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Park City honors families of wounded soldiers

Published December 19, 2009 5:48 pm

PTSD » Veterans say the worst injuries strike the mind.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For Bradley Chidester, it's dead animals on the side of the road. For Joe Perez, it's odors rising from the trash.

Such everyday sights and smells can trigger anxiety attacks so severe these Iraq War veterans re-experience harrowing scenes they survived in Iraq, sometimes forgetting that they're back home.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is a big battle. It's a daily battle," said Perez, 43, who lives in Logandale, Nev.

His and Chidester's military service ended after suffering major blast injuries that left them hospitalized for months.

Park City Boy and Girl Scouts on Saturday morning honored the Chidester and Perez families at a flag-raising ceremony in front of the historical Old Miners Hospital. In partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project, a new charity called Christmas Can Cure is feting the families for a long weekend in the snow, thanks to donated services from local hospitality providers.

"We hope to put a name, a face and a story to our vets' incredible contribution," said host Greg Lee, an executive with Eureka Resort Casino in Mesquite, Nev. "As hoteliers, we serve our veterans by doing what we do best: giving them a relaxing vacation away from everyday challenges and the opportunity to unwind and re-energize with friends and loved ones."

The families' agenda included tubing at Soldier Hollow with Midway school children, special programming at the National Ability Center, a Monday reception at the Swaner Nature Center, and accommodations, courtesy of Resorts West.

Both veterans are ambulatory after long recoveries from injuries that left scars on their faces. But the deeper scars are unseen.

Their families say PTSD has had a far greater impact on them than the physical injuries. Thousands of others carry this burden. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 20 percent of Iraq veterans and 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans suffer PTSD.

"My biggest fear is these families falling apart," Perez said.

"I went from Superman to ... ," he said, trailing off onto another subject, "to the worst thing you can think of. Put that in," he instructed a newspaper reporter.

He joined the Marines in 1988, then left the military to start a family and now has three children. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center brought him back to active duty.

He served in the initial Iraq invasion in March 2003 in a military police unit and was injured three months later at Abu Graib prison, which was struck by mortar fire on a near-daily basis that June. The day a mortar blast injured him, he was fighting to quell a prison riot. Earlier, he had watched victims of Saddam's regime exhumed from mass graves at what had been the dictator's prison.

Chidester enlisted in the Army right out of high school in St. George in 1999. He deployed to Iraq in November 2003.

He was manning the .50 caliber gun atop a Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored vehicle, on Oct. 5, 2004, while patrolling Mosul. A suicide attacker rammed the left side of Chidester's vehicle with a car rigged with two artillery shells.

"There was this white flash, brighter than the sun," he recalled. A hail of shrapnel tore up the left side of his upper body. "It feels like an earthquake in your organs."

A piece of metal the size of his fingernail remains in his left biceps, intractably imbedded between nerve and muscle. He spent a year in a hospital recovering from brain injuries and regaining the use of his arm.

The Chidesters, who have four girls, returned to Utah, now living in Fountain Green, east of Nephi. Chidester studied for an associate's degree at Snow College, but it was a tough road, literally, because the 20-mile stretch of State Route 132 to Ephraim is strewn with animal carcasses, said his wife Chante.

Chidester suffered his injury while in a vehicle, and road-killed animals remind him of the human bodies that were a common sight along Iraqi roads. Once he endured an anxiety attack while driving with the family and pulled over so Chante could take the wheel.

"He had a full-blown seizure. It's scary, especially for the girls," she said. "It's one of the hardest war injuries."

Chante was grateful for the kind treatment her family was getting this weekend, but doesn't know why her family was selected.

"It's nice to know others appreciate what we're going through as a result of Brad's service to our country," she said. "This validates our struggles."

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