Operation Tribute to Freedom

OTF Soldier Story for May 24, 2010 - Sgt. Angel Herrera, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kirk, and Staff Sgt. Rachelle Renaud

Sergeant Angel Herrera

Sgt. Angel Herrera
Current Unit: 1st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade at Fort Hood
Current Position: Motor Transport Operator
Component: Active Army
Current Location: Killeen, Texas
Hometown: Corning, Calif.
Years of Service: 5

Sergeant First Class Jason Kirk

Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kirk
Current Unit: 1st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade at Fort Hood
Current Position: Infantryman
Component: Active Army
Current Location: Copperas Cove, Texas
Hometown: Aliquippa, Pa.
Years of Service: 14

Staff Sergeant Rachelle Renaud

Staff Sgt. Rachelle Renaud
Current Unit: 1st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade at Fort Hood
Current Position: Military Policeman
Component: Active Army
Current Location: Copperas Cove, Texas.
Hometown: Tracy, Calif.
Years of Service: 12

In September 2008, Sgt. Angel Herrera was serving as a heavy equipment driver in Afghanistan. After an enemy rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) struck her one night, she suffered severe injuries, including shrapnel wounds that severed the carotid artery in her neck and internal injuries to her liver, spleen, stomach and intestines.

During her recovery, doctors told her she would never swim again, which was devastating for her since she was an avid swimmer growing up. The first time she entered the pool after her injuries, she struggled to stay afloat but she refused to leave the pool until she had gone its entire length—and she did. She also went on to win both a silver and bronze medal at the inaugural Warrior Games held in Colorado Springs, Colo., earlier this month.

For Soldiers who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Warrior Games gave them the chance to prove to others, but most importantly to themselves, that they can do whatever they put their mind to. And for each Soldier—their goals were as individual and varied as their injuries. For Herrera, she wanted to accomplish what doctors had once said was impossible; and for Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kirk and Staff Sgt. Rachelle Renaud, they had their eyes on winning a gold medal. From the battlefield to the playing field, these Army Strong Soldiers have proven that they are committed to continuing to serve their country and achieving their personal best.

“You are your worst enemy when it comes to healing. If you just feel sorry for yourself or are mad at the bad guy on the other side, you get too caught up in what you can’t do. You have to choose to focus on what you can do,” Herrera said, who has chosen to resume her lifelong passion of swimming.

However, what was once nearly effortless for the Soldier is now a task that requires her full attention.

“My left side is still not as strong as my right side. So I have to be conscious about every move I make when I swim,” she said. “Before my injury when I got into the water, it was like being on land. It was just easy. But now if I don’t think about it, I’ll start to sink.”

However, less than two years after her injuries, she finished her first ever competitive swim meet and she earned a silver medal in the women’s 50 meter freestyle event and a bronze medal for the women’s 50 meter backstroke event, both in the upper body injury divisions.

“I was hoping to win a gold medal, but also knew I would be competing against strong athletes. I was very pleased that I was to hang with the leaders and finish right behind them in both events,” she said.

Similar to Herrera, Kirk’s life changed in January 2009, when just weeks after being promoted to the rank of sergeant first class, he was wounded due to a RPG, which left a fist-size wound on his left leg and cracked his tibia. After an initial surgery in theater, he was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he received a skin and muscle graft, and continued to recover for several months.

At the Warrior Games, he competed in cycling, track and team wheelchair basketball events. Although his emphasis was on the 20K biking road race, in which he placed seventh, he earned a silver medal with his team in the wheelchair basketball division.

“I tried my hardest and I had fun. Although I wanted to earn the gold medal in cycling, I was pleased with my performance, especially since I only had a month to train,” he said.

His leg has recovered to about 80% of its former function, but Kirk said that doctors don’t expect much more progression. However, he plans to make competitive cycling a part of his future.

“I really enjoy biking, especially since it takes some of the strain of my leg, and I plan to do it long-term,” he said.

Renaud also plans to make competitive sports a regular part of her life following the Warrior Games.

After enduring two deployments to Iraq with the 720th Military Police Battalion, she was forced to undergo lumbar spinal fusion surgery in January 2009 due to chronic pain and numbness that intensified during her time overseas. Despite her injuries, the Soldier, who still suffers from pain and numbness on her left side, earned a silver medal in the women’s 50 meter freestyle swim, in the lower body injury division. On the shooting range, she also was the top female competitor in the air pistol event.

More than her medal, though, she said the biggest reward of the Warrior Games was the chance to be with the other competitors.

“It was very emotional to be amongst other wounded warriors who have such a positive attitude. And although we all wanted to do well, it wasn’t about winning a medal; it was about supporting one another. We represented the armed forces of America and at the Games, we were one team: the United States of America,” she said.

Both Kirk and Herrera have received the Purple Heart for injuries sustained while deployed, and Renaud has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her meritorious service overseas. They are all presently assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Hood and live in the area with their families. In the future, they are committed to competing again and hope to continue to improve their personal bests.

“Through competitive sports, I learned that despite having things that I couldn’t do, there is still quite a bit that I can do. I just have to take the first step to start. I am not going to be the same again, but I can still change for the better,” Renaud said, adding that she hopes to encourage other wounded Soldiers to do the same.

In total, the Army came away with 16 medals from the Warrior Games, which were held May 10-14. As a joint endeavor between the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 200 wounded service members across all branches of service competed in shooting, swimming, archery, volleyball, cycling, track, basketball, discus and shot put events. In each event, competitors were separated into divisions based on their injuries.

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