Sgt. David Aguirre, 36, of Doral, who served multiple tours in Iraq, is lucky to be alive. The same can be said of Cpl. Christopher Alban, 22, of Tamarac, an Afghanistan veteran.
Both Marines were badly hurt by improvised explosive devices, a hallmark of both wars. Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have taken a lot of lives in both Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have also left many others seriously hurt, sometimes in ways that are not visible.
Although Aguirre and Alban came back alive, both will be coping for some time,
Aguirre suffers from an often-misdiagnosed condition known as TBI, or traumatic brain injury, caused by a blow to the head that disrupts the normal functions of the brain.
As with concussions sustained in football or hockey, war-related TBI is gaining far more attention now than in prior years and becoming better understood.
There are currently 291 TBI veterans in the Miami VA system, says public affairs officer Shane Suzuki.
Born in Brownsville, Texas., and reared in Matamoros, Mexico, Aguirre worked in medical technology for three years after graduating from the University of Texas in 1995. He joined the Marine Corps in June 2003, and deployed with an infantry unit in January 2004 as a lance corporal in Weapons Co. in Mahmudiyah, near Fallujah.
Three months later, after the killing and mutilation of four U.S. contractors who were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents, the siege of Fallujah was undertaken. It was a hectic time, with missions so plentiful he would sometimes go 70 to 80 hours with little or no sleep. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades routinely pelted Aguirre’s unit.
Twice in one week, Aguirre’s convoy was jolted by IEDs, one of which damaged his ear canal, drawing blood and leaving him disoriented.
A couple of weeks later came another experience even more shattering. A rocket-propelled grenade whistled in on Aguirre’s six-vehicle convoy as it drove on regular patrol on a stretch of road flanked by fields. Aguirre, who was manning a light machine gun while swiveling around in the turret of the fifth Humvee in line, didn’t see it coming.
The RPG smacked him in the neck, hammering his head into the butt stock of his M240. The first sergeant tapped him on the leg, a signal to lower himself into the vehicle so as not to present a defined target. Aguirre was unresponsive. The four-man crew initially believed he had died. He was simply out cold. He survived because the rocket turned out to be a dud.
During his second deployment, Aguirre saw 12 members of his unit killed in action. He continued to defy the odds, although he did withstand another jolting encounter with an IED. This one destroyed one of the vehicles in a convoy and sent him airborne. He landed on his rear.
Aguirre made sergeant in 2006. He could not complete his 2007 deployment, due to health issues. He was medevacked back to the United States in July.
Aguirre’s wife, Karen, became acutely aware that the blasts were taking a toll on Aguirre.
While her husband was back at Camp Lejeune, Karen, an administrative secretary in the Department of General Medicine at the University of Miami, pleaded with the Corps to send him home to South Florida.
With assistance from doctors at the university, Aguirre got reassigned to the Marine Reserve Training Base in Hialeah. Since he was in the care of the Miami VA Healthcare System, it was left to Karen to make daily reports to the base about medication and VA appointments.