Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Veteran looks forward to Hunt for Heroes

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Retired Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon said he never doubted he would become a member of the U.S. military.

“My dad is big into genealogy and has traced our family’s military service back to the Revolutionary War,” said the 47-year-old Colorado resident.

“Our family’s taken part in all of this country’s major wars.”

Dan, as he friends and family call him, will be among a group of wounded or disabled veterans from around the country who will take part in this weekend’s Hunt for Heroes near San Angelo. The event also will include a Friday morning parade along the Concho River in San Angelo.

In 1984, when it came his turn to serve, Dan entered the Army, graduating at the top of the his class in sniper school.

He was serving as senior sniper of the Ghost Recon Platoon with the 1st Battalion 503 Infantry Regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom when his war came to a sudden, violent end on Nov. 13, 2004.

“They were in a bloody gunfight when Dan was hit by an AK-47 round to the head,” said his wife, Torrey Shannon.

“It took out the entire left side of his face, his left eye, most of his skull.”

At first, her husband didn’t realize what had happened, Torrey said.

“He didn’t know his eye was gone. He thought he had blood in it and kept wiping at it.”

As a sniper, Dan was trained to shoot with either eye, she said.

“He was mad. He shifted to his right side,” ready to continue the fight, she said.

“A buddy pulled him out of the line of fire and said, ‘Sergeant, you’re hurt!’”

Dan’s war ended that day, but another battle, a three-year recovery and fight against a flawed system, was only beginning.

“Most of his skull was reconstructed,” Torrey explained. His face also was rebuilt. The left eye was gone, but despite a lack of depth perception, Dan adapted, relearning favorite activities like bowling, golf, marksmanship and hunting.

While external scars healed, internal ones remain, including traumatic brain damage, post-traumatic stress disorder, nerve damage, hearing loss, degenerative joint disease and spinal damage.

Dan suffered yet another wound during his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“The easiest way to say what was going on there was they had a wonderful system overwhelmed by the number of wounded coming into the system,” he explained.

“It was overloaded. And when service members are not taken care of, that’s something I won’t tolerate.”

He and other veterans testified about their shoddy treatment to a congressional committee in 2007.

“I feel like I’ve been lost in the system,” he told the congressmen.

He said he wasn’t the only one.

“I will not see young men and women who have had their lives shattered in service to their country receive anything less than dignity and respect,” he told the committee.

He also told them how he saw “so many soldiers get so frustrated with the process” they would sign away Army benefits, “sign anything presented them just so they can get on with their lives.”

“This is an obvious example of a broken system trying to survive when what it really needs is to be fixed,” he told the committee.

His story became a part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post series and helped spur an overhaul of the military health care system.

Testifying against the military “really hurt,” he said. “I was a career military guy. All I wanted to do was serve my country. I believe a life of service is very rewarding, and I loved the Army.”

But, he added, “my motto was ‘I’ll die before my men,’ and I felt the same way toward the wounded service members at the hospital.”

Dan said he’s still struggling with the aftereffects of his war wound, including the PTSD, which can cause him to violently lose control.

“If you see me go into an episode, you’d think I’m having an epileptic seizure,” he said.

Talking to other veterans helps, he added, especially soldiers who served in Vietnam.

“What I’ve come to understand is some of them are still PTSD. It’s been 40 years and they’re still not over it.

“Before I talked to them, I wanted to fix this problem overnight. I wanted me back. Now I know it will take time for me to learn to handle it.”

Hunt for Heroes is another chance to spend time with wounded or disabled veterans who have shared the same experiences, he said.

“It gives different service members a chance to get together and talk about things, about what we’ve been through,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to talk to anybody about our experiences if they haven’t been there, but with these guys, we can open up to each other. The time we spend together becomes very healing.”

Being around other war-injured vets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars “reminds me that I’m still normal — a normal guy who’s gone through an abnormal experience,” he said. “And I will learn to handle it — never completely get over it, but learn to handle it better.”

“I’m not a monster. I’m still me in here, somewhere. My life isn’t over yet.”

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