By Capt. Robert TaylorJune 4, 2018
BOISE, Idaho - It's been six years since Idaho Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Albert Vieth was shot two weeks into his unit's nine-month deployment to Afghanistan on June 3, 2012.
He still lives with the pain in his wrist, but he doesn't spend much time thinking about that day.
"I don't really think about it a whole lot anymore," Vieth said. "I realize I have certain questions that can't ever be answered. I got as many answers as I could and put it to bed in my mind."
After two years of counseling, conversations with everyone involved but the shooter himself, Vieth sleeps peacefully at night.
"Life's too short to waste time on things you can't affect," he said. "If you go your whole life thinking about it, it will eat you up. I'm still here. I'm still alive. You gotta do as much as you can while you can."
JUST ANOTHER DAY
Company A, 1-168th General Support Aviation deployed to Afghanistan in April 2012 and conducted mobilization training at Fort Hood, Texas. The Idaho National Guard unit was a command aviation company, responsible for transporting Soldiers and VIPs throughout the country.
The unit was two weeks into its battle handoff with the Utah National Guard's 1st Battalion, 211th Attack Recon Battalion. Flight crews were a mixture of members from both units as the outgoing unit showed the incoming unit the terrain and key locations it would need to know.
Vieth, a Black Hawk crew chief, wasn't scheduled to fly June 3, but he volunteered for a mission to Taqab to give another crew chief some rest after a long flight the night before. The crew consisted of Chief Warrant Officer 4 Lance Robb and fellow company members 1st Lt. Ramesh Krizenbeck and Spc. Janica Hanover.
"It's just another day," he said.
A team of two Black Hawks flew to Taqab. Though the area was a known hot spot for enemy activity, the team flew without the support of a gunship. The 1-211th was almost done with its deployment and hadn't lost a single Soldier or aircraft.
Once at Taqab, Vieth's helicopter stayed in the air to provide security while the other Black Hawk landed with the passenger. Vieth was on the aircraft's right when he saw something white come out from under the trees ahead of him.
"I remember seeing this man come from underneath the trees," Vieth said. "He had his gun turned to the left. I saw him raise his arms. I could see he had a rifle of some sort. He was a direct threat to aircraft, so I immediately engaged. So did he."
Vieth fired his 240H machinegun at the man. He didn't miss. But neither did his target.
"I remember seeing dust proofs around his feet but at the same time, I remember getting thrown off my seat," he said.
An armored-piercing round entered the bottom of his left forearm, shattered two inches of his radius as it exited and went through his shoulder.
His first thought was to try to communicate to the crew what had happened, but he couldn't reach his headset's foot switch from the aircraft's floor. He realized he couldn't hear the other crewmembers because the round that had passed through his body twice had also passed through his communication cable from his helmet, leaving him unable to communicate with crewmembers.
"My life flashed before my eyes at that point," he said. "I felt discounted because I couldn't communicate. I saw everything. From when I was a kid until we left Boise, everyone and everything in a matter of seconds. I'm talking three or four seconds."
Vieth said he never passed out and that he didn't initially feel a lot of pain due to the adrenaline his body released as it went into shock.
"I was talking to my God and asking him if he was going to take me to at least let me see my wife and kid one last time before I go," he said.
Once the crew discovered he'd been shot, the helicopter flew back to Bagram Air Base and landed as close to the hospital as possible. Vieth said the adrenaline had started to wear off by then and that his arm started to hurt.
The medical staff had a gurney, but Vieth said he was too hardheaded and proud to use it, as he demanded to walk into the hospital on his own. Within six hours, he would be out of country. He would later ask his entire chain-of-command if he could return and complete the mission with his unit. His was unable to do so.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Vieth would receive seven surgeries as a result of his wounds. The first was in Afghanistan. Then he was flown to Germany and then Joint Base Andrews in Maryland for additional surgeries before having his arm put back together at Madigan Army Hospital at Joint BaseLewis-McChord, Washington.
Today, he has full use of his arm and fingers. He lost some mobility on his wrist but can move all his fingers and has feeling in most of his arm. His arm was numbed at first but eventually regained feeling after its nerve recovered from the shock of having a round pierce through his arm. His fingers started working on their own, but his thumb required a tendon transfer. One of the two tendons from his middle finger was cut and transferred to his non-working thumb's tendon.
"For about a month, I would move my middle finger and my thumb would move at the same time," he said.
Vieth spent four months recovering at Fort Lewis before returning home. He wore an arm brace for about a year and had a permanent profile for push-ups. Once he felt fully recovered, he asked to have that profile removed and performed 76 push-ups on his next Army Physical Fitness Test.
"Wounds, whether physical or mental doesn't have to be the limiting factor in your life" he said. "Someway, somehow, you can find a way around it to do whatever you want to do. If you're driven, you can still make your life happy."
After returning home, Vieth started having flashbacks and nightmares of his time in Iraq with the First Infantry Division during Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield in 1991. He has no idea why his mind focused on that deployment and not his more recent one, but he became restless in bed, tense in cars and haunted by the death and destruction he saw during the Army's initial invasion of Iraq.
It became too much for his marriage though he doesn't blame himself or his former wife for its ending. As his physical injuries healed, he sought help in maintaining his mental health. He found relief in the words of those present the day his life changed as well as a counselor, who listened to his thoughts on a wide range of topics.
Vieth said after talking to a counselor for two years a lot of what bothered him went away.
"I'm a big fan of people with PTSD going to talk to people," he said. "It seemed to work itself out. I sleep pretty peacefully now."
Vieth said that he talked about a number of things with a counselor and that having a neutral third party that didn't know him or judge him made it easier to sort through things in his head.
"A lot of people are anti-counseling," he said. "It's human nature to think you can fix everything. Understand that if you need help there are people who are educated in this area who are good at it. If you can get past that first hurdle, it's easy."
Since returning home, he was able to talk to the crew and his commander about what happened the day he was shot, which helped him come to terms with the event.
Vieth is now Company B, 1-183rd Aviation Battalion's readiness non-commissioned officer as an Active Guard/Reserve Soldier. Krizenbeck previously served as his company commander and is now the battalion's assistant operations officer. Washington served as the battalion's operations officer until recently. On a mission to Utah in 2015, Vieth ran into Robb.
"I realize I have certain questions that can't be answered," he said. "I think a lot of people go wrong because they think about it and think about it but they never go to the source or the people who can give them some sort of information that can answer the questions that can be answered. I got answers to the questions I knew I could get and that was it."
"I LIVED, HE DIDN'T"
Vieth is also at peace with the man who shot him.
"That guy was doing the same thing I was doing," he said. "Regardless if I believe in his cause, or he believes in mine, we're both Soldiers doing a job so it doesn't matter. I chose to be there. He chose to be there. We both chose to be there and play the game. I lived. He didn't."