Monday, January 12, 2015

TOP STORY >> The story of Aaron Downing

19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

A convoy rides through the streets of downtown Tikrit, Iraq, on July 28, 2007. Inside the lead vehicle sits then-Staff Sgt. Aaron Downing, a security forces airman working with the Army 82nd Airborne, 89th Military Police Company. After a long day of training the Iraqi police, Downing and his team are headed back to Camp Speicher.

The convoy weaves through the streets just like any other day of the week. The team is vigilant despite how routine the day seemed. They have no idea just what they are about to drive into.

The vehicles briefly stop at the corner of Saddam Boulevard and Business One to make a left hand turn. The lead vehicle makes the turn and the rest follow.

Downing has lost his memory of what happened as the fourth vehicle made that turn.

Moments after, he regains consciousness and emerges from the wreckage of the first vehicle with a ringing in his ears. He sees the vehicle; its entire engine department demolished from the blast. Before he has time to assess what just happened, adrenaline takes over. He jumps into action.

“I directed the driver to move out of the kill zone 10 more feet before the engine gave out. There was some sporadic gunfire after we moved out of the kill zone,” Downing said. “That’s when I called for support over the radio.”

A truck arrives and Downing picks up a bulky tow bar and links it to the convoy lead. Once connected, the tow truck drags the shattered vehicle back to Camp Speicher.

Once they arrive at the camp, Downing, along with the rest of the team, are evaluated for injuries.

Downing later learns that his team was attacked by an improvised explosive device. Two 155 artillery rounds of 15-gallon cylinder propane were linked to a command wire that detonated 3 to 4 feet away from the convoy lead and totaled the engine compartment of the vehicle.

With his quick thinking and training, Downing led his team back to safety.

“Even though I wasn’t in the right state of mind, training and muscle memory kicked in,” Downing said. “We did what we were trained to do, which was recovering the vehicle and assessing any wounded.”

After the IED explosion in July 2007, Downing was near nine more IED incidents.

“I didn’t expect to be a part of that many IED events,” Downing said. “Honestly, you never know what you’re going to expect. You go into a deployment expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”

After his deployment to Iraq, Downing did two tours to Afghanistan.

Traumatic events within deployments, like IED blasts, can create a heavy emotional and physical toll on the body. To keep up with the demands of the mission, Downing found himself turning off his emotions.

“In certain points during deployments, you pretty much have to shut off your emotions,” Downing said. “You have to go numb to get the mission complete. It’s kind of mandatory.”
Although he said shutting off emotions was easy, Downing has had some difficulty adapting back to the real world.

“The hard part is turning it back on when you get home,” Downing said. “Seven years after the fact, I’m still trying to do that. I’m not the least bit ashamed that I have sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder for seven years on and off.”

In between his deployments in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2013, Downing has had to balance his treatment with his deployment requirements.

“I couldn’t handle the thought of someone going in my place,” Downing said. “If something were to happen to someone whenever it was my time to go and fight, I don’t think I could live with myself. When it was my time to go, I went.”

Seven years after his deployment to Iraq, Downing received a Purple Heart for his actions in a ceremony held last September at Little Rock Air Force Base. Lt. Gen. Carlton Everhart, 18th Air Force commander, attended the event.

Today, Downing, now a master sergeant, works with the 19th Security Forces Squadron here as the weapons and tactics superintendent.

Although Downing has had many experiences in his military career, his perspective has changed, thanks to his treatment.

“It’s given me a different outlook on life,” Downing said. “It’s slowly helping me reconnect with my family and friends. It’s helping (keep) me from pushing people away. I’m learning a lot of coping techniques that help with functioning in society. Am I there? No. Will I ever be there? I don’t know. But I’m hopeful. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be continuing my treatment.”