Aftershock: The Ticking Time Bomb of Soldiers' Traumatic Brain Injuries
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Savelkoul was awarded another commendation, the Army Achievement Medal , for manning a gun truck and coordinating air support during a dangerous run between Baghdad and Al Hillah. That April, he was scheduled for a rest and relaxation break. He decided to go with a friend to Thailand. On March 20, he posted a message on Facebook: "on my way to Thailand !!!!" His sister, Angie, quickly wrote back: "have fun. Don't do anything stupid."
Savelkoul didn't reply.
The Farm Kid
Savelkoul grew up in North Dakota. His father was a car salesman, then a truck driver. When Savelkoul was getting ready to enter high school, the family enrolled him in a school in Glenburn, pop. 347, in far north-central North Dakota because their hometown school in Minot, pop. 36,000, was too big. Savelkoul played football and basketball for the Glenburn High Panthers. During halftime, he played trumpet in the high school band. At Christmas at his grandparents, Savelkoul and Angie, a flute player, would play mini-concerts. The family had its troubles, and Savelkoul's parents eventually divorced, but they stayed close.
Savelkoul loved hunting: deer, geese, coots. When he was 14, Savelkoul and his father Bruce drove out to the North Dakota badlands on a rainy, gray winter day. They hiked up a hill, getting soaked as they searched for game for hours. Suddenly, right in front of them, Bruce spotted a mule deer. It would be Brock's first kill. He started shaking uncontrollably as he tried to lower his rifle. Bruce gently crouched in front of him and had Brock lay the rifle across his shoulder, steadying it. Brock aimed, killing the deer with a single shot. It was a beautiful buck, its antlers tall and broad above its head. The mount, which won first place at a local trophy show in 1996, would hang on the wall of Bruce's mobile home, the first thing you see when you walked in the door. "He was a good kid, a very good kid," said Bruce, who is balding, with glasses. His pride in his son is obvious. "He was a farm kid. We had farm values -- scruples and values and respect."
After high school, Brock Savelkoul attended community college but soon dropped out. He was bored and unsure of what he wanted to do. He moved to Fargo, where he got a job with a fencing company. One day, he was on a job with an older man. He suddenly realized that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life building fences in Fargo. In February 2003, he signed up with the Army. He was assigned to Fort Riley. Six months later, Savelkoul headed to Iraq for the first of three tours.
During his tours, Savelkoul took on a number of different jobs. He was the gunner on a Humvee that patrolled the streets. He did foot patrols of villages. He took a course and began to operate Ravens, small surveillance drones used to fly above roads to make sure they were clear of bombs. Mike Krebsbach, a friend from basic training, said Savelkoul was a good, conscientious soldier. They were based in Baghdad, their quarters a palace that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein. At night, they would sit on the roof, staring over the boxy brown cityscape. Krebsbach, an atheist, would debate Brock, a Catholic, about God, life, the war. "We didn't talk much about the fear," Krebsbach said.
Two incidents seemed to affect Savelkoul, changing him. During his first tour, his unit began taking fire after turning down an alleyway. The men, novices to combat, fired back, seeking desperately to escape. All survived, but the incident shook them. "Everybody was tripping out," Krebsbach said. "We were acting like a combat infantry team, but with zero training. ... There was just a bunch of really scared soldiers."