By Ben Sherman, Fort Sill Cannoneer May 31, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla.-- Retired Staff Sgt. Dustin Roderigas enjoys working with his hands to restore historic military vehicles and artifacts. He has even restored his own World War II-era Willys jeep. He works as an assistant exhibits specialist at the Army Field Artillery Museum. But, he is just glad to be able to work at all after being injured in Iraq.
Roderigas was an infantryman with A Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq. His regiment was deployed out of South Korea to Ramadi, Iraq in 2004 for a one-year tour. He was wounded a month and a half before they were due to rotate out.
"My crew and I had survived 20 improvised explosive device explosions in a Bradley fighting vehicle during our yearlong tour. It was the Bradley that protected us," said Roderigas. "The 21st blast- I didn't feel it, see it or smell it. The other 20 I did hear and see them but that last one was a blackout, just like flipping a switch."
Roderigas said he had no memories of the event until he woke up six hours later at the Al-Asad combat air support hospital. He had sustained a moderate traumatic brain injury and received shrapnel wounds in his right knee. He considered himself lucky.
"Looking back it seems like a dream, but the pain, that was real. You don't ever forget the pain. I was extremely lucky and my crew was extremely lucky. It could have been far worse. If we had been in a Humvee we would have been dead," Roderigas said.
The enemy placed a large amount of explosives in a tunnel they dug under the middle of a major intersection. "We were told it was a big one. They put an anti-tank mine there where only a heavy vehicle would set off the explosives. Cars were driving over it and it was fine, but when our Bradley came along, it blew us up," he said.
Roderigas made it back stateside and eventually was assigned to Fort Sill. Because he endured so many explosions and repetitive concussions, he still suffers from their effects and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
"I now have a very bad short-term memory as a result of being injured in May of 2005, compounded with dealing with migraine headaches on a weekly basis," he said. "I've got bad knees and aches and pains just like every other Soldier. It takes a lot to just keep things together.
"As a Soldier, your sense of accomplishment is what everything is based on. You get your own self-motivation because of your attitude, and your attitude comes from doing your job. When you take a Soldier, any Soldier, out of a job that they have done for so long, they are lost," Roderigas said. "That's what happens to wounded Soldiers."
Roderigas was one of the early Soldiers who was assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit when it was first established to ensure ongoing care for wounded and ill Soldiers.
"Talk about individuality, every one of the Soldiers in the WTU is different. It's not like having a normal platoon or squad, where you have one or two Soldiers who are on sick quarters today. In the WTU, everybody is on sick quarters every day. That's what the WTU does, take care of and support Soldiers who are sick and wounded." Roderigas said.
He said the greatest thing the WTU did was issue him a personal digital assistant that became his lifeline. His WTU squad leaders and platoon sergeants would make sure everything was in his PDA. "The WTU helped me become successful here because they worked with the museum and gave me the chance to do the light duty job," he said.
"I had a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and that's real important as a wounded Soldier, because you feel lost when you've been wounded. My wife and I refer to it as 'treading water' as opposed to 'drowning.' I'm not swimming yet, but I'm treading water enough to get by. I'm doing things a thousand times better than I was, compared to when I was wounded," Roderigas added.
He got a job with the museum doing low maintenance, single focus tasks in a quiet setting, and as time went along he was able to do more. "They had a jeep in the Field Artillery Museum and there were some things wrong with it. I own a World War II jeep myself that I restored back around 2000 and I asked them if I could help with this jeep. And they said, 'Just do what you can,' " Roderigas said.
"The folks here at the museum gave me guidance and training for the job. If it weren't for these guys I wouldn't be where I'm at right now. The WTU was half; these guys at the museum were the other half,' Roderigas said. "The person who was behind it all was my wife, Jeanne. She's the primary reason that I am here, for sure. I live each and every day for my kids and my wife."
Roderigas said he always had an avid thirst for knowledge, especially for military history. To be able to channel that interest and do work with historical items at the museum makes him excited. "It's kind of "Indiana Jones-like" you know, get an artifact and try to find out the story behind it. I love working with these old pieces, no matter what it is. It's historical and significant," he said.
At age 38 Roderigas spent almost 20 years in the Army before he was wounded. He really thought he would do 30 years or more. But now his job at the Field Artillery Museum keeps him close to the Army that he loves.
"These guys here at the museum tell me the work I do is good. They give me an "attaboy" - positive reinforcement. You're not going to find the camaraderie that you have in the Army anywhere else, but the closest thing I have found is these guys right here at the museum. These are my battle buddies."