Aftershock: The Blast That Shook Psycho Platoon
Five soldiers injured in the same 2009 bomb blast are a case study in a new epidemic among America’s troops, who are grappling with a combination of concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder.
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."
During his second tour in 2005, Savelkoul was responsible for giving the OK after he scanned a route with the Raven and determined that there were no signs of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. In an article for a base newsletter, he proudly told the reporter that his job saved soldiers' lives. "We're protecting them from the sky," he said. One day, however, a convoy driving down a route he had checked hit an IED. Details are unclear. Savelkoul rarely spoke of it. The bomb destroyed one of the vehicles. Several soldiers apparently died in the blast. "It blew the truck into nothing. You didn't even know it was a Humvee," said Krebsbach, who remembered seeing the vehicle after it was towed back to base. He said Savelkoul became sullen and withdrawn afterward. "It was hard to get him not to fixate" on that incident, he said.
Bruce Savelkoul remembers getting a solemn phone call from his son after the explosion.
"Dad, I'm responsible for those deaths," Brock told his father.
"No, you're not," Bruce responded, trying to console him. One of Savelkoul's commanders, who did not want to be identified because the Army had not authorized him to comment, said that he had looked into the incident and concluded that Savelkoul was not negligent in carrying out his duties.
In any case, the Humvee deaths weighed on Savelkoul, as did the failure of a brief marriage, which ended in divorce just a few months before he left Iraq in January 2006. To Angie, his sister, he seemed different. Although some family members had suffered depression, Savelkoul had never shown any signs of mental distress. "He wasn't his normal self. He was very quiet, withdrawn," Angie said. "It's like he wasn't there."
With straight blond hair and an open, honest face, Angie is the glue of the Savelkoul family, the little sister who keeps tabs on everyone. A labor and delivery nurse married to a plumber, she juggles crazy work hours with family crises and the kids' basketball games. Through it all, she made sure to communicate with Brock regularly. When he deployed to Iraq again in October 2008, she convinced him to open a Facebook account. They exchanged messages after the Jan. 16 explosion. Brock assured her he was OK.
The military has failed to diagnose brain injuries in thousands of soldiers returning from overseas.
The Story So Far
Traumatic brain injury is considered the “signature wound” of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Official military statistics show that more than 115,000 soldiers have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries since the wars began. Shock waves from roadside bombs can ripple through soldiers’ brains, causing damage that sometimes leaves no visible scars but may cause lasting mental and physical harm.