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Through Airmen's Eyes: Airman receives Purple Heart 8 years after injuries

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Anna-Marie Wyant
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
"Just don't tell my mom; she's going to kill me," Tech. Sgt. Kellen Grogan recalled saying to a fellow Airman shortly after their Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device in Iraq. As the pressure-plated device detonated, it sent the vehicle and its passengers flying 10 feet into the air and hurled them 15 feet forward. Their vehicle was wrecked, their driver was suffering painful injuries and needed surgery, and Grogan was completely knocked out.

Grogan, now a squad trainer with the 920th Security Forces Squadron, vividly remembers the day for which he earned his Purple Heart--except the few minutes he was unconscious. March 19, 2005 started out as a normal day on patrol, said Grogan, who at the time served as the turret gunner on an armored Humvee as part of a quick reaction force.

While on patrol that evening at approximately 6 p.m., Grogan's team apprehended a suspicious man and brought him back to the base. Shortly after their return, while still on standby, Grogan heard an explosion less than three miles from the base and received a call from the operations center directing the team to check it out. The patrol team included a convoy of three Humvees. Grogan was in the middle vehicle, pointing his turret to the left toward the hills. This was Grogan's third deployment to Iraq in less than three years, and he had been doing the same patrol duty for several weeks. However, he was a slightly nervous as they left base that night.

"At the time, the number one thing that was killing people was vehicle rollovers, and a few days earlier we had driven into a ditch," Grogan said. "I was a bit worried that instead of driving into a ditch, we'd drive off the hill. I kept peeking out the front to see what was going on, then looking back to my left where the gun was pointing in case of any threats."

The patrol was driving in blackout, meaning instead of using headlights on the Humvees, they were all relying on night-vision goggles to see. This was somewhat dangerous, as NVGs left the team--including the driver--without depth perception. They drove slowly and carefully. Then, as Grogan glanced back and forth through his NVGs, the unexpected happened.

A violent force

"All of a sudden the earth shook; everything was black," Grogan said.

He said he remembered a violent force, then nothing. He was knocked unconscious for at least three minutes.

"When I woke up I had an ammunition belt around my neck that was choking me, and everything was still really dark and smoky," he recalled. "I heard people yelling, and I remember one of them saying, 'He's dead!' They were talking about me."

As soon as Grogan regained consciousness, he shouted, "I'm OK! I'm OK!" Thinking they were under attack and in shock from the explosion, Grogan fumbled around in the darkness to retrieve his weapon.

"I didn't know what was going on--I have to admit I was pretty scared," Grogan said. "I was scared because my machine gun was inoperable, all the ammo had been blown off, and it was locked in place. I couldn't find my M4-rifle, and I was freaking out because I didn't know if it was an IED or RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) attack."

When he finally found his rifle, he heard the people on patrol talking and realized they were not under attack. As he crawled out of the Humvee on his hands and knees, he noticed their driver was badly wounded from shrapnel. When a teammate asked whether Grogan was OK, the first thing that came to mind wasn't his own health, safety and wellbeing, but rather his parents. When he deployed, Grogan said he did not tell his parents about the hazards associated with his job because he didn't want them to worry about him. Hence, he told his teammate not to tell his mother about their potentially fatal evening.

"That was the first thought that popped through my head; I thought my mom was going to be so mad if she found out I did this. To be honest, it's probably because I was in shock," Grogan said.


Even though he had suffered a concussion, their vehicle was inoperable, and their driver desperately needed medical attention, Grogan said he considered the team lucky overall. The physician assistant who was assigned to the team did not typically go on patrol with them. But as luck would have it, he happened to be there that night and was able to administer the necessary first aid to the driver, who sustained the worst injuries in the group.

In addition, Grogan said the effects of the IED--which he later found out was planted by the man they had apprehended earlier that evening--could have been far worse, but due to its placement, injuries were less severe.

"The pressure plate was in one spot, and the bomb was directly next to it, so when we rolled over it, it blew up the engine instead of detonating underneath the cabin and killing everyone inside," Grogan said. "We were super lucky."

Grogan said the vehicle's build was also fortunate. Theirs happened to be the only factory-built armored Humvee in the convoy; the other two were bolt-on armor kits.

"If anyone else had hit (the IED), regardless of where, the end result probably would have been fatal," Grogan added.

A trip to the hospital

Since they had to leave their Humvee behind, Grogan's team piled into the other vehicles and headed to the hospital. Along the way, with eight Airmen crammed into one Humvee, including one on a stretcher, Grogan helped the physician assistant tend to his teammate's wounds.

When the team arrived at the hospital around midnight, Grogan said he was still in shock. He wandered around for half an hour, unsure where to go or what to do, still wearing his body armor and helmet. When he finally saw a doctor, he was told he had suffered a concussion but was fine overall. At the time, Grogan didn't think twice about the diagnosis. He was more concerned about the team driver, who was undergoing surgery to save his badly wounded leg.

Grogan said he finally got to bed just before 4 a.m., but his slumber was short lived; a teammate awoke him to visit their driver, who was going to be evacuated to Germany for additional medical care. After saying goodbye, Grogan, who was running on less than two hours of sleep, had to prepare for something he was not yet ready to do: going back on patrol duty.


"In hindsight it was the right decision," Grogan said of his supervisor sending him back on patrol just one day after his traumatic experience. "The mentality was if we don't send them out, they're going to get scared and not want to do it again."

Grogan, who was 20 years old at the time, was definitely scared. This time he wasn't even operating the turret; he was just along for the ride.

"That was the scariest time of my entire life; I've never ever been that scared before or since," Grogan said of being on patrol the day after the explosion. "I was a hundred percent convinced that as soon as we got on the dirt road we were going to blow up ... I was absolutely terrified. I didn't want to go, but I didn't say anything because I didn't want to look scared. I was scared out of my mind."

However, nothing unusual happened that day. Grogan and the rest of the team made it back to base safely, and he continued performing his duties for the remaining three months of his deployment. As his deployment came to an end, Grogan said he was looking forward to going home and being with his family. Little did he know, the effects of his deployment would follow him back home--and for the rest of his life.
Upon returning home from his deployment, Tech. Sgt. Kellen Grogan didn't know what to tell his parents. He had survived an improvised explosive device detonating underneath his Humvee, and besides suffering a concussion, he was pretty much left unscathed--or so he thought.

Grogan, who had just completed a six-month tour in Iraq, was excited to visit his family, but he had been keeping a secret. Months earlier he was knocked unconscious during the potentially fatal IED incident, and he had not yet told his parents. He told his sister while he was still deployed, but she promised not to tell their mom and dad. He knew he should tell them, but he didn't know when or how. After a couple days, he couldn't keep the secret any longer.

"I got blown up," Grogan recalled blurting out to his parents. "I said it just like that."

Little did Grogan know, his sister had already spilled the beans.

"My dad said mom cried a lot; she wasn't happy about it," Grogan said. "But they didn't want to stress me out letting me know that they were worried about me."

More than a concussion

Grogan felt relieved after finally telling his parents about the dangerous incident. However, he hadn't felt 'normal' since suffering his concussion.

"I had a few after effects: trouble sleeping, sensitivity to light ... I would stutter when I talked sometimes. Initially the doctors said those were just symptoms of a concussion," Grogan said.

Yet Grogan and his parents thought it might be something more. While home, Grogan visited his family's physician, who scheduled Grogan for a computerized axial tomography scan and magnetic resonance imaging, better known as a CAT scan and MRI. The results indicated more damage to Grogan's brain than was initially diagnosed; Grogan had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

During Grogan's deployment in 2005, TBI was rarely diagnosed. TBI refers to any complex brain injury with a broad spectrum of symptoms that occurs from an external force. It became clear to Grogan and his physician that the explosion which caused his concussion left a lasting impact invisible to the naked eye.

Going Reserve

Despite his injury, Grogan went on to follow his dreams. He got off active duty, went to college and completed a bachelor's degree in international relations and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. After a three-year break from the military, Grogan realized he missed the camaraderie he had in the Air Force. In 2009, he decided to enlist in the 920th Rescue Wing as a reserve security forces noncommissioned officer.

After joining his new military family, Grogan became friends with some coworkers who had also deployed numerous times. As they swapped deployment stories, Grogan's told his fellow Airmen about the fateful night when his team's Humvee detonated an IED, causing his concussion and subsequent TBI. Upon hearing the story, Grogan's wingmen believed he was eligible to receive a Purple Heart for his injuries, and they encouraged him to do the paperwork to request one. Initially, Grogan wasn't sure whether he should follow their advice.

"I felt kind of bad just asking for it, because I thought it's one of those things they'll just give to you if you deserve it," Grogan said of the Purple Heart.

To help him make a decision, Grogan spoke to the man who inspired him to join the Air Force--his grandfather, who himself had suffered injuries as a service member during World War II.

"When I asked him about applying for the Purple Heart, he was very supportive," Grogan said of his grandfather. "He said if I qualify for it, I should get it."

With the help of his fellow Reservists, Grogan began the Purple Heart paperwork in 2009.

Patience pays off

The process for applying for a Purple Heart was far from simple. Grogan's military records had been lost, so there was no documentation of the concussion he had suffered four years earlier. He still had the civilian documentation from his CAT scan and MRI, but that wasn't enough. He needed some military verification linking it to his deployment. Remembering the physician assistant who was part of his team that fateful day in Iraq, Grogan contacted him to see if he could help.

The physician assistant wrote the necessary memorandum for record stating that Grogan had in fact suffered a concussion on his deployment, and his symptoms were consistent with TBI. With that letter, Grogan had the last piece of documentation he needed. Filing the paperwork was the next hurdle.

There was confusion on how to update his records because he was active duty when the incident occurred, but a Reservist when he applied. After hunting down the correct offices and points of contact, Grogan found out he needed to contact the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. Finally, the ball was rolling.

"It took about a year and a half to go through the process, and then it just showed up one day," Grogan said of his Purple Heart.

On March 3, 2013--almost eight years after Grogan's concussion -- Col. Jeffrey Macrander, 920th RQW commander, pinned the Purple Heart on the left side of Grogan's service dress jacket at the wing commander's call. Grogan's fellow Reserve Airmen, especially his security forces wingmen, gave him a heartfelt round of applause.

"I was personally very proud when Colonel Macrander presented the award," Grogan said. "But having to wait so long really made it feel like it was also recognition of the hard work and sacrifice that my teammates and I made all those years ago, and it wasn't forgotten."

Moving forward

Grogan's TBI has not stopped him from achieving his goals. In March 2012, he began working his dream job as a special agent for the FBI in Washington. With more than eight years of military service, Grogan said he plans to stay in the reserve and continue training security forces personnel. Despite the constant reminders not to do anything dangerous, Grogan said his mother has been very supportive of his career choices and is proud of his Purple Heart award.