The smell, sounds, sights, touch and even the taste from the nearby rocket attack that then Capt. Kevin Lombardo experienced are still etched into his memory today. With the help of the specialists at the mental health clinic, he is now able to live more freely than he was nearly 11 years ago.
In 2007, Lombardo was deployed and tasked to be the provost marshal for the 82nd Airborne Division out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq.
“Our charge was to protect COB Adder within the fence line and five kilometers outside the fence line,” said now Lt. Col. Lombardo, 341st Missile Security Forces Squadron commander.
Lombardo said the first couple of months at COB Adder were very busy with a lot of interactions at the gate but nothing they couldn’t handle. However, in early March the bombings by rocket and mortar attacks started increasing. Two rockets hit part of the housing area, injuring more than 25 people and damaging 14 housing units.
Lombardo said after the attack they were fortunate to have all survived, however on March 12, 2008, that was all going to change for the young captain.
Heading toward the base’s main gate and responding to another attack, Lombardo witnessed an allied vehicle being struck by an enemy rocket, spinning the vehicle and engulfing it in flames.
“By the time I got up to the vehicle, there was one individual who was able to successfully jump out of the vehicle, rolled onto the ground and started running to take cover,” Lombardo said. “I noticed at the time there was another individual who was not so lucky.”
The individual in the car was Army Spc. Joel Tavera, one of the soldiers Lombardo worked with in the joint environment. Tavera was on fire.
Lombardo radioed in to the base’s defense operations center and described what was happening. All he heard was back and forth static and hoped his message was being received.
“At that time I jumped out, grabbed a hold of the individual and moved him approximately 30 meters away from the vehicle he was traveling in,” Lombardo said. “I went back to the vehicle to see if anybody was inside and there were individuals inside. I tried to get one of them out but it was already too late.”
Lombardo then headed back to Tavera and assessed his wounds.
“His right leg was blown off, he had severe burns to his entire body, the right portion of his skull was missing and both eyes were burned and protruded outside of his head,” Lombardo said. “At that point your training kicks in.”
Lombardo, along with two Army soldiers who had just arrived on scene, was able to place a tourniquet on Tavera’s leg while taking additional fire from three to four rocket volleys, landing within 200 meters of them.
Lombardo and the other soldiers shielded Tavera with body armor and received a radio transmission that an ambulance was en route but 20 to 25 minutes away.
“The whole time I was there with (Tavera) he was conscious,” Lombardo said. “He was talking which is a great sign because his motor function is still going and his speech was still going.
“He had a very strong voice but we knew he was in dire need,” Lombardo continued.
Lombardo and the soldiers continued to care for Tavera, finally able to place an IV into his arm. The soldiers then went to treat the other individual who was able to escape the vehicle.
All of this was happening as more rocket volleys bombarded the local area.
According to Lombardo, a total of 22 rockets were fired that day, most of them impacting within 200 meters from that single impact site.
As the sirens echoed in the distance, Lombardo spoke with Tavera until the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. The ambulance took Tavera and the other injured soldier to the hospital.
“After Spc. Tavera was taken by ambulance, that was the last I saw of him while we were in Iraq,” Lombardo said. “When you are in a combat zone, you have to go on.”
“You take the next mission and you go and more missions were coming in for me and my guys, so we were busy taking care of those missions,” Lombardo continued. “It wasn’t until the end of that deployment to Iraq in 2008 that things just started not feeling right for me.”
Lombardo returned home to his wife and kids while trying to adjust to life at home, however, Lombardo was far from normal.
“I was having dreams that I couldn’t explain,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo was apprehensive about seeking mental health treatment because of the stigma of losing one’s clearance and ability to work.
According to Lombardo, in the security forces world, one of the worst things to happen is losing the ability to carry a weapon. This can happen due to multiple reasons, including problems with mental health.
“I talked to my boss and he said ‘don’t worry about that, let’s get you better’,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo made an appointment with the mental health clinic at Peterson Air Force Base where he was stationed.
“The first couple of days of treatment, I have to say, were probably the hardest,” Lombardo said. “I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know how to talk to them. I didn’t want to lose my Air Force career.”
In some severe cases, Airmen may be medically disqualified to continue serving in the Air Force if the issues create problems in day-to-day duties. Lombardo had almost 12 years in and didn’t want to forfeit that time.
“All of that was information people would tell you over the years,” Lombardo said. “I have to say it’s 100 percent false.”
Lombardo said going through treatment allowed him to understand his dreams, what was happening to him and the thoughts that were going through his mind.
“Over the course of a couple of months, I was able to remember all of the incident that happened,” Lombardo said. “I was actually blocking out some details of that incident and that’s what was causing me not to feel normal.”
Lombardo said his sense of normal was strapping up with his weapon and assisting his Airmen where he was needed.
“Within three months, I was able to get my weapon back,” Lombardo said. “I was able to continue my Air Force career.”
Lombardo continued treatment and was even eligible for a six-month temporary duty to Tampa, Florida.
“At the time there was a lot of things going on but I felt like I was happy again,” Lombardo said. “I was able to sleep better.”
The trip to Florida allowed Lombardo to reconnect with Tavera and reconnect with Tavera’s family.
“One of the most outstanding things I could do was to see him go from a coma for 81 days to a few months later to where he was still bed ridden, but over a six-month period I was able to see him go from barely walking, to talking, to dancing, to enjoying himself,” Lombardo said. “The medical treatments he was getting allowed me to feel better about myself because I always doubted myself if I did everything I could do.”
Lombardo said the doubt was one of the things mental health helped him work past.
“I did do everything I possibly could,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo said the incident in 2008 still bothers him today, but with the help from mental health, his days are better.
“To me, there is no cure for what happened that day but with the guidance and the help with talking to other people who were involved either in that specific mission or other people who had similar missions, we were able to discuss it,” Lombardo said. “Either the doctors or the assistants were able to connect me with other people that I could talk to and actually feel like they understood.”
Despite the negative stigma, Lombardo emphasized how choosing to seek help from mental health had no negative effects on his career.
“I have my clearance, I have my weapon and I’m a commander of a unit,” Lombardo said. “The stigma of mental health is usually you go there and you can lose your career but if I didn’t go to mental health and talk to the doctors about my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, I probably would have lost my career.”
Lombardo said the mental health clinic is still there for him, helping him through the everyday struggles, and without the mental health clinic, doesn’t know if he would be here today.
“Talking to the mental health specialists, by far, saved my career,” Lombardo said.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published at the Defense Video Imagery Distribution System Hub (www.didvshub.net). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
Share your thoughts in the comments area below!