By Virginia RezaAugust 8, 2008
FORT BLISS, Texas (Army News Service, Aug. 8, 2008) -- "Alcohol, drugs and partying are not the answer; it just makes things worse," said Silver Star Medal recipient Staff Sgt. Omar Hernandez. "Talking really helps."
Hernandez, who underwent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from his third tour in Iraq last year, said he hesitated to seek mental help because he did not want to be perceived as crazy or weak. He serves with B Company, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.
Hernandez's courageous actions on the battlefield June 6, 2007, earned him the Silver Star. His citation read, "For gallantry in action against a determined enemy Sgt. Hernandez exemplary bravery under fire and a complete disregard for his own safety, enabled him to single handedly pull two members of the Iraqi National Police Force to safety despite having already been severely wounded himself. The gallant actions of Sgt. Hernandez are in the finest traditions of military heroism."
Hernandez said most servicemembers who witnessed atrocities in Iraq have either mild or severe cases of PTSD, but do not want to admit it. He was once in the same situation. He suffered from insomnia and was very angry for getting shot and leaving his comrades behind. He was unable to cry and his emotions were a rollercoaster, he said, but finally he decided to "let it all out," which he said lifted a huge weight off his shoulders.
"Talking about it helped so much," said Hernandez. "Soldiers should talk about experiences they encountered down range. It's about making themselves better in their head and in their heart. And if they don't feel comfortable talking to people who have not experienced combat issues, they can look me up. I'll be more than happy to talk to them."
Staff Sgt. Brandlon Falls, Hernandez's platoon sergeant in Iraq, said he was very proud of him.
"I've been in the Army a while, and Hernandez is one of the top team leaders I've ever had," said Falls.
Falls also agreed Soldiers should talk about their experiences as soon as they return from deployment. He said if it were up to him, he would make it mandatory for all Soldiers to get some kind of counseling until "they get it all out of their system."
"When I came back, I wanted to talk about everything that happened and it helped me, because after a while I was happy," said Falls. "If I had waited, I probably would have developed PTSD."
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, and raised in Houston, Hernandez was granted his U.S. citizenship during his second tour to Iraq. The ceremony took place in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, which he said was an unforgettable experience.
As a young boy, Hernandez liked to watch combat movies, especially Rambo, which he jokingly said inspired him to join the military. He began his military career in the Army Reserve. He was deployed to Iraq for six months as an engineer during the initial invasion. After redeployment, he enlisted in the Army as an infantryman to better serve his country, he said. He attended airborne school in Fort Bragg, N.C., and thereafter deployed with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, for 12 months, where he pulled security for interrogators. He was then reassigned to 4th BCT,1st AD and deployed for seven months versus 12 due to a severe wound to his leg. He is now attached to the protocol section.
Hernandez said his wound hurts on occasion, especially when the weather changes. His friends often tease him by asking if it's going to rain.
"The guys ask if I sit in my front porch and predict what the weather will be like today: 'Is your leg aching'' they ask," said Hernandez. "They give me a hard time, and I love it."
After six months of physical therapy and some training, he is now able to run McKelligon Canyon carrying a 50-pound rucksack. Hernandez's injuries include loss of 30 percent in his quadriceps, three inches of girth and nerve damage to his right thigh, and he still has shrapnel in his leg.
Hernandez said what still haunts him is the sadness and fear in the Iraqis' faces. He can't forget the children running around without shoes.
"Some don't even have a mom and dad who can give them a hug," said Hernandez. "It's pretty hard on them and pretty hard on us to see that. I'm just glad my son doesn't have to go through that. That's why I want to go back, to help the Iraqi people acquire the same rights we have in the U.S.
"People who want to pull out from Iraq should walk a mile in my shoes and see the things I saw," he concluded. "I'm sure they would change their minds immediately."
(Virginia Reza writes for the Fort Bliss Monitor newspaper.)