Michigan veteran inspires others 10 years after bomb attack

Vet tours the country speaking of dealing with deep bouts of depression and anxiety

By Sam Easter
The Bay City Times

BANGOR TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Douglas Szczepanski saw the suicide bomber's face in the moments before his vehicle, loaded with explosives, blew up on a Baghdad highway.

The blast shattered the Army specialist's jaw, blew off an ear and a thumb and sent shrapnel into his eye and brain. He sustained first-, second- and third-degree burns. His Humvee was so engulfed by smoke and flames that soldiers in the following vehicles couldn't see it.

Szczepanski had been craning out of the gunner's nest, managing traffic. The explosion knocked him back into his seat.

Then, he went into shock.

"I'm sitting here choking on my own blood, my face is blown apart," he told The Bay City Times. "My .50-cal was blown 60 meters away, my Kevlar was blown 50 meters away, my M-16 was blown apart in my hands. And I look at my team leader, and I'm like, 'Hey, why aren't we going along with the mission?'"

The date was Sept. 15, 2005.

Szczepanski has come a long way in the decade since, overcoming deep bouts of depression and anxiety, returning to school and founding his own nonprofit, through which he tours the country speaking about his faith and mental health. He and his wife, Alyssa, have two children - Elijah, 2, and Micah, 5 months.

"I'm not currently depressed or dealing with severe depression. But do I deal with anxieties? Yeah, pretty much daily," he said. "Sometimes it's a passing, fleeting thing ... but you deal with a lot of the stuff, and the rest you give to the Lord."

Szczepanski, 32, was raised in Bay County and graduated from Bangor Township John Glenn High School in 2001. He played hockey as a teen, and was avidly involved at church, where he played guitar in a worship band and was a youth leader. He's a Christian, he said, and ever since he was a boy, his faith has always been dear to him.

His father served as a Michigan State Police trooper, and Szczepanski wanted to be like him, playing army and "fighting Charlie" when he was little. He was interested in selflessness and in fighting for his country, and he wanted to help others. His cousin, he said, served as a Marine, and that inspired him, too.

Szczepanski enlisted in the National Guard before he graduated from high school. His plan was to attend Delta College's law enforcement program and remain in the community.

Then came 9/11.

"That completely changed everything," Szczepanski said. "Not just for everyone in the military and America, but for me, personally."

By 2004, Szczepanski's National Guard unit was activated, and he trained at Camp Grayling and Fort Dix, New Jersey, prior to deployment. His captain there had a friend high in the ranks of the New York City Police Department, and Szczepanski had the chance to see ground zero, a landmark moment in his military life.

"It was all real raw, real rough. You could see all the way down in the towers," he said. "There were still pipes and I-beams and water dripping. I went to the memorial, and I was like, 'Woah. This is why we're fighting.'"

In January 2005, Szczepanski shipped out to Baghdad, where he served as a military police officer as a member of forces training Iraqi officers.

Szczepanski's job placed him on the gun turret atop a Humvee that ferried his captain from place to place. The captain was referred to by members of the squad as "Indiana Jones."

"He was a go-getter type of captain," Szczepanski said. "Anytime there was a report over the radio - shots fired, IED went off - we were the first to get there."

It was a job that required a lot of traffic management; the officer insisted on leading his convoys, and that meant Szczepanski was in constant shouting dialogue with traffic around the Humvee, keeping the road clear and his occupants safe.

On Sept. 15, 2005, that job cost him dearly.

Szczepanski remembers saying morning prayers, listening to Styx and getting pumped on energy drinks before his convoy headed out. They were preceded by three Bradley vehicles - essentially miniature tanks - and Szczepanski remembers feeling relieved that he wouldn't have to shout at traffic in front of him through the whole mission.

The convoy turned out of the base's gate and got up to speed. Szczepanski saw the car coming from far away out of the corner of his eye - just a dot in the distance - but dismissed it to shout at another vehicle on the other side of his Humvee.

Then, all of a sudden, that vehicle was right next to the Humvee.

Some of the shrapnel from the explosion, Szczepanski said, is still inside him.

"Six months ago, a piece came out of my cheek," Szczepanski said. "I pulled it out of the inside of my mouth - black plastic. It had to be from my M-16."

Szczepanski survived the attack and began a year of convalescing in U.S. Army care, with medical personnel in Iraq, Germany and eventually Texas, seeing to his needs. Over the course of 2006, he healed, served in a unit for wounded soldiers and attended support-the-troops events around the U.S.

He medically retired from the Army as a sergeant and returned home to Bay County in 2006. He finished his associate degree at Delta College in 2007. Still strong in his faith, he went to Washington state on a Christian sabbatical mission in 2008 for four months, growing in his faith and helping start a church.

In 2009, he started taking classes at Saginaw Valley State University to finish his bachelor's degree, which he received in 2011. Already a licensed minister, he's an online student at Liberty University, and hopes to receive his master of divinity degree soon.

He met his wife, Alyssa, in 2010, and married her in 2011. Soon after, he became a father.

Once Szczepanski returned home, his second battle was just beginning, despite all the successes the coming years would bring him. Readjusting to civilian life can be difficult for a lot of soldiers, he said, and it was for him, too.

The attack in Iraq left him unable to be a combat soldier, and he didn't want to settle for being a military "pencil-pusher." The trauma of his injury - combined with the disappointment of his now-ended military career - fueled some of his darkest days, he said.

Szczepanski said he has dealt with anxiety all his life, but that his lowest moment came in the beginning of 2012, after he stopped taking pain medication for the scarring in his face.

"Just the emotions and the anxiety and the depression were happening so much that I felt like my whole body was in pain - physical and emotional pain," he said. "It felt like a rain cloud was storming all over me. I couldn't think clearly, I couldn't focus. I couldn't do anything. It was really difficult, because I knew what God had brought me through, but I thought I was losing my mind and my control."

Though he says some of his symptoms are consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, Szczepanski said he was never diagnosed with the condition. He said, like many other veterans, he hates the label.

"Medical people want to label you, but veterans don't want to be labeled by a medical person's diagnosis," he said.

For Alyssa, it was equally difficult. Her husband was distant, and without a military background in her family, she wasn't sure how to handle it.

"It was me understanding and learning what he was going through, and also trying to understand the background of what he had gone through," she said.

Szczepanski said he got through it with prayer, support from his family and by spending time alone in nature. He said anyone who feels they need professional help, though, should absolutely seek it.

The reasons veterans might not seek help, he said, are because some of the stigmas that are attached to mental illness. He felt it himself - here he was, a combat soldier, someone who'd been "blown up" while serving abroad. He didn't feel like it could be him who needed help.

"Especially with veterans, we've got this image of who we are. It's not in our nature to be like, 'Well, we're weak in this area,'" he said. "What matters is, are you going to keep pressing on, and that you can push through this, and that there are others that are going to help you get through this," he said.

Szczepanski is working to be a part of the solution for veterans and civilians alike. At age 32, he travels the country speaking about his faith and his experiences through his nonprofit, Douglas Szczepanski Ministries.

"My primary motivation is Jesus. It's my faith in Christ," he said. "That's my underlying foundation and purpose is to share the love and hope of Jesus. And as a Christian, I want to reach out, because I've gone through these struggles, and I want to help my brothers and sisters in the military."

Szczepanski said he also is working to become more involved with Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs, a faith-based initiative in California that Szczepanski said teaches biblical seminars and helps participants overcome PTSD.

"One of the things we learn in the Army is that we don't leave a man behind," Szczepanski said. "I don't want to leave anybody behind in this war on mental health."

Published: Tue, Sep 22, 2015