Criminal Justice News

Monday, May 13, 2013

Staff sergeant moves beyond hate-crime shooting to thrive in service

by Amy Rollins
88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

5/13/2013 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Staff Sgt. Deondra Parks, a medical technician in internal medicine with the 88th Medical Group at Wright-Patterson Medical Center, owes her very survival to rational thinking and a resilient spirit, but even those enviable traits did not save her from harm.

Parks just observed the third anniversary of the day she survived a brutal shooting as the subject of a hate crime.

She was studying for retraining at Sheppard AFB, Tex., to be an aerospace medical technician after initially serving elsewhere as a Security Forces member. She was profiled on April 20, 2010, by her 22-year-old white assailant because she is African American and it was Adolph Hitler's birthday.

The incident occurred in Wichita Falls inside a cafe where Parks and Staff Sgts. Jade Henderson and Tanya Jesser were studying for a big exam. Ross William Muehlberger sat outside in his vehicle for 10 minutes, watching the trio seated next to the door, then entered and said, "Hey n----rs, it's Hitler's birthday," and opened fire with his 12-gauge shotgun.

Scrambling to get away as shots whirred past her head, Parks tripped and fell, then controlled her breathing and faked being dead, as if she were a body inside a chalk outline.

"I've always had a 'what if' plan," Parks said. "It took me a moment to realize what was going on. Me curling up into a ball would have given him the sense that I was still alive -- you know, 'come finish me.'"

The assailant stood over her and fired point-blank into her lower right leg, with buckshot inflicting wounds on her other leg and elsewhere on her body while she remained silent and still. He shot Parks and Henderson and two other women.

He left the coffee house moments later, then killed a 23-year-old Iraq war veteran, Timothy Donley, who was working as the doorman at Toby's Bar and Grill nearby. Muehlberger later went to a house and shot himself dead.

A path back to wellness
Parks' journey to wellness started with post-traumatic stress disorder counseling from her initial hospital bed. With her therapist's urging, she went from writing one paragraph initially to describe the incident to subsequently writing eight pages, helping her process her fears and emotions.

"From day one, on that floor, in that cafe, it was all about 'How am I going to get back?', 'How am I going to do patient care?'" she said. "I realized what my injury was and what I needed to do. Four surgeries later, here I am."

Gen. Steven Lorenz, retired commander of Air Education and Training Command, was her first visitor at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where she had been flown for the extensive treatment she would require. The general asked what he could do for her. She asked him to keep her training slot open.

"In essence, I was asking him not to give up on me," Parks said.

Lorenz said he wanted her to focus on getting better.

"That lit a fire under me!" she said.

It took months for her to walk unassisted again, but she credits her commander, Lt. Col. Troy Roberts, 72nd Security Forces Squadron, Tinker AFB, Okla., with helping her to get back to "normal." Being in a great unit also helped her recover mentally, she said.

After two weeks of recuperation at home, Roberts expected her to be on duty, answering phones from her wheelchair in his office and assisting with other tasks. He also gave her free weights to help her maintain upper body strength while she was at the office. The colonel's wife is a personal trainer and did swim PT with Parks.

"That's how I got a lot of my strength back, doing water aerobics," she said. "Roberts came to my graduation from tech school at Fort Sam Houston , Texas. He and his wife came. It meant a lot; my family couldn't be there. Of course, I consider the Robertses family now."

Parks also credits her orthopedic surgeon and former Air Force member Dr. Sheila Algan, with believing in her and understanding what she needed to do to stay in the Air Force.

"I can't compete in a marathon, but I can run for my life -- I've proven that. I can lift a 300-pound patient; I can do anything."

She was encouraged more than once to separate from the Air Force and accept medical disability, but she refused to do that.

"I had the next 20 years of my life planned out, and this sucker wasn't going to take that away from me. I love the Air Force; I can't imagine not being in the Air Force. This is what I want to do."

She was judged fit for duty in October 2012 and says she doesn't focus on blaming anyone.

"Walk away from the negativity, that 'would have' and the 'should have,' knowing that you lived. That's how and why I am the way I am today -- simply because I'm here. It easily could have gone the other way. I know that," Parks said.

She had nightmares for two years, but those are less frequent now. Mass casualty shootings like those at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, Sandy Hook Elementary School in December and the Century theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012, affect her, she said, but help her recall her Air Force training on how to deal with such situations.

On the anniversary this year, friends and families called and texted her, telling her how glad they are that she is alive. She appreciated their efforts but said she has had to help herself move forward.

"It happened to me and us; it didn't happen to others. You cannot expect them to understand. You have to understand what happened to you and figure out what your next move is. You can't dwell on it," Parks said.

She thinks about death, but it doesn't control her, she said. She refuses to let it control her life.

"Help is out there," she said. "The shooter needed help. Society's view on mental health -- people are reluctant to seek help. Seek help if you need it."

The sergeant has kept in touch with the other survivors, which is not painful for her, she said. "We are all dealing with it day by day in our own ways."

The road ahead
"The Air Force has been good to me," Parks said. "The bare minimum it requires is for you to stay fit -- mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Your opportunities are endless. That's why I wanted to stay. It all depends on how hard you fight for it. I have my legs and I have my life. That is all that matters."

For her daily 5 a.m. physical training, she rides a recumbent bike, does circuit training and modifies other forms of exercise -- enough to have lost 40 pounds in the last year.

She's been engaged since October to an Air Force reservist.

"Life is good, but it took a while," Parks acknowledges.

On May 9 she obtained her Community College of the Air Force associate degree in allied health sciences and is pursuing a bachelor's degree in sports and health sciences at American Military University. Ultimately she wants to be an occupational therapist.

Every morning she meditates for five minutes to tap into her inner peace.

"No one can affect that. You have to be positive and maintain your inner peace. That time for me is sacred," she said.

She also credits her tight-knit family, based in Cincinnati, with supporting her, despite her mother having to survive leukemia, her brother going through two tours in Iraq, and her 3-year-old nephew dying.

"We have built a foundation of strength. We get each other through everything. As a family we have faced everything looking forward.

"I know what I've been through, but there's always someone else out there going through something worse," Parks said. "You don't know how strong you are until strong is all you have."

Wright-Patt leadership has been supportive, she said.

"Chief Mazza (Chief Master Sgt. John Mazza, 88th Air Base Wing command chief) says he is my No. 1 fan and is supporting me with not only getting my story out there but also helping others. We spoke at First Term Airman Center a few weeks ago and Chief told the class, 'You never know who you are working with.' Everyone has a story, and no one can take that away from them."

She doesn't mind talking about what happened to her, such as at FTAC, and may be tapped to speak at ALS. She also has been chosen to be a resilience trainer.

"Life is not about the past, it's about what you're doing right now," she said. "My thought has always been, 'I'm going to get through this, I'm going to stay in the Air Force and I'm going to help others.'"

No comments: