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."