Misawa EOD Airman forges path to recovery

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class China M. Shock
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

During Operation Achilles, one of NATO’s largest ground operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 6, 2007, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team patrolled the Ghorak Valley to root out the Taliban.

At dawn, the team drove north into the valley in route to a rally point where they first detected signs of enemy presence.

Suddenly, the team felt an intense shockwave throughout their bodies as an improvised explosive device shot the 51,000-pound vehicle into the sky as adversary forces targeted and attacked the convoy with three separate IEDs and landmine strikes.

“I recall being thrusted violently upward, witnessing pieces of metal fly all around me,” explained Master Sgt. Douglas Smits, the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD operations section chief and Purple Heart recipient. “I remember seeing the sky through the windshield from the vehicle being blown to almost a 90-degree angle.”

Everything went black as he felt the vehicle slam back into the blast crater.

As the black smoke and dust cleared, his ears rang and lungs burned from breathing in the smoke.

He felt significant pain as the adrenaline wore off, but due to the remote location, there were no treatment facilities to assess his injuries.

Smits knew he and his team were still mission-capable. He started field treatments to attend to the injured.

The team resumed detecting and disarming IEDs in the hostile environment, running operations out of their disabled truck.

“We responded to the incidents on foot and utilized a stretcher to carry essential EOD equipment without the protection of an armored vehicle,” said Smits.“It was stressful but rewarding to protect U.S. assets out in the field and rise to the occasion as a senior airman.”

After four days, the Kandahar Airfield military personnel delivered a replacement vehicle, and the team remained in support of Operation Achilles for another two weeks until they returned to base and sought medical attention.

The KAF medical team diagnosed Smits with traumatic brain injuries from the blast.

After his deployment, Smits became an instructor for the EOD schoolhouse at the Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Listed as non-deployable due to injuries, Smits attempted to adjust to a milder lifestyle.

“My normal is not normal to the rest of the world,” expressed Smits. “I went from hostile environments to a normal job where threats were not imminent. It’s hard to adapt to a new way of living, not having to worry about every single step you take in fear of being maimed or blown up.”

Smits brought home a heightened state of alert, making some everyday routines difficult. It took him years of silently dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder to realize he needed help.

“Recognizing you may have a problem is the first step,” expressed Smits.

He explained how losing sight of the mental, physical, social and spiritual domains of Comprehensive Airman Fitness left a negative impact.

“We were given these domains to remain resilient,” said Smits. “However, seeing the worst of humanity while deployed caused me to lose my faith for years.”

Smits said it all started to turn around when Hailey, the 35th Fighter Wing pantry coordinator, entered his life and became his support system.

He immediately strengthened his social and spiritual domains upon meeting his now-wife, and he believed he found the best of what the world could offer him.

"I spend a lot of time praying for Doug," explained Hailey Smits, his wife and the 35th Fighter Wing food pantry coordinator. “Building him up is important to me. The sacrifices made for our freedom is something I don’t take lightly, and I work hard to make our household a positive one for him.”

The effect is not lost on him.

“My wife is the reason why I’m still okay and successful in life, showing me a great deal of love and still holding me accountable,” Douglas Smits said beaming. “Us finding each other and being together is divine intervention.”

Douglas Smits is also in the middle of training for the Ironman World Championship, having already completed the Boulder Ironman in 2018.

“Setting goals is a good way to help stay positive and grow as a human being,” said Douglas Smits.

He not only sets the standards high physically but socially as well. He intentionally schedules time with his family and makes it a point to be there for his wife and kids. Douglas Smits and his family take 25 days annually to go to the mountains to ski.

Although Douglas Smits only arrived at Misawa AB earlier this year, his now-sunny nature has already made an impact on his team.

“It has been great having Douglas Smits on my team,” said Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Bobzin, the 35th CES EOD flight chief. “His nickname in our shop is Good Vibes because he brings a positive energy to work every day, making us better.”

Douglas Smits is able to lighten the mood of his Airmen, bringing positivity to the shop in and out of work, while continuing to work on all four domains and being an example for his Airmen.