South Florida vets cope with wounds not always visible

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.

“I couldn’t speak to him most of the time,” Karen says. “He slept practically all day, taking 12 to 13 pills a day. He’d be upset for stupid things, anything that irritated him. He didn’t go anywhere.”

Aguirre took medical retirement from the Marines in May 2011. The VA awarded him disability benefits. Florida International University offered him night classes so he could complete a degree in Spanish, which would facilitate his goal to be a social worker to Hispanic veterans with TBI. He has found part-time work at the university’s Office of Veterans Assistance, and makes a weekly session with a therapist at Veterans Link Up in Cutler Bay.

Silence, and then

Marine Cpl. Christopher Alban was operating in Helman province, Afghanistan, also known as “the most dangerous place on earth,” when the IED blasted his seven-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.

A bright, upwardly mobile young man who, as a kid, would pretend he was GI Joe, Alban served as a convoy driver and light machine gunner.

“I was pumped since the day [Jan. 15, 2010] I arrived,” he says. “I wasn’t scared. It was more of a rush.”

He remembers his first encounter with an IED all too well. His vehicle was second in a convoy of 30 headed for Marja. “It was a huge [IED] explosion that hit my side,” he says. Fortunately, the mine blew the underside of the [vehicle] and everyone was safe.

A subsequent IED blast during a later mission was far more traumatic. A 10-vehicle convoy of Marine trucks and vehicles loaded with troops from Georgia, the former Soviet republic, left Buji early in the morning. Alban drove the fifth truck, which carried fuel for a forward operating base (FOB) in Babaji, a ruthless insurgent stronghold, and another FOB down the line.

He remembers a wall of silence, and a cloud of dust kicking up around the truck.

The blast had taken out the vehicle’s communications and Alban tried to get out to stand on the side of the road and wave to the other trucks that everything was OK. But it wasn’t. His left leg gave off a vibrating sensation. He patted it, but the limb just dangled from the knee as if it were about to fall away from the socket.

“I never felt pain like that. It was hell.”

Alban says he couldn’t even cry, for the agony welling up in the leg. But he screamed, and cursed his luck, thinking he might be facing amputation. The Georgians fitted him with a temporary splint and his lieutenant called for a medevac chopper.

In the confusion, his injury was labeled “casual routine,” and Alban found himself low priority on the medevac schedule. Eventually, he was rushed to a Georgian forward operating base in Buji, from which he could be picked up by a chopper.

And then, more trouble: An enemy attack waylaid departure plans. Insurgents peppered the outpost with mortars and small arms fire. The Georgians countering with a consistent rat-a-tat of machine guns.

Alban got out of that hellhole at 5 a.m., bound for Camp Bastion, a British base. But medical staff there couldn’t operate on the leg for lack of equipment. Depression set in over the next two days.

He called his mom at midnight. His parents were shocked.

So was James McCarthy, a Marine corporal from Waterbury, Conn., who served in his unit.

“Chris is a great, hardworking guy who’d give the shirt off his back,” McCarthy said. “He sat there with a shattered leg for all those hours in the middle of the desert without complaining.”

Alban would eventually have five surgeries on the leg over the period of a month at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. A steel rod runs from the knee to the ankle, and a plate sits in the heel where an L-shaped scar remains. He walks with a limp.

“They said I got a couple more rods in my leg but I don’t even know where they’re at.”

His folks, Gustavo and Paulette, flew back and forth to Portsmouth during the ordeal. After eight months, Alban took his first step.

These days the news is good. Alban has returned to South Florida. Melinda Lopez, the Bronx girl he met at a restaurant in Virginia, is planning to relocate. His focus is on college and on her.

Aguirre is also doing better with the help of his wife, Karen.

When he becomes irritable, Karen says,. “I tell him, ‘Dont pull that I’m-the-sergeant line on me. I’m the general.’ ”

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