doctors performed numerous lifesaving surgeries, including amputating his right leg at the mid thigh. In addition to massive injuries to his right leg, Shaffer also sustained injuries to his left leg and burns to his face, hands and lungs.
At the hospital, he said he remembers asking them to save his favorite combat boots. He also remembers grabbing a nurse's arm and asking her to take the pain away.
But that's the last thing he remembers before waking up at Walter Reed U.S. Army Medical Center, Md., five days later and more than 6,000 miles from the war in Iraq. The doctors at Camp Diamondback had placed Shaffer in a medically-induced coma to keep him from feeling the pain.
At Walter Reed, Shaffer worked on completing his bachelor's degree, and eight months after the attack he applied for an internship at the Army Testing and Evaluation Center.
He said he worked at the Army Testing and Evaluation Center for about one year; his internship ended when the center was moved to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.
Also at Walter Reed, Shaffer was approved for reenlistment in the U.S. Army. Soon after his reenlistment, and during the wait for his next duty assignment, Shaffer met Maj. Gen. Kevin Leonard, SDDC's commanding general, who initiated plans to have him assigned to SDDC.
He arrived at Hq. SDDC in August 2011. Since that time, Shaffer has worked hard to learn a new skill set in the command's Personal Property directorate.
Although he loves working at SDDC and living near his family, Shaffer said his path from Iraq to Scott AFB wasn't at all easy.
"For the longest time [after the attack], I just concentrated on the things I couldn't do," explained Shaffer. "When I joined the Army, I worked hard to get my run time down to about 12 minutes for two miles. After the attack, I felt like I would never run again."
He said he also went through "crashes" -- periods of time where he just didn't feel like doing anything.
"Some Soldiers give up; some blame the military. I got through it, and I don't blame the military," added Shaffer. "I joined the military; I wasn't drafted. I picked which branch of the military. I picked which job I would have in the military. And I chose to be in a front-line unit. I just rolled snake eyes that day."
He said he's done more in the last three years than most people do their entire life.
"I've been to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I've been scuba diving. I've been to Alaska. I've done marathon races on an arm bike, and I've been on a Paralympic volleyball team. There may be a few things I can't do, but there's tons of things I can do."