Monday, May 30, 2011

Face of Defense: Shooting Survivor Inspires Others

By Micah Garbarino
72nd Air Base Wing

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla., May 27, 2011 – "Control your breathing, lie still, play dead."

During the most devastating moment of her life, Air Force Staff Sgt. Deondra Parks couldn't believe her brain was behaving so rationally.

"So this is what a massacre is like?" she asked herself as a madman with a shotgun wreaked havoc around her.

Parks, a 72nd Security Forces Squadron member, experienced danger and witnessed death during a deployment in Iraq, but nothing prepared her for the night of April 20, 2010. At a bookstore and coffee shop in Wichita Falls, Texas, she wasn’t a target for being a police officer or an airman, but for being African-American.

After changing duty stations for the fourth time in almost five years, Parks applied for retraining as an aerospace medical technician in 2009. She was accepted, and her training began April 6, 2010, at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

The night of the shooting, she and two classmates moved a study session from the base library to a coffee shop in town.

"We had a big test on the airway the next day,” Parks said. “I'd been [there] before, so I suggested it. I'd always been totally comfortable there."

Air Force Staff Sgts. Jade Henderson and Tanya Jesser were sitting with Parks at a table in the bookstore's coffee shop when it happened.

"I wasn't really paying attention to him when he came in," Parks said. "Then I felt someone next to me. I looked up into his eyes. I thought he was going to try and start a conversation, but his eyes were vacant, totally checked out, like there was no one there."

Then, 22-year-old Ross William Muehlberger said, "Hey [racial slur], it’s Hitler's birthday." He lifted a shotgun and fired right at Henderson's head, who was sitting across the table from Parks. The first shot grazed her; the second shot did not.

"I thought he shot her twice in the head," Parks said. "I found out later that she put her hand up, which saved her life."

Jesser dove under a table. The shooter was standing between Parks and the door.

"I got up and ran," she said. "I was tripping over tables and chairs. I just wanted to get behind the bookshelves. I heard another shot and felt something graze past my face and hair. Then I dove to the floor."

Parks said she laid there trying to control her breathing. From the training she received as a member of security forces, she thought if she played dead the shooter would ignore her. Instead, he stood over her and fired point-blank into her lower leg, shattering her bones.

"I didn't scream," Parks said. "I didn't move. I forced myself to be still so he wouldn't want to shoot me again, like a dead animal. About 20 seconds after he shot me, I heard someone scream, 'He's gone.'"

Parks screamed for Henderson and dragged herself until she could look her in the eyes. Some people came to help them and waited with them until police and ambulances arrived. They were transported by helicopter to a hospital in Dallas.

Muehlberger continued his rampage through Wichita Falls, killing 23-year-old Iraq war veteran Timothy Donley before going to a house and shooting himself dead.

From the moment Parks went into her first surgery after the shooting until now, she said she knows the Air Force has been looking out for her. She woke up in the emergency room and first saw now-retired Air Force Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz, commander of the Air Education and Training Command.

"The first thing he asked was, 'Is there anything I can do for you?' and he assured me that my family was on the way,” she said.

Parks asked him not to take her training slot away. “He told me to focus on getting better and said when I was ready, I may return to training."

The recovery care coordinator here, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John Wood, did everything he could to assist Parks' family when her mother, sister and brother came to stay with her in Dallas for two weeks.

"In a sense, he was like a father," said Parks, who, along with Henderson, stayed at the Fisher House in Dallas while they were recovering.

"I never had to worry about setting anything up," she said. "It really proved me right. I always knew that when I joined the Air Force, if I put my all into it, they'd have my back."

Parks focused on her recovery, which took its toll. After four surgeries in less than a year, she felt like giving up. She didn't want to do rehabilitation anymore and was tired of the struggle, she said.

However, Parks had to work at regaining her strength if she wanted to maintain the physical standards required to stay in the Air Force and avoid a forced medical separation.

"Then I realized that anyone can quit, but not giving up when everyone else would understand shows true strength," Parks said.

Her leaders encouraged her to continue on. She went from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches and was told she would be out of commission for three months. But Air Force Lt. Col. Troy Roberts, her squadron commander, asked her to begin coming in every day for as long as she could stand it, even if it was only to answer phones.

"At first, I wasn't really happy about it, but now I'm so glad he asked me to do it," Parks said. "I needed to be around people, and without them I wouldn't be as far along as I am."

Roberts said what he saw Parks go through would have sent most people into a physical, mental, spiritual and career tailspin.

"Sergeant Parks has fought through and triumphed over multiple surgeries and hours of painful physical therapy," Roberts said. "She reached out to sources for strength such as wingmen, friends and family. She is one of the most resilient airmen I know."

The gunshot wound wasn't the only trauma Parks suffered last April. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is receiving treatment.

"I was never bitter, because I knew what could have happened that night, but didn't; I'm still alive," Parks said. "Putting all my trust in God, I don't carry a burden around day to day. Jade and I talked about forgiveness when we were at the Fisher House. Jade told me, 'His hate was not stronger than God's love for us.' Forgiving him was the first step in our recovery."

The trauma of the shooting, however, still haunts her. She has terrible nightmares, and when she enters a business or a restaurant, she plays out in her head what she would do if a shooting occurred "as if I were already shot," she said.

Parks said she’s learning to deal with these issues. She credits her leaders at the 72nd Security Forces Squadron for their proactive response. Roberts and Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Melissa Garrett, the squadron’s first sergeant, contacted the 72nd Medical Group and had a mental health professional contact Parks within days of the shooting.

Parks said she hopes other service members will seek help for post-traumatic stress rather than suppressing it. "The therapy is awesome," she said.

Although she's willing to share her story with other airmen who are looking for inspiration to continue through struggles, she doesn't want to always be known as "the girl who got shot."

"I am not going to let this control the rest of my life," Parks said.

Lorenz kept his word, and Parks will return to aerospace medical service apprentice technical training in June. Her goal, she said, is to retire from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant.

"The injuries she suffered could have negatively affected her Air Force career, but Sergeant Parks is back on track," Roberts said. "If you think you have a reason to quit, come talk to Sergeant Parks. You will come away with a new perspective."

Service Members Take a Bite Out of the Big Apple

By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Donisha Burns, Fleet Week New York Public Affairs

NEW YORK (NNS) -- More than 3,000 Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen "invaded" New York City May 25th as part of this year's Fleet Week New York. The annual celebration, in its 24th year, celebrates the sea services and offers an opportunity for the citizens of New York and the surrounding tri-state area to meet the men and women who have volunteered to serve their country and protect the freedoms enjoyed by all Americans.

In addition to one-on-one interactions with the Sailors, Coast Guardsmen and Marines, ships of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were pier-side in Manhattan and Staten Island and open to the general public for tours. The ship tours, which attract more than 2,000 people daily during Fleet Week, give guests a first-hand look at the vessels used by the U.S. maritime services.

"We run over here every year," said New Jersey native Peter Obrien who was visiting USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), May 27. "We love Fleet Week, I'm a former Navy third class." Iwo, with the USCGC Tampa (WMEC 902) and USCGC Willow (WLB 202), was at Pier 88 on the west side of Manhattan for this year's celebration.

But events like Fleet Week don't happen in a vacuum and it takes numerous organizations' support and work to make it happen.

"It's our job to go above and beyond to make sure the service members are comfortable," said Patrice Simmons, a volunteer with the United Services Organization supporting Fleet Week this year. "Fleet Week is the biggest event we host and we have to meet the servicemember's expectations."

Servicemembers participated in a number of events throughout the New York City area, including a re-enlistment at ground zero, studio audiences for live television shows, and numerous live concerts, as well as a kick-off party at the Hard-Rock Cafe hosted by Morale Welfare and Recreation.

"People love to see Sailors in whites," said Mary Borree, MWR director from Naval Weapons Station Earl, New Jersey. "They take pictures, some even clap and salute," she added.

For more information on Fleet Week 2011 events, visit or find Fleet Week New York on Facebook.

Memorial Day Observance

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, Monday, May 30, 2011

Mr. President, veterans, active service members, families, welcome.  For many Americans, Memorial Day is a welcome respite from work: an extra day to spend at the beach or finish errands.  But we must never forget that it is foremost an occasion to reflect, remember, and to honor the brave men and women who have fought and died for us.  Each year we set aside a single day to reflect on the service of our armed forces in generations past and present – a day where me must also honor the sacrifices of military family members, who in recent years have borne the brunt of repeated deployments, long partings, and the fear of receiving the knock on the door with the worst of all possible news.

But I urge all Americans to remember that, just as each and every day the troops now serving faithfully pursue their mission to protect us, so each and every day they deserve our recognition, our respect, and our conscious gratitude.  Every soldier, sailor, airman, marine and coastguardsmen wearing the uniform today enlisted or reenlisted knowing they would serve in time of war.  As Thucydides put it, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

As I come to the end of my time in this post, I know this will be my final opportunity to stand and speak in this hallowed place and pay tribute to the fallen.  It is up to us to be worthy of their sacrifice – in the decisions we make, the priorities we set, the support we provide to troops, veterans, and their families. 

For the rest of my life, I will keep these brave patriots and their loved ones in my heart and in my prayers – as I know does their Commander-in-Chief, who has so steadfastly supported those bearing the brunt of the fight.  I have been honored to work with President Obama for the past two and half years and to see the deep seriousness and thoughtfulness with which he weighs the security of nation and the safety of the men and women who serve.  Throughout, he has never shrunk from the tough decisions, the heavy burdens, and the true responsibilities of command.

It is my privilege and my honor to introduce the President of the United States.

Rolling Thunder

As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thank you Chairman Mullen.  Thank you Artie and the whole leadership team at Rolling Thunder.  And thank you to all who have come on this Ride for Freedom, from the bottom of my heart.  This is truly a sight to behold.  But your journey here today is only one part of the relentless work of Rolling Thunder members for the past 24 years.

You have made sure that no effort is spared to bring closure to the families of men and women who have been killed or gone missing in action while defending our country.  You have performed countless acts of service on behalf of veterans and active duty members of the armed services, including those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Above all, you have helped ensure that the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform – and their families – are recognized, honored, and never forgotten.  Men and women like the wounded warriors and gold star mothers that are honored guests here today.

For most Americans, Memorial Day weekend is a respite from work.  But for those of us gathered here, it is an affirmation of our commitment to remember those heroes who have fought and died or been captured in defense of our nation – not just this weekend, but every day of our lives.  We have a sacred obligation to those who have borne that heavy burden in the past.  The men and women now protecting us on the front lines gain comfort knowing that today, if they are missing or captured we will not rest until they are accounted for and welcome home to the honor they deserve – even if conflicts recede into history.

This is my final Memorial Day serving as Secretary of Defense, every day of it spent in a time of war.  I have had – and will have – no greater honor in my life than to serve and to lead our men and women in the armed forces.  I will always keep them in my heart and my prayers, as long as I live.  They will join the likes of veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, as a heroic generation that battled in faraway lands to preserve the freedom and security of this great nation.  Generations represented by the thousands of veterans gathered here today, who well know the sacrifices that go hand in hand with this essential duty.

The American people can never repay the debt they owe to those who have fought and served, and to their family members who have stood strong at home.  Your work – and the sound of your bikes – reminds them of the costs incurred, the blood spilt, and the enduring need to maintain a strong military in a dangerous world.

Thank you and may God bless you all.