First cadre of DTC facilitators headed home

  • Published
  • By Capt. John Ross
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Ten minutes into his first mission as a convoy commander, everything had gone as wrong as it possibly could for Tech. Sgt. Lorenzo Zapata.

"The truck was engulfed in flames, you couldn't even recognize it," he recalled. "And the blood trail from the truck to the median looked like an animal slaughtered. I hate to use that, but it was so much blood."

The trail led to one of his Airmen, critically wounded when an accelerant-laden improvised explosive device tore through the bottom of the convoy's lead humvee on a spring day in 2007, near Camp Speicher, Iraq.

"The training kicked in. Everybody knew what they had to do," said Sergeant Zapata. "We got him back to Speicher."

But the Airman's welfare wasn't the only concern on Sergeant Zapata's mind as surgeons carefully pulled 144 pieces of shrapnel out of his fallen comrade.

"[Before we deployed] I got to meet his wife and three-month-old child. She gave me a big hug and said, 'Take care of him, bring him back in one piece.' That right there, that's what hurt," he said. "I picked the time, I put him in that position, so I carried that burden with me for a long time."

As a vehicle operations career field facilitator at Ramstein's Air Force Deployment Transition Center, this is the story Sergeant Zapata told to open every class he ran.

"That story puts everybody back in their seat," he said. "But sharing that story with them, I think that gives them a sense of, 'Okay, he went through something pretty bad. He's able to share it, maybe I can share too.'"

Though he only spent a few months at the DTC, Sergeant Zapata was here long enough to know what to expect from a new class.

"On their initial arrival here, a lot of [returning deployers] are upset. [They say] 'I don't want to be here, this is just an extended layover,'" he said. "But as classes go through they're like, 'Wow, I like this place. Can we stay longer?'"

In every new class, Sergeant Zapata knew who might need someone to talk to.

"Of course you want to make sure everybody has a chance to explain their story, or what they witnessed," he said. "But maybe those convoy commanders, who carry that weight on their shoulders, want to release that stuff with you. That's what I look for."

Sergeant Zapata is one of twenty who've served as the first cadre of CFFs to facilitate classes at the DTC since it was stood up in July, 2010. Currently serving the explosive ordnance disposal, security forces, and vehicle operator career fields, every facilitator on the roster has recently returned from a combat deployment in their respective career fields. CFF duty is considered a deployment of its own, and within the next month all of them will be returning to their home stations.

"They are the backbone of the DTC. There's no way we could be as effective without them. They speak the right language, and they've been there, done that," said Capt. Heather DeShone, DTC program manager. "In a very short time, they've taken a notional concept and turned it into a living program that really, truly helps people."

Drawing on their own experiences returning from deployments without the benefit of going through a program like the DTC, over the past six months the team has helped 936 Airmen prepare for what may be the most difficult part of deploying - returning to normal life.

"Normal? I don't know if you ever get back to normal. Not entirely," said Tech. Sgt. Leonard Livas, an EOD facilitator who's been here since last June. Sergeant Livas also had a difficult deployment on his last trip to Afghanistan, full of firefights, illness and injuries; including suffering a concussion himself in a vehicle rollover. "I still had issues all the way up until I started working here, and I'll probably still have issues years later. But they're easier to deal with now."

The difficulties of quickly shifting from a combat environment to a civilized one are often overlooked by younger Airmen, said Tech. Sgt. John Kisling, a CFF for security forces.

"All they think about is, 'I'm going back home.' They don't really think about when you get home. Your friends, your coworkers, your unit - are all going to be different. They're going to realize [these things] while they're here, so they're not shocked when they get home and everything's changed," said Sergeant Kisling. "For everyone else who's deployed once or twice, three or four times, it's good for them to sit back and go, 'Yeah they're right. Things are going to be different.'"

In a combat environment, Airmen develop habits to help them survive. Not all of those habits are helpful when they return to everyday life.

"One of the funnier things for the EOD guys who are doing a lot of foot missions downrange now, you'll see them automatically get into a ranger file without thinking of it," said Sergeant Livas, describing the trips redeployers take while at the DTC, out into nearby German towns. "You have to tell the guys, 'Hey, break it up. Loosen up, have some fun. Get together, clump up - it's okay.'"

But other traits Airmen fresh from downrange carry with them when they arrive at the DTC are more serious.

"The hardest thing I saw for [redeployers] was having a team member get hurt. He gets sent back, but his team is still there, and they're still dealing with it. 'Why did he get hurt? Was it something that I did?'" said Sgt. Livas. "It digs at you. But you still have a job to do while you're down there. By the time they get here they've got so much pent-up emotion. Here they get the chance to deflate a little bit. Get that anxiety out of their system before they go home."

Redeployers weren't the only ones who had challenges to face at the DTC.

"I really didn't know how to lead the class in a guided discussion - I've never done that before," said Sergeant Kisling. "So my first class was very difficult. The more classes we did, the better and more comfortable I felt. I got a lot better by the end."

Many CFFs end up wishing they had been able to go through the DTC on previous deployments.

"I really wish the DTC had been in existence, because we were dealing with these things on the fly, so fast, and we never got together as a group to sit down and just discuss what the heck happened to us," said Sergeant Livas. "They yanked us out of there piecemeal, three guys this day, four guys the next day."

His Airman survived, but Sergeant Zapata spent months wrestling with his own "baggage," after he returned from Iraq. His wife eventually insisted that he seek help. When the opportunity came to help other Airmen learn some of the skills he figured out on his own, Sergeant Zapata did not hesitate.

"I got the call from USAFE A4, and immediately I jumped on it," he said. "From what I went through and the baggage I carried, to allow somebody else to unwind or help them get back to their normal life - I jumped on it."

Knowing what's on people's minds on their way home is crucial for a facilitator.

"A lot of folks feel bad because they're leaving, and they feel like they're not done," said Sergeant Livas. "We need to let them know, 'Hey, you did your bit. You need to enjoy your time off. You're gonna be back down there, and there's never any guarantee that you'll come back from a deployment."

As his time as a facilitator at the DTC comes to a close, Sergeant Kisling took a moment to reflect on his experiences here.

"To be the first group to go through the first classes here, and to be able to help the five to six hundred security forces who have come through - to say, 'I had a part in helping people. I gave them the information needed, I was a shoulder there they could lean on, I was there to listen, to help them out.' That's probably the best experience I had."