Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

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November 11, 2012

VETERAN SPOTLIGHT: Airman comes back home from war a different man

By CHRIS AGEE

After seven years in the Air Force and multiple deployments during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Byron Norman said he is not the same person he once was.

Norman, 29, enlisted 10 years ago after determining much earlier he wanted to pursue a military career.

"In school, I was pretty outgoing," he said. "I pretty much knew I was going to be in the military."

Following in his father's footsteps, Norman attended mechanic's school and began working on C130 aircraft.

Shortly after boot camp ended, he married his wife, Priscilla, and headed to Germany where he was stationed for three years. During that period, he said, his main duties included helping Iraqi soldiers set up their air force.

"We showed them how to maintain them ... basically taught them everything we knew about the plane," he said.

Though he described himself as a "low airman," the Airman First Class said he was often given additional responsibilities.

"I wasn't really qualified to do anything but they kept piling it on top of me," he recalled. "I set up the armory out there for us and the Iraqis, so it was pretty interesting handing over the enemy's guns."

The following summer, just before he believed he would be leaving the war zone, Norman said his unit was attacked for the first time.

"I blew out both of my knees from a mortar coming too close," he said.

Following that setback, Norman received even more upsetting news.

"For some reason, my unit forgot about me and they left me out in the desert," he said.

While everyone else received their ticket to return home, Norman said, "They messed up my papers and they forgot them on somebody's desk so I didn't get to go home with the rest of my people."

Instead, he said, he joined with a Texas Guard unit stationed in the area and assisted them with setting up an armory.

Eventually, his superior offered him a way home that included losing one of his stripes and a percentage of his pay.

Against his father's advice, Norman said he signed the agreement, traveled to Italy to work on the aircraft of high-ranking military personnel and once again arrived back in America.

"It was different when I got back," he said. "My wife noticed a change in me; I was a better leader, I didn't really play around as much. It was like a different person came back."

Though he said he occasionally had flashbacks of the war, he adjusted fairly well after his first tour. He explained a second deployment to Iraq added significantly more stress, though.

During one mortar attack, he said he was lifting a heavy piece of equipment to make a airplane repair and seriously injured his spine. In addition to severe physical pain, he said he experienced confusion and other effects of the injury.

Though doctors diagnosed him with influenza, he said, "I've felt different ever since that day."

Enemy attacks were constant, he said, estimating about ten per day during his deployment.

"Right before we left, one went off ... two trailers down and we saw an Army guy fall out the back door," he recalled. "It sliced his leg open and he was losing lots of blood."

His most recent experiences overseas compounded the personality changes his wife and others noticed after his initial return, he explained.

"When I got back that time, I was moody and irritable," he said. "I started drinking a little bit more, doing my own thing."

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Norman said he realized he would not be able to complete 20 years in service as he had intended.

He left the Air Force in 2009 and will receive 50 percent of his retirement for the rest of his life, though he said residual effects of PTSD have made it difficult to maintain a job at first.

"Ever since then, they've got me on better medication," he said, including an effective treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

He has been able to find work in a field related to his military career.

"Since I've gotten out, I've worked at Lockheed," he said. "It's kind of weird because I'm working on Pakistani planes."

Looking back, he said he wishes he could have done more in the Air Force but is happy living in Mineral Wells with his wife and two daughters, Emery and Ava.

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