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Sergeant Joe Allen Gottschalk, Iowa Army National Guard (Extended Interview)

posted on November 10, 2006

Photos

  • In 2003, Joe Gottschalk was stationed at the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq with Iowa Army National Guard's 2133rd Transportation Company.

    In 2003, Joe Gottschalk was... Enlarge

  • After being wounded in November of 2003 Gottschalk received the Purple Heart from President George Bush.

    After being wounded in... Enlarge

  • Gottschalk is employed by a construction company based in Eastern Iowa.

    Gottschalk is employed by a... Enlarge

Miller: Would you tell me your rank and what unit you are attached to?

Gottschalk: My rank is Sergeant, which is E5. The unit I'm attached to is the 2133rd Transportation Company out of Muscatine, Iowa.

Miller: And you would say it as 2133rd?

Gottschalk: Yes.

Miller: Would it be 554th quartermaster battalion?

Gottschalk: Yes.

Miller: What year did you enter the National Guard?

Gottschalk: It was 1997. I joined in '97 and went to basic training in '98.

Miller: When you joined, did you think it was just going to be like two days a month and two weeks a year and a couple of floods?

Gottschalk: At first, yeah, I did. I kind of knew a little more of the ins and outs of it, because I had a lot of friends that were in the same unit. So I knew that it was a little more than that, but I never imagined that it would be much more than -- like you said, two days a month or two weeks out of the year, out of the summer.

Miller: How long were you actually in Iraq? According to what I have, it said you were mobilized on the 24th of February.

Gottschalk: Correct.

Miller: In 2003, and correct me if I'm wrong, you went in June, is that right?

Gottschalk: Yes, we mobilized to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin on February 24th and spent three months in Fort McCoy, and then in June we then flew out of Fort McCoy, Wisconsin into Kuwait.

Miller: What kind of training did you get before you actually went into Iraq? Was it more than just: "Okay, here's a gas mask, here is the newest weaponry, here are the procedures?" What happened?

Gottschalk: No, when we were at Fort McCoy, we went through a lot of different classes on, for instance, what was going on overseas, IED's, what kind of weapons they had. A lot of times we went through a lot of convoy operations. What would happen if this situation came into effect and we were traveling down the road? What do we do if we get ambushed? What do we do if there is a roadblock? What do we do if there is an IED? What most of our training consisted of was convoy training, because that's what we were going to be doing when we went overseas.

Miller: Was the convoy part what you were used to, driving the supplies and material around?

Gottschalk: It was an ordinary, every day thing. I mean, it's what we did. Even on annual trainings, that's what we did. We would just go through convoys, and a lot of times we were either hauling other unit's equipment, sometimes on AT, or just doing convoy training.

Miller: When they told you that you were going to be deployed to Iraq, what thoughts did you have?

Gottschalk: To be honest with you, I was excited and scared both. Excited for the part that we're finally going to do something. We're finally going to do our job. The scared part, I wasn't really scared, but I was, because not knowing what was going to happen or what was going to go on while we were over there, that was the biggest thing.

Miller: Did you have anybody come up to you and ask you the same kind of thing?

Gottschalk: Yeah, I had a lot of people come up and wish me luck and ask me what I thought about it. I guess the biggest thing was, I said: "It's my job. That's what our job is, and now we're going to finally go do it."

Miller: When you finally got to the border between Kuwait and Iraq, and you start off into Iraq, what are you thinking at that point?

Gottschalk: At that point, I really didn't know what to think when we left Kuwait and went into Iraq. When you cross into Iraq it was really dingy, a lot of kids on the side of the road begging for food and water. Not real sure what to think when we crossed into Iraq. It was just kind of a whole different world.

Miller: You were deployed in a place called Haditha, is that right?

Gottschalk: We were stationed in Al Asad and Haditha, which is about an hour away from Al Asad. That was a very common place for us to go past on a daily basis.

Miller: Describe the surroundings. What was it like where you were?

Gottschalk: Where we were at in Al Asad, it was very nice, because it was an old Iraqi Air Force base. So it was a very civilized place. They had running water, they had electricity, there were a lot of trees around, paved roads. They had good dining facilities. We didn't have to sleep in tents; we had buildings to sleep in, so that was a definite plus. But other than that, it just seemed like it was kind of a township out in the middle of nowhere.

Miller: When you got out past the edge of town, what was that like? As you're going on a convoy mission from point A to point B, is it like you leave civilization? Or is it all kind of the same?

Gottschalk: Yeah, it's pretty much kind of like leaving civilization. Because you left the base, and then they had these little townships that you would go through that would just be two or three houses, or it would just be some little out-buildings along the side of the road where people were staying or living, and they would be there, doing whatever they do. It was like driving through the desert, only on a paved road. There wasn't much of anything, really, other than we were close to the Euphrates River, so we had that running past us quite a bit. But other than that, it was just like you were out in the middle of nowhere.

Miller: Did it become routine, or were you always thinking about "What's going to happen next?" when you go out on these missions?

Gottschalk: Well, it was a daily routine to get up in the morning, jump in a convoy and go out on the road. But you always had that thought in the back of your mind: what was going to happen? We knew where we had our good roads and our bad roads, and we knew where we could slack off a little more in places than other places. Obviously in the towns, we had to watch what we were doing, but when we were out in the middle of nowhere, we could slack off a little more. We'd still pay attention to what was going on, but we wouldn't be as sharp, I guess.

Miller: Were most of your convoys without incident?

Gottschalk: Most of my convoys were, yes. We had a few convoys that we might have an IED or something go off, but nobody got hurt. We did have some other convoys that I wasn't on… I know that a couple of them did get hit with IED's. But we didn't have any injuries, other than maybe a couple of scratches here and there, or a truck that may have gotten disabled. But other than that, nothing big.

Miller: Tell me about the 29th, how did that day begin? What did you know about what you were supposed to be doing? How did that start?

Gottschalk: We were basically doing a mission that we had done several times. We'd gotten up early that morning. It was probably around 5:30 in the morning. We got up and got all our vehicles in line. It was starting to get chilly over there. We left the front gate, heading for the FOB to deliver food -- I think there were mechanical parts, water, fuel. It was kind of foggy when we left that morning, but we didn't think nothing of it. Just an ordinary, everyday event. We were on the road, and in about six hours or so, we made it to our destination, where we unloaded and started heading back.

We got just about to Haditha, and that is kind of where everything started happening. At first it seemed like it all happened at once. The first few vehicles went by, and nothing happened, and then pretty soon IED's started going off. And as soon as the IED's went off, there were RPG's being shot, there was small arms fire, and as soon as I heard the IED's and RPG's, that is when our vehicle became disabled. We had driven off the side of the road. At that time, I wasn't really sure what had happened, other than I knew that we were being ambushed and that we needed to get out of there.

I had seen Aaron; he was hunched over and laying down. I wasn't sure what had happened to him. I knew he looked like he had gotten knocked out. And so I reached over and I shook him, and he didn't wake up. I tried starting the truck, and the truck wouldn't start. At that time I reached over -- we had MTS's in the truck, which is a military tracking system. Several trucks have them. It's kind of like an e-mail… you can coordinate from a home base to the truck. The only thing I knew is that I reached over and I typed "help." I sent it off, and that's all I could do.

After that, I opened the passenger door of the truck, pushed Aaron out, and I jumped out the driver's door. I crawled around, picked him up and carried him underneath the front of the truck. Then I proceeded to fire back. I wasn't real sure what I was shooting at, but I was shooting. His SAW jammed, and then I fired my M16 until I ran out of ammo. Then I just sat there and hovered over top of him, and I didn't even know that I was injured at the time. I just felt like maybe I had hit my head on the steering wheel or something when we drove off the road.

We were sitting there, and the next thing I know we heard a truck coming. I knew it was one of our cargo trucks, and I heard him coming. I picked Aaron up and I put him in the back of the truck, and then I crawled into the back of the truck. There were several other troops in the back of the truck, kind of keeping an eye out.

The medics were working on Aaron, trying to stabilize him. At this time I hadn't known that he had passed away yet. I was conscious, so I was telling them to leave me alone. "Don't bother with me. Go work on him, because he's the one that is unconscious." They kept telling me that everything was okay, he'd be okay, we need to stop your bleeding. I didn't have a clue that I was even shot at the time.

We pulled out of the kill zone, and I remember sitting in the back of the truck for a very long, extended period of time. Later I found out it was because the medevac wouldn't land, because the landing zone was in the kill zone, and they didn't have any gun protection to land, so they wouldn't land. I do know that we were under fire for almost 45 minutes, and it was a total of an hour and a half before the helicopter landed to take us out of there.

At that time, that's when they had finally got enough morphine and drugs in me that I blacked out. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital two and a half weeks later.

Miller: The 45 minutes that you were working to protect yourself and members of your unit, were you conscious of how long that time period was?

Gottschalk: I didn't have a clue. To be honest with you to me it just felt like a couple of minutes. The adrenaline was pumping so hard, there were so many explosions going on, and you're hearing so much gunfire, that I didn't know. Honestly, other than knowing that we were being ambushed, I didn't know what was going on. I just knew that I had to do whatever I could to stay alive.

Miller: Now was Aaron laying next to you or was he awake? Where was he while you were fighting back?

Gottschalk: No, he was laying right beside me. The off road trucks, they sit about three feet off the ground, so we were laying underneath the front of the truck at that time.

Miller: Tell me what a SAW is.

Gottschalk: Basically, it's a fully automatic 762 machine gun.

Miller: Tell me what SAW stands for.

Gottschalk: SAW is Squad Automatic Weapon.

Miller: What is an IED?

Gottschalk: It's an Improvised Explosive Device.

Miller: What is an FOB?

Gottschalk: FOB is a Forward Operations Base, where there may be other troops stationed there. That may be their station point, kind of like where we were at Al Asad. There might be a base at FOB Haditha, and they would consider Al Asad to be an FOB also, because it's a forward operations. Wherever all the main operation was run out of, which was Baghdad.

Miller: When the explosions started, did you see it coming at you? Did it happen all at the same time?

Gottschalk: It happened all at the same time. I had never really seen the explosion. Like I said, everything kind of happened at once. I do know that there was a daisy chain of IED's, so there were several of them that went off at once. But as soon as the IED started going off, the RPG's started getting fired along with the small arms fire.

Miller: Could you tell me what an RPG is?

Gottschalk: It's a Rocket Propelled Grenade.

Miller: You woke up two and a half weeks later… where?

Gottschalk: In Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.

Miller: So you had already transitioned through Germany. You had no idea.

Gottschalk: Not a clue.

Miller: When you woke up, do you remember what you were thinking?

Gottschalk: Not really. Other than the fact that I kind of knew that I was in the hospital. I was told that I was having a lot of nightmares and a lot of dreams while I was in the hospital. In my mind I was dreaming. I do remember that I was dreaming that I was in a hospital, or in some medical place. So I kind of knew where I was at, but at that time, I didn't even know that Aaron had passed away yet. When I was in the hospital, I kept telling everybody that I wanted to go see Aaron. I wanted to go see the rest of the people that were injured. I kept telling them that they were just down the hall, and they kept telling me: "No, they're not. You can't go see them. You have to stay here in bed."

Miller: When did you realize where you had been hit and what had happened to you?

Gottschalk: It wasn't too much after that. A couple of days after I woke up, the doctor came in and explained to me what had happened. He explained to me what kind of fractures I had, what kind of surgeries I was going to have to go through. He threw it all at me at once, but he broke it to me what really happened. I remember a couple of days after that, Mom had told me that Aaron had passed away, because she had to leave the hospital to come back to the States for his funeral.

Miller: So up to that point, you didn't know? She was the first one to tell you?

Gottschalk: Yeah.

Miller: Do you think they were just trying to protect you?

Gottschalk: I know a lot of it was that they were trying to protect me, because they knew that I was on so many medications. I was still at a level of shock that my body might have reacted to it, and they didn't really know what kind of response they would get out of me.

Miller: What happened when she told you?

Gottschalk: Surprisingly, not really a whole lot. I never really broke down until after the fact. I was by myself, didn't have nobody around. It was more something that I had to deal with on my own time.

Miller: Did you know Aaron before you went over?

Gottschalk: Yeah, Aaron and I went to school together in Tipton High School. He graduated a year after I did, so he graduated in '97.

Miller: Did he join the Guard because everybody was doing that, or did you talk to him about doing that?

Gottschalk: It was kind of the "in" thing, I guess, in Tipton. We had a lot of people that we hung around with together that were all in the same unit, and it was something that we all kind of wanted to do from the get-go.

Miller: Is it strange not having him around?

Gottschalk: Yeah, it is. It's different, because we were always used to being around each other all the time. We were always hanging out together, always doing things together. I guess that's the biggest thing, just not having him around. It's just as simple as our bowling leagues on Thursday nights. He bowled with us on Thursday nights, and he's just not there any more.

Miller: Overall, if you had to describe Aaron to somebody, what would you say? How would you describe Aaron?

Gottschalk: Very, very outgoing person. He would do anything for anybody. Always laughing, always smiling. I'd never seen him in a bad mood. He would come up and shake anybody's hand. He was just the kind of guy that you would think that you'd have known forever. He was just one of those people that would do anything for anybody. You could call him up at midnight and tell him hey, you need help in doing something, and he'd be over. He'd show up on your front door ten minutes later.

Miller: I realize that any battle has random metal flying around, so there is nothing that you can control in that sense. But how did you feel about the fact that he was the one that got hit and -- well you both did...

Gottschalk: First, there's always the thought in my mind of why was it him instead of somebody else? Or why was it him instead of me? Everybody blamed themselves, because they thought that it should have been them instead of him. Because he was so young. It's the fact that you know that there was nothing you can do to control it, and when it happens it happens.

You always tell yourself, well, it should have been me. Or I wish it could have been me. Or he could have made it through it. Or it just could have been somebody else.

Miller: Are you getting used to that? You just adjust to that?

Gottschalk: You do, to a certain point. It's tough. You find yourself thinking, what would be different if he was still around? How would things would be going now? But you just get to a point where you realize that you have to face the facts. That what has happened has happened, and you have to move on. No matter what happens, you still have to move on.

Miller: When you were in the hospital, they said to you, "We're going to medically discharge you." What did you tell them?

Gottschalk: To be honest with you, I told them that they were full of crap. I told them that I didn't want to get out, and they're like, "Well, why not? You've done your bit." I've always said that there's people out there that want to do it and can't do it, and there's people out there that can do it and won't do it, and I guess I'm one of the people that can do it and will still do it. That was my biggest thing. If I could stay in and still help, and still teach each other the aspects of what does go on. That it's not all fun and games, and when you sign that dotted line, you're signing it to defend your country. I think that is my biggest thing, is if I could pass that on to one other person, for them to understand that's the way it should be. And take it seriously, not just joke around about everything all the time. That makes me feel that I've done my job.

Miller: How hard was it to convince them to let you stay? What did you have to do?

Gottschalk: Well, at first I went through several physicals to make sure that I was physically capable of doing everything. I had to go through vision screenings and hearing screenings.

Miller: There was one test you told me about. They seemed to be mostly concerned after all of this stuff as to whether or not your gas mask would seal.

Gottschalk: Yeah. They made me go through a test, because one of the biggest things right now is weapons of mass destruction with chemical agents and nerve agents, to make sure that a gas mask would seal. One of the tests that I had to go through was a test making sure that a gas mask would seal on my face, because of my facial scars. The first couple of masks that I went through -- the masks are generally sized, but you have to get one that kind of fits pretty good. The first couple of masks I went through, it didn't seal up, and I started getting a little worried. Because I knew that if I failed this test, that I wouldn't be able to stay in.

There are some people in the military that are still in, but they're non-deployable. And if I could stay in, I wanted to be deployable also. And so I found one that sealed, and they used what they call a banana oil, which is similar to CS gas, which you'd get at like basic training or some place like that. And that guarantees 100% that that mask would seal, and I passed it. So that was one thing that really made me happy.

Miller: You're wearing this gas mask; you're hooked up to the simulator. What are you thinking?

Gottschalk: I'm worried -- honestly the first thing going through my mind is I'm thinking that it's not going to seal. I'm thinking it's just not physically going to happen, just because of my facial scars. But I kept telling myself, "No, just stick with it and it's going to work out." And it did, it did.

Miller: What would have been the sign that the seal wasn't working?

Gottschalk: You would have got the similar responses as you would with CS. Watery eyes, runny nose, coughing. You feel a little burning sensation on your face.

Miller: So basically, you can't lie your way out?

Gottschalk: No, you can't. There is no lying about it. And that is why they use that, because it's not only for your safety, but there is no lie to it. Either it works or it doesn't.

Miller: Do you want to go back to Iraq?

Gottschalk: I'm going to say that I don't want to go back, but I'm not going to say I want to go back, either. If my unit was to deploy back overseas into Iraq, then yes, I would go. I don't want to say that I'm not going to go, or that I might be on the edge a little more, because definitely I would be. But obviously it's kind of like falling off a horse. If you don't get back on and try again, then you're never going to know if you can ride a horse again. Same thing with going overseas and being in that situation again. Everybody tells me I'm crazy, but I'd like to do it, I really would.

I guess it's one of those things -- I feel that I started a job and I want to finish it. And everybody's like: "Well, you finished your job. You did your time." But I really, I feel to myself that I didn't, because I didn't come home with my unit. Obviously, I came home before them, and they came home after I did in April. So I would really like to go back and finish.

Miller: What needs to be finished? What needs to be done? Is it just you need to come back, go with your unit and come back with your unit?

Gottschalk: I just feel that if I can go back overseas and do my job and come back home with the unit without any complications or problems, then I would have that closure inside of me a little more than I do now. Because right now, honestly, I couldn't tell you what would happen if I jumped back in the bandwagon and was over there right now.

Miller: How do you feel about the Iraqi people?

Gottschalk: Most of them, I would say, probably a very large majority of them are actually very, very nice people. There is only a handful of people that don't like the U.S. military. They feel that we're invading their privacy, which to an extent, yes, I believe that we are. But I also feel that we're invading their privacy because we're trying to do good for them. And most of them realize that there are a lot of good things happening, that there are a lot of ups to us being there.

Miller: How were you treated by civilians?

Gottschalk: I was treated very, very well. There was a few that have their disadvantages, that didn't like us, that would throw rocks at us or call us names, treat us very poorly. But for the majority of them, the majority of most civilians were very, very generous. They were willing to just about give you anything, and they would always ask you for food and water. They're just very generous people. They were more than willing, if we worked with them a little bit, then they would work with us a little bit.

Miller: Is that part of why you want to go back? Is that in there anywhere?

Gottschalk: I would like to see the Iraq to be the country that they should be. I would like to see the people over there get treated fairly, just as we do. And obviously, I know that may never happen. But if I can go back over and help, do that a little bit, then I would be more than happy to do that.

Miller: The wars in the past, wars leading up to this point -- World War II, Korea, Vietnam -- there is an end. Everybody sits at a conference table. Everybody signs a paper. Something happens. Hostility ceased. That expectation of completion isn't part of this war. Is that something that you think about at all? Is that an issue for you?

Gottschalk: To be honest with you, I believe Iraq will end up kind of like Germany. I believe that we will have permanent bases in Iraq for as long as we can remember. I feel that most of the troops will eventually come home, but I have a feeling that it will end up being a rotation for the active duty, just like Germany is. Just to help out or do whatever may need to be done.

Miller: I want to back up just a little bit -- you got a Purple Heart. Tell me how you received that. How did that happen?

Gottschalk: The nurse came into my room one afternoon. They didn't tell me what was going to happen or what was going on. They just told me that if there was anybody coming in to see me, or if there was going to be somebody in the building that they needed to be in the building by a certain time, because there was somebody coming to the building, and they had to lock the hospital down.

And then approximately a half hour, I think, or 45 minutes before the President came, they wheeled me and there were three other soldiers in a room. Each one of us could have two people. I had my mother and father in there, and we were in there with our nurses. We were in there for about a half hour, and eventually we heard a bunch of commotion. At that time I realized that the President was coming.

He walked into the room and it was a good feeling. He was very civilized. There was no press there. There were two people from the White House press to take pictures, and that was about it.

He walked up and asked me a few questions. He asked me where I was from, how I was doing, if I was getting treated good, just how social life was, and being very one on one about it. At that time, he wanted to congratulate me for my service and for my job. He pinned a Purple Heart on me. He also handed me a coin with the President's seal on it.

Miller: Was it surprising to you, once you figured out what was going on, was that a weird feeling? What was that like?

Gottschalk: It was very weird. It was very nice, too, because I knew that I would end up getting the Purple Heart out of the deal. But to have it pinned on by the President himself, it's a big honor to me. It means a lot. I know there's a lot of people out there that get Purple Hearts just from their unit, and it still means something, but to actually receive it from the President, it means a great honor.

Miller: I'm curious about two thing. First is: Do you think that we're making a difference? Do you think that what we're doing is making a difference?

Gottschalk: I think that we are making somewhat of a difference. I think our progress has maybe started to slow down a little bit. I do know that while the first year or two years that we were in country, a lot of progress was made. I do know that a lot of the hospitals weren't up and running. We're at like 100% on the hospitals. When we went in the country, there were only male schools. When we left, there were not only male schools, but there were also female schools, and kids were going to school. The male kids were going to school and the females were going to school.

So it's little things like that that make me believe that yes, we are making a difference. Even though we may have done some bad things to the country, yes, we are rebuilding the country. The country is getting rebuilt and starting to get a little more civilization around there.

Miller: Something you said to me on the phone. People came up to you and said: "Oh, you just want to go back because you want revenge." Tell me about that.

Gottschalk: People were like that, because the only reason that I would want to go back was to get revenge and to deal with what had happened, with Aaron being killed, and there was one other guy in the truck in front of us that had gotten killed from California. But it's not that. It's not a revenge thing. I guess if that's the reason that I would be going back, then I wouldn't want to do it, because I feel that your mind wouldn't be in the right place. You would do something wrong, and you may end up getting yourself killed.

Miller: You talked a little bit earlier about the fact that you grew up in a small Iowa town, and all of a sudden you go across the ocean to a foreign country. Was that quite an eye opener for you?

Gottschalk: Yeah, it was. Growing up in a small town with a population of 6,000 people, and then next thing you know, you're on a plane going overseas to the Middle East. It was a really big eye opener. It seemed like at first, when we had deployed to Fort McCoy, we were there for three months. It just seemed like that we weren't going anywhere. Everybody kept saying: "Well, we'll go somewhere when we get on the plane." And then when we finally got that call to go get on the plane and fly to the Middle East, it was like: "Wow, we really are going somewhere."

At first, I thought that a lot of us thought that it would be a really neat experience, just because it's a different place. It's a foreign country, and we knew that there were a lot of hazards. But it was really an eye opener, and we knew that we were actually going to go do our job. I guess that's what was the biggest eye opener. We were actually going to go do our job for once.

Miller: Obviously you were injured, and you were telling me that the military has given you some things. Do you think that you got as much out of the military as you gave?

Gottschalk: I think that I've gotten a lot out of the military. I really do. The military has taught me a lot of things. The biggest thing is respect. The military has given me a lot and has taught me a lot as far as respecting what is not only my elders or whomever, but respecting everybody, giving everybody a chance to have that little bit of dignity, as far as understanding what they want.

Miller: How does your family feel about maybe you going back?

Gottschalk: Well, obviously, none of them want me to. Everybody: my mom, my dad and my fiancé, they all support me 100% in what I do. Obviously, none of them want me to see me go back, but if the time came, then they would all support me. They'd all give me 100%.

Miller: What did your parents say when they found out you were going to go the first time?

Gottschalk: Not really a whole lot. They were kind of heartbroken. There were a lot of tears shed. Obviously, none of them, my mom or my dad or anybody's family wanted to see them go. They knew that the chances of something happening were really big. At the time, nobody knew when we were going anywhere, or when we were going to leave country, for that matter. On the opposite end, nobody knew when we were actually going to come home, either. And so being gone from our families and being gone from our civilian lives for so long was really heartbreaking for a lot of families. Especially my mom and my dad, I know that they were really heartbroken about it. I know that they didn't want to see me go, but they supported me 110% for whatever I wanted to do.

Miller: Did you wonder what the length of your deployment was? Or was it: "This is my job, and I'll do it for as long as they tell me to"?

Gottschalk: It started getting to the point where every unit does. You hear rumors: "Oh, we're going to go home this month." Or: "We're going to get our orders this month." When we deployed, I know we're going somewhere when we get on the plane and leave. A bunch of us all had kind of the same attitude: we're here to do our job, and we'll do it until we have to, and when that letter comes, or when orders come to go home, then we'll go home, and not until.

Miller: Did you have more than one reconstructive surgery?

Gottschalk: No, actually they did it all in one.

Miller: Are you able to feel that at all?

Gottschalk: Well, believe it or not, there's actually a silicone implant in my cheek. They said they were going to do one of two things. There was either going to be a bone graft done to rebuild my cheek, or they were hoping that there were enough big pieces of bone left that they could put it all back together with a series of titanium plates and screws. And then they implanted a silicone implant in my cheek to make it look as good as it does to the other side. But what you see now is actually still a little hole in my cheekbone, and that is what creates that divot that's there now.

Miller: And that won't come back?

Gottschalk: No, that will never come back.

Miller: Did your ear get cut?

Gottschalk: Actually, my ear was basically totally detached. All that was left was just a little piece of skin holding my ear on. They sewed it back on from behind, and the bottom part of my ear was actually gone, so they sewed it back together and sewed on what they could.

Miller: So tell me what happened. Was it a round? Was it a piece of shrapnel?

Gottschalk: It was a 762 round that entered behind my left ear, missed my spine by five to seven millimeters and missed the base of my skull by three to four millimeters. As it came through, it hit my TMJ, which is the joint where your upper and lower jaw meet. It actually ricocheted off of it and then exited below my left eye, and as it came out, it shattered my cheekbone. It took a little piece of bone off my TMJ. There is a bone that is underneath your eye that holds your eye up; it shattered that. There is a bone up here; it broke it in two places. And they actually put it all back together with a series of titanium plates.

Miller: It just felt like you got hit by something? Like you hit your head on something?

Gottschalk: Yeah, it felt like I just hit my head on something. I didn't know what had happened at the time. In fact, I didn't even know I was bleeding. The adrenaline was just pumping so hard, and I just had my mind set on one thing, and that was to get out of there.

Miller: Did people kind of look at you and go: "Oh, you need to sit over here"? What was the reaction of the medics or people around?

Gottschalk: No, from what I can remember, obviously, the reactions right away were to try and stop the bleeding, and try to get me out of there and get me to the field hospital, because I had lost so much blood. In fact Aaron, that was with me, he was covered in blood. They didn't know what had happened to him yet, and it was hard for them to tell, because there was so much bloodshed from me on him that they didn't know if he was hit or if he had been shot or what, because there was so much blood on him.

Miller: Tell me what the final analysis was. Your vision, your hearing. Tell me.

Gottschalk: I have total hearing loss in my left ear. I have about 50% vision loss in my left eye. That is the biggest part of it. I do have some nerve endings that were damaged and didn't grow back, so I do have some numbness in the left side of my face, in my upper lip and in my cheek. But surprisingly, for what had happened, that's all the damage there really was.

Miller: You've got to be talking millimeters ... you're wearing your helmet, yes? And the collar comes up?

Gottschalk: It actually came up underneath the edge of the Kevlar. I don't know how much it missed it by, but obviously not by very much. And I do know that I was hit more than once. My Kevlar showed that. There are a couple of places in my Kevlar that bullets ricocheted off, and that actually saved my life.

Miller: Did they let you keep your vest or do those get recycled?

Gottschalk: The vest got destroyed, because obviously, it was covered in blood. I did end up keeping the Kevlar. So that's kind of a reminder, I guess. The big saying always was that it was just a brain bucket to keep everything in if you did get hit. I'm here to tell you that they do save your life.

Miller: Your parents must have been a wreck.

Gottschalk: They were. Mom found out within ten hours, I think. It happened here in the U.S. in the morning, and she found out about it late that night. At that time, there was no information per se of what had really happened. She just knew that I had been shot. They knew that myself and Aaron were in a truck and that we had gotten shot. They didn't know who had what kind of injuries; they didn't know that one of us was dead, or if both of us were dead. They didn't know any information until later on that night, and then they had gotten the word passed onto them that Aaron had passed away, and that I was in a hospital.

Miller: Do you think that Aaron had passed away almost immediately, or was he still alive for a while?

Gottschalk: They think that he went relatively quick. Honestly, I couldn't tell you. I don't know for sure. Some people say that yes, he did suffer a little bit. Some people say that he did go right away. So I don't know for sure.

Miller: Was it an IED that struck you guys, or was it an RPG that struck the side of your vehicle?

Gottschalk: A little of both. RPG and small arms fire and IED. There were three vehicles that had gotten caught up in the kill zone.

Miller: And your vehicle veered off the road, or knocked it out completely?

Gottschalk: Yeah, when one of the IED's went off, it put a hole in the fuel filter, so the truck couldn't get any fuel. So that's why it wouldn't start. But it veered -- when we got the impact, I jerked the wheel and swerved off the edge of the road. It cracked the Kevlar on the inside, also. I don't know if you can see it or not, but it cracked it right back here. Right in the crease.

Miller: There's no mark on the left side of the helmet? It just kind of came right in?

Gottschalk: Yeah, and I don't know when these could have happened… when I was in the truck, or under the truck, or any time. I don't know. It just seemed like it all happened over just a course of just a few minutes, and I came to find out it was such a long time frame afterwards.

I think we were under fire for roughly 45 minutes, and then it was a total of an hour and a half from the time that things started to the time that the medevac got there.

Miller: Would you consider this to be where you're from, or Tipton?

Gottschalk: From here is fine. I grew up in Tipton, but I'm from Lone Tree. You could say I was born in Tipton. Lived most of my life in Tipton, except for a year.

Miller: You don't remember being in Germany at all....

Gottschalk: I was in the field hospital for 24 hours. Then they transported me to Lanstool, Germany, where I was for five days. The 5th of December is when I left Lanstool and went to Washington, D.C..

Miller: How long were you at Walter Reed? Do you remember?

Gottschalk: I can't remember the time frame. I think the first time I left Walter Reed was in January. That was the first time I got to come home. And then I was back and forth for a while. The last time I was in Walter Reed was in April.

Miller: April of 2004?

Gottschalk: Yes.

Miller: So it would be fair to say that you were in and out of Walter Reed between January and April?

Gottschalk: Yeah.

Miller: And then basically they were done with you?

Gottschalk: Yeah, and then I got attached to a medical hold company in Madison, Wisconsin, from July to October. And then October 21st, I was released from active duty.

Miller: So you were on active duty while you were being treated?

Gottschalk: Yeah, I was still.

Miller: And then when were you reinstated?

Gottschalk: I was moved from active duty status back to National Guard status in October.

Miller: And you've been training with everybody since that time?

Gottschalk: Yep.

Miller: Were you working for the construction company?

Gottschalk: Beforehand, yes.

Gourley: So they kept your job open for you?

Gottschalk: Yep, they sure did.

Gourley: Have they been fairly supportive of your Guard service?

Gottschalk: Yeah, they have. He gives me more than enough time to do anything. If I have something going on on the Guard side, or if I need some time off for the Guard, no questions asked. He says: "Take whatever you need."

Miller: And say and spell your fiancé's name for my please.

Gottschalk: Stephanie Kruse, S-t-e-p-h-a-n-i-e K-r-u-s-e.

Miller: At the time were you a Specialist?

Gottschalk: Yes, at the time I was a Specialist.

Miller: When did you get promoted to Sergeant?

Gottschalk: In February of '05.

Miller: And was that just a function of you were in long enough ... ?

Gottschalk: Yeah, we just had a promotion ceremony at the armory, like we do any time that somebody gets promoted.

It was kind of weird, because the way that things kind of went down. It just so happened that year Thanksgiving was November 27th, my birthday was November 28th, and then everything went down on the 29th.

Miller: How old was Aaron at the time?

Gottschalk: I think he was 21.

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