Veteran continues service to Fort Drum 'warriors'
May 10, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- For many Soldiers, the desire to serve doesn't end when they hang up their Army combat uniform for the last time.
Although Capt. Tyler Kurth's military career ended only five years after he received his commission, he has experienced life-changing events that he will carry with him forever.
During his deployment to Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team in 2009, he sustained several combat-related injuries resulting from being in a vehicle that was hit with an improvised explosive device. He was later shot by an Afghan National Police officer who he had known for several months.
"I saw my fair share of combat as an infantryman; I was in over 70 fire fights," Kurth said.
He and four other Soldiers were shot during a three-day mission in the village of Andar. The first day of the mission was Sept. 30 -- his birthday. The unit blocked off the village and moved through it east to west with no issues.
"The people came out and greeted us and were very friendly," he said.
Kurth, nine of his Soldiers and a couple of Afghan police officers took over a house -- or qualat -- on the far end of the village. During the next two days, the unit patrolled the village and handed out food and clothing to local residents.
The afternoon of Oct. 2, the last day of the mission, the men had just finished a patrol through the village. Kurth instructed the Soldiers to relax, take off their gear and get something to eat before the next patrol. Some of the Soldiers decided to play cards in one of the open rooms next door to Kurth.
"An Afghan police officer nicknamed 'Crazy Joe,' who was on the patrol with us, walked up to them point blank and started firing," he explained. "I could see it. I could see through the door, and I could see Crazy Joe."
Kurth was standing in a doorway about four or five feet from Crazy Joe before he heard the shooting.
"I started thinking, 'what's going on?'" he said. "Then I heard the screams and the cries from my Soldiers. That's when it dawned on me what was going on."
By the time he looked down to reach for his 9 mm pistol, Crazy Joe was facing him.
"Then he started firing on me," Kurth said. "There was a Soldier behind me, so I stood squared up in front of him because I didn't want my Soldier to get hit."
"I stood there for as long as I could take it -- it felt like days -- hearing the fire and feeling the wood chipping around me," he continued.
Eventually, Kurth turned away and stood against a wall to get away from the shooter, and the firing stopped.
"I knew instantly that I needed to do something," he said.
He went to the Soldier in his room to calm him down and make sure he was OK before moving to the next room where the attack originated. The first Soldier he found had been shot four times. As Kurth examined him, he realized that while he needed immediate care, he would probably survive. He instructed a Soldier to start treating him while he moved on.
The next Soldier was so gravely wounded, Kurth couldn't save him, and the third had already died. The last Soldier survived the attack with a broken leg.
"I found the radio … called up … and told them that I had two urgent and two expectant," Kurth said. "I didn't call myself up, because at the time, I didn't know I had been shot. I sat down facing the door … because I knew if anyone was going to come back, it would be through that door."
"When I went to sit down, that's when I looked down and saw blood pouring out of my chest and my leg," he continued. "It took me a couple of minutes to compose myself, and that's when help started arriving."
He pushed the medics off of him and instructed them to start helping his Soldiers. When he approached the medical evacuation helicopter, the crew was expecting only four Soldiers. When the pilot realized how badly Kurth was injured, he threw him in the helicopter before heading to the hospital.
Two Soldiers died that day -- Sgt. Aaron M. Smith, 2-87 Infantry, and Pfc. Brandon A. Owens, a military policeman from Fort Bragg, N.C., who was assigned to Kurth's unit -- and three were wounded. Crazy Joe was never caught.
Within two weeks of being shot, Kurth signed in at 3rd Battalion, 85th Infantry Regiment, or the Warrior Transition Unit. As an infantryman, he admits that he associated the WTU with weakness.
"I was extremely wrong; it's there for guys who need it," Kurth explained.
"I didn't know what to expect," he continued. "(When I got there), I was already having post traumatic stress symptoms and memory problems as a result of the IED blast."
Kurth's wife, Lori, had just given birth to their son, Tyler, when he arrived back at Fort Drum.
"He was 6 weeks old," Kurth said. "I couldn't hold my son for the first year; I couldn't. He would cry, and it would freak me out. It's a lot to go through."
For the next three months, Kurth underwent physical therapy. By January, Lori Kurth and WTU cadre noticed Kurth's increasingly maladaptive behavior. He also refused to go outside and could only sleep about an hour a night.
"I wasn't pleasant to be around at all," he said.
Kurth was admitted to the Freedom Care program at University Behavioral Health of Denton in Texas, which he said is "one of the best facilities for PTSD in the country."
"They have their own military ward … and they cater to Soldiers and their needs and special circumstances," he said. "I was there for three months. I got back and was a little more stable, but I wouldn't go in public still and I couldn't wear the uniform."
Kurth's road to recovery started slowly, but he began going to formation and interacting with people he knew before the deployment. His weeks were busy with medical, behavioral health and physical therapy appointments.
Since he redeployed, Kurth has had two surgeries and still has three more pending to fix some of the injuries he sustained during the Oct. 2 incident.
"My leg is numb (from the knee down) -- I wear a special brace that picks my toes up (to walk)," he explained. "I (was diagnosed with) PTSD (and) a traumatic brain injury, and my right shoulder is messed up from the bullet going through it. Other than that, I'm pretty healthy."
In 2010, Kurth was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his heroism and selfless acts during the Oct. 2 shooting.
"In my opinion, it is an honor just to be nominated," Kurth said.
After he retired from the Army last July, Kurth began working at the WTU as an operations and training specialist. Being a part of the WTU as a Soldier and now a civilian is a testament to one of the organization's missions -- to help Soldiers transition to civilian life successfully.
"I believe that the WTU has a very important mission and would like to help them accomplish it," he said. "It gives me an opportunity to give back to the unit that helped me recover."
While some Soldiers get to return to the fight, most do not, Kurth added.
"We do everything we can do to help with that from their Family care to re-socialization to physical therapy," Kurth said.
"Because of the population we have … they have to be treated with care," he continued. "With PTSD, they can't control (their mood swings and memory loss), so you have to be very careful with the words you use around them and the way you act."
Military and civilian cadre members are required to receive special training to teach them how to interact with different types of WTU Soldiers, Kurth explained.
To help in the transition from green suit to business suit, Soldiers are required to have a job, whether it's in a post physical fitness center or an office.
"We are helping them prepare to (work again)," Kurth said. "Part of the transition for them is to learn to hold a job again so when they transition to civilian life it's not a shock to them. To get up and have a routine again and socialize with others -- that's one of the benefits.
"My experience (at WTU) was very positive," he added. "They helped me (and my wife) out tremendously."
While he was still a WTU Soldier, Kurth began participating in several programs -- military and civilian -- that accommodate individual needs of wounded warriors. Some of the programs Kurth has participated in offer hunting and fishing trips, and tickets to professional sports games. He continues to stay involved in the organizations as a civilian.
One program in particular, Veterans No Boundaries, is Kurth's favorite. For the past two winters, he has participated in its adaptive skiing program.
"They cater to your needs completely," Kurth added. "They teach you how to ski, but it's not just about skiing. It's about learning how to re-socialize into society and to do something around your handicap to build your confidence."
"One thing I suffer (from) is lack of confidence," he continued. "I went from being an athlete -- running every day, body building and doing these wonderful things -- to not being able to run or even do a pushup. I had to find something else to do to take up my time and still have confidence and the feeling that I was working out and being healthy."
The WTU also offers trips to help Soldiers get "out of their shells," Kurth added.
"When you have PTSD -- I experienced it for well over a year and a half -- I would not go outside," he said. "I would not go out into public if there was a crowd. I wouldn't drive because I was scared. A lot of these Soldiers face the same things … and are afraid to talk about what happened."
Even being nominated for the nation's highest military honor doesn't take away the emotional and physical pain Kurth endures every day. Just talking about the deployment or even watching military or war movies is still painful, but talking about it has helped him.
"I feel great. I'm recovering and I'm feeling better," Kurth noted. "It's very interesting how PTSD affects a person. I don't watch the news and I don't watch any war movies … because I start thinking about my Soldiers."
Although losing his Soldiers is still a painful subject, Kurth has positive memories about what he and his unit accomplished in Afghanistan -- handing out food and clothes and helping children.
"I found that the more I talk about it, the better I feel about it," he said. "(It helps to) put it behind (you) and move forward. Obviously, (some people) have physical ailments that you can never forget, but your life isn't over. They have a lot of life left (to live) and to do a lot of things."