F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE – After 10 years, Tech. Sgt. Douglas Smits, 90th Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal team leader, received a Purple Heart medal at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Jan. 5, 2018.
The Purple Heart medal is one of the military’s oldest medals dating back to 1782. It recognizes military members who were wounded or killed in combat.
In 2007, then Senior Airman Smits went on a six-month deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Achilles, one of NATO’s largest ground operations at the time.
“I was deployed out of Kandahar, and we were going into the Ghorak Valley to root out the Taliban, but as we were driving to one of our rally points, we hit an improvised explosive device,” Smits said.
Upon hitting the anti-tank mine, which contained more than 30 pounds of explosives, the 51,000-pound vehicle was blown up, and resulted in Smits suffering a traumatic brain injury.
“It was like riding lightning, and it sent a shockwave through my body,” Smits said. “My ears were ringing, and I remember looking up and seeing pieces flying off of the vehicle and black smoke covering the crater. Although I was in significant pain, I did not request medical evacuation as I felt I could still function to contribute to our mission and continue with field treatments of injuries to other members of the team.”
Senior Master Sgt. Alejandro Rodriguez, 509th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD flight chief, who was the team leader at the time; said they had to be tough and resourceful. The team was isolated for five days until recovery assets were sent.
“We strapped our equipment onto a stretcher and carried it throughout the battlefield from scene to scene clearing other detonation sites,” Rodriguez said. “We never quit, and we never hesitated. We were facing bitter cold conditions; I’m talking about bone-chilling, teeth-rattling cold. It was just one more obstacle that was working against us and testing our resolve.”
Smits reflected on the challenges of adjusting back to normal life after the deployment.
“The hardest part for me was coming back from an experience where you almost get addicted to the adrenaline, and then you don’t have that anymore when you come back to your home base,” Smits said. “The experience of almost getting blown up, or helping people who have, just becomes the norm while deployed.”
Smits is still making strides to overcome some of the mental obstacles associated with the explosion.
“I initially felt like it was a weakness to admit having post-traumatic stress disorder, but now I wish I would’ve gotten help sooner in my career,” Smits said. “There’s nothing wrong with seeking help after a deployment, and when a person close to you notices that you’re not being yourself, never be ashamed to go talk to someone.”
Smits continues to serve in the EOD career field, and his efforts from 2007 are not forgotten.
“The team proudly represented the best of what this country and the Air Force has to offer,” said Rodriguez. “I would describe Doug as a battle-proven man of grit, and I am extremely proud to have served with him.”
During the ceremony, Col. Stacy Jo Huser, 90th Missile Wing commander, acknowledged Smits’ composure and courage under fire.
“I want to personally thank you for your extensive preparation and your willingness to go beyond the call of duty,” Huser said. “Your example inspires the rest of us to serve with distinction and go the extra mile, not only in combat, but in our training and day-to-day duties as well.”