An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

SFS member receives Purple Heart seven years later

  • Published
  • By Connie Hempel
  • 17th Training Wing Public Affairs
It was 2003 and he was in his second year of enlistment. The Airman nervously exited the plane on the abandoned airstrip ready to embark on his first deployment. Little did he know his first deployment would stay with him forever and earn him the medal many servicemembers never want to get.

Instead of accepting soccer scholarships that had offered him a free ride through college, he was doing a job he felt would get him more out of life -- military security forces.

A few days into his tour in Iraq, he and his team were charged with securing an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft on a parking ramp. While sitting in the turret of his HUMVEE (HMMWV), he heard a loud explosion and saw a bright flash - a mortar exploded nearby; these are his last memories of that day.

As he tried to piece together the sequence of events that followed, he said it seemed like a movie shown from an old projector screen with slides.

Almost seven years later, 27-year-old Staff Sgt. Dustin Vigil, 17th Security Forces Squadron, received the nations oldest military decoration as Brig. Gen. Scott Bethel, Strategy, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance at Headquarters U.S. Air Force in Washington, D.C., presented him with the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained from the mortar attack, injuries he continues to suffer from to this day.

"I don't recall much about the day it happened," Sergeant Vigil said. "When the mortar hit I was in the turret of the HUMVEE (HMMWV). When I woke up, I was being dragged. When I woke up again, I was inside the medic's tent."

What stands out the most in his mind from that day is the sound followed by a flash, nothing else.

"It's scary because it's human nature to want to be in control of everything, but at that moment in my life, I lost all control," he said. "That still bothers me today."

The explosion threw Sergeant Vigil 10 feet from his mounted gun turret. His team ran to the bloody, unconscious sergeant and immediately dragged him to the medic.

After cleaning Sergeant Vigil's wounds, it was determined that his injuries were superficial and he was returned to duty.

Three days later he began suffering from severe migraines and noticed swelling on the left side of his head. Both symptoms made it harder for him to do his job, so he returned to the medic where he received ibuprofen and since he was due to return home in a few days, he was instructed to report to his home station's clinic for a follow up.

In 2004 Sergeant Vigil's migraines became so severe he had an MRI, which revealed a brain tumor and a fractured skull. Doctors also discovered three bulging discs in his neck, which pinched his spinal cord and contributed to his migraines as well as pain and numbness in his left arm.

Although Sergeant Vigil has undergone two brain surgeries -- 2004 and again in 2007 -- he still suffers from headaches, neck and back pain every day. He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury in 2007, but he said he wouldn't change a thing if he had to do it over again.

"Even though I'm 27 years old and I walk around like I'm 95, if I had the opportunity to go back in time, I'd do it again and wouldn't change a thing," he said. "I'm extremely grateful for what's been placed in front of me. It's what made me who I am today."

It's not just Sergeant Vigil's physical condition that continues to improvey, but emotionally he's traveled a long road to get there, too.

"For about five years I let it consume my life," he said. "I felt like I had lost or was missing something. I begged and begged to go back to Iraq and when they finally let me, I felt like I was home."

He continued through a cycle of deployments, returning home to the states and requesting to go again in search of what he felt he was missing. And despite the injuries he suffered from his first tour, Sergeant Vigil was able to deploy two more times.

"It wasn't until about a year and a half ago when I started speaking to members in similar situations that I realized what I was missing," he said.

A piece of advice Sergeant Vigil offers to other wounded servicemembers is when they're ready to get help, go somewhere they are comfortable speaking.

"If you go somewhere and you're not comfortable, you're not going to get any help," he explained.

In addition to speaking to other combat veterans, Sergeant Vigil said his children and God are two things that continue to help with his emotional recovery.

"Those are the things that have helped me and continue to help me today," he said. "When my son was born (in 2007), it really opened my eyes to see that there was more to life than trying to go over there and figure out what I was missing because I wasn't missing anything; I had it right here at home. The second thing that helped me was God.

When I was there I started pointing fingers and blaming Him -- Why me? Why did this happen? Why did I come back alive? - but when I sat down and started opening the Bible, researching and asking questions and getting answers, it helped out a lot. It's given me the strength to go out and help other veterans," he added.

Even though he's always heard that the Purple Heart is the medal no servicemember ever wants to get, he said it's an honor to receive one.

"It took a long time to get to the point where I'm at now," he said. "There are very few people who have the Purple Heart and are still standing and able to talk about it. I want to carry that with pride.

I want to remember those who have received the Purple Heart, but weren't able to cherish it. I want to remember the family members who have had to accept it for them. That's what I'm going to hold most about receiving the Purple Heart," he added.

It has been seven years since Sergeant Vigil was injured by the mortar attack and he has moved to two different duty stations since. Master Sgt. Timothy Loveland, 17th SFS, said having to obtain Sergeant Vigil's medical records from each base delayed the process of finally getting Sergeant Vigil the proper recognition.

"It was a complete team effort and I'm happy that we can finally see it go through," Sergeant Loveland said.

Hearing this story of Sergeant Vigil's first deployment and the lifelong injuries he will suffer from may scare others who are about to deploy, but he said times have changed and there are things deployers can do to safely get them through it.

"For somebody who's going now, odds are there will be a (Noncommissioned Officer) or somebody else that has been there before," he said. "Attach to that person, pick their brain and listen to everything they say."