Soldier dedicates service to gun violence victims

By Joe Lacdan, Army News ServiceMarch 21, 2024

Staff Sgt. Devin Bigelow, pictured with his wife, joined the Army after witnessing classmates killed from gang violence in his hometown Omaha, Nebraska. The combat medic returns to Omaha each year to visit the grave stones of his fallen classmates.
Staff Sgt. Devin Bigelow, pictured with his wife, joined the Army after witnessing classmates killed from gang violence in his hometown Omaha, Nebraska. The combat medic returns to Omaha each year to visit the grave stones of his fallen classmates. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas — On summer day while playing a game of hide and seek, Devin Bigelow heard gunshots.

Bigelow and his friends walked from one end of a street in their south Omaha, Nebraska, neighborhood, where he saw a crowd gathering. He later learned gang gunfire had killed another child.

Nine-year-old Bigelow had to learn to cope with the loss of classmates lost due to gang-related violence. He’d heard about classmates killed before.

During Bigelow’s childhood, gang wars brewed mostly on the north side of Nebraska’s largest city, but the activity sometimes made its way to the south end. School administrators would announce another student's death on the intercom. Bigelow estimates about six to seven died during his elementary school years.

“It was a shock,” said Bigelow, now a staff sergeant and senior Combat Medic Specialist Training Program instructor at Fort Sam Houston. On a rare frigid afternoon in South Texas, he winced as he recalled the memory.

“When these things first happen when you're that young, you just kind of understand that person [is] gone. But then as you get older, you start to form those independent thoughts like okay, this happened, what could I have done? How could I have prevented it?”

Gun violence peaked in the Midwestern city from 2007-2008 during Bigelow’s 6th and 7th grade years. According to the Omaha police department, “hundreds” of the city’s youth may have become vulnerable to gang lifestyles. About 30 gangs remain active within the city limits today, including the Latin Kings.

At 13, Bigelow moved 47 miles across the state line to Walnut, a small Iowa town of 800 along Route 80. There, far from the neighborhoods where he saw his classmates were killed, he cleared his mind living in the rural country air.

The losses of his classmates weighed heavily on his mind. In the quaint isolation of the small town, he made a silent pact.

He wanted to pursue a career in the medical field, specifically the Army, so he could help save those impacted by violence.

Bigelow later returned to Omaha to attend high school and joined junior ROTC. He talked to Army recruiters before he graduated from high school in the spring of 2013. He already had his mind set on enlisting in the Army as a 68W combat medic.

“I’d already had the motivation and want to join the military,” said Bigelow, as he sat in his office at Fort Sam Houston, housed in a former basic combat training dormitory. “And the reason I chose combat medic is to actually get that first line trauma experience to be able to better assist them.”

“If somebody gets hurt, you're the person they call if there's an unfortunate event like a death,” he said. “You don't get to cry first. You have to cry last because everybody else is coming up to you and wanting to know what's going on. How are you? Like … what happened?”

Bigelow, 28, still had to overcome his childhood trauma from the tragedies. He also faced fears that many new combat medics battle. Some grow lightheaded at the sight of blood. Others wince at severe flesh wounds.

For Bigelow, he struggled over the sight of eye injuries.

“Those freaked me out like no other,” he said. He would look away when seeing an eye injury on TV.

But the Soldier found through repetition and continually treating patients that he controlled his fears.

Bigelow wouldn’t face his true trials until he went on a three-week rotation at a Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Johnson, Louisiana. Bigelow’s unit called him to treat a National Guard Soldier experiencing chest pain.

He checked the Soldier’s vitals. The Soldier had no pulse and couldn’t breathe.

Bigelow quickly realized the Soldier suffered a heart attack. Bigelow removed the Soldier’s uniform and began applying CPR.

He saw no signs of life.

Bigelow tried again and used an automated external defibrillator.

“I was able to resuscitate them, I was able to bring them fully back and manage their evacuation,” Bigelow said. “At first it was, I felt like, I just did that, and it was awesome.”

Then he realized what he had done meant something more. He sat with the Soldiers’ family and his wife at the post hotel. The Soldier’s spouse baked him cookies and tearfully expressed her gratitude.

“I was just sitting down and remembering that there’s a family behind every person that we save,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow saw the impact of his work as a combat medic from a variety of compacities. Bigelow supervised evacuations and his team treated three Soldiers for heart attacks during his time at Fort Johnson. One did not survive.

Although haunted by the trauma he experienced growing up on Omaha’s south side, he said that he has sought help at Army behavioral health clinics and learned to cope with the memories.

“I don’t feel the weight of it anymore,” Bigelow said. “I was able to understand it better; understanding that I was powerless in those situations.”

No longer a frail curious child, the Army helped Bigelow grow into a proficient combat medic; teaching students at Fort Sam Houston to understand red flags when evaluating a patient. Medics treat a variety of ailments from injured Soldiers in the field to retired veterans experiencing trouble breathing.

“Let's say we have a patient that presents with stomach pain of unknown origin,” Bigelow said. “[There’s] pain because our nerves actually traveled down this way. An individual having stomach pain or gastric pain, if they're older — that could be signs of a heart attack.

“So, it's them understanding … picking apart those red flags, really teaching critical thinking and critical understanding and how to actually apply it; how to take basically all the ingredients from a cookbook, and actually make dinner.”

And he hasn’t forgotten the fallen victims of Omaha. Each year he returns to his hometown with a new challenge coin from his current unit. Occasionally he will reunite with old classmates from his elementary school.

Then he visits one cemetery on Omaha’s south side and places the coin upon a victim’s grave. He clears any weeds or overgrowth on the tombstone.

Bigelow said the memory of his classmates reminds him of the impact of his work as a medic, with each patient he treats, each student he helps get certified. As a combat medic, he’s embarked on missions to El Salvador, Romania and traveled as part of the 4th Infantry Division to Kuwait.

“[The tragedy] definitely drives the importance of teaching other people that way, so they begin to recognize and understand the reasoning of … why are we putting this tourniquet on each other?” he said. “It's really enforcing the importance of the understanding ‘this is why,’ so that you can one day save somebody's life.”


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