Saturday, September 18, 2010

Airman awarded Purple Heart: Looking forward

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Angela Williams watched as the Purple Heart — the military’s oldest decoration — was pinned to her only child’s Battle Dress Uniform, just below the heart.

“I’m the proudest mother in America right now,” she said Friday at a ceremony at Goodfellow Air Force Base. “I’m just glad he’s here.”

Seven years after Staff Sgt. Dustin Vigil, 17th Security Forces Squadron, was wounded during his tour in Iraq, the 27-year-old is still coping, emotionally and physically, with the experience.

On June 25, 2003, Vigil was traveling in a Humvee when a mortar round exploded outside the vehicle. Vigil was thrown 10 feet, landing on his head and suffering from injuries that at the time were believed to be superficial.

More than a year after that day, the migraines Vigil experienced following the explosion had become so severe he was required to have an MRI scan. Doctors found his skull was fractured and several of the discs in his back were damaged. His first brain surgery was in 2005; the second, two years later.

Vigil said he’s also gone through neck surgery and spent some time with his ankle in a cast because of a hairline fracture, which he had walked on for three or four years.

“It (all) happened within three weeks,” he said. “I looked like I was hit by a car.”

Friday morning at Goodfellow Air Force Base’s event center, members of his squadron, members of the wing staff and his family came together to honor the airman who’s still battling his injuries.

Vigil said the presence of his mother, who has mainly experienced the hospitals, surgeries and doctors that came as a result of his injury, made the ceremony more meaningful.

“Her coming in and seeing this was a huge uplift,” he said.

Williams and her husband, Lynn Wendt, stood alongside Vigil after the ceremony as he shook hands with members of his squadron, men and women from the wing staff and members with the city’s respite center.

The medal was presented by Brig. Gen. Scott Bethel, the strategy, integration and doctrine director and deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at Headquarters Air Force in Washington, D.C. Bethel is a former commanding officer of Goodfellow.

At the end of a speech directed at the audience, Bethel turned to Vigil and thanked him for “being such a wonderful American.”

Vigil’s squadron presented the shadowbox for displaying the medal.

Friday also was the last day he would see one of his former Air Force K-9 Spidla, or “Spidy.” After the ceremony he spent several minutes kneeling on the carpet holding and playing with the black and brown German Shepard.

“It’s good to see him. I love to be able to touch and play with him one last time,” Vigil said. “He was my partner.”

Becoming a K-9 handler was one reason Vigil said he signed up for the Air Force. Although the Oklahoma native had offers to play college soccer, he also visited military recruiting offices, hearing pitches for each branch.

When he visited with the Air Force, the recruiter made no promises about his future, and Vigil knew it was the path to take. He enlisted July 2001.

“It was pre 9/11,” he said, “There was something about the military that was tantalizing or alluring.”

Now, he said, given the chance, he wouldn’t take any of it back.

Although he wished his children, who live in California with his wife, could be at the ceremony, he understood they couldn’t be pulled from school. He said Goodfellow members filmed the ceremony and will send a copy to them.

Vigil said he plans to stay in the Concho Valley, in part because of a state-sponsored group of combat veterans called “Bring it to the Zone.” Men and women meet to talk among themselves, rather than a psychiatrist, about what they’ve experienced overseas.

He said there are still days when he looks in the medicine cabinet and sees it contains more medication than most 80-year-olds would use, but he tries to be grateful for what he has — including his new decoration.

“You have to be positive. If you have a negative attitude you’re not going to get anywhere,” Vigil said. “I’m happy because I’m alive. You have to be.”

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