One Airman’s story of dealing with PTSD

Story and photo by Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Daniel Scarola, 435th Security Forces Squadron unit deployment manager, shares his story at the storytellers event May 10 on Ramstein. Scarola spoke about dealing with deployments and losing friends and family. The storytellers event gave Airmen the opportunity to come together and share their stories
Staff Sgt. Daniel Scarola, 435th Security Forces Squadron unit deployment manager, shares his story at the storytellers event May 10 on Ramstein. Scarola spoke about dealing with deployments and losing friends and family. The storytellers event gave Airmen the opportunity to come together and share their stories

There are two moments in Staff. Sgt. Dan Scarola’s life that make him the person he is today. The first moment was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers fell. The other was a year and a half later, when he found out his mother had breast cancer.

Scarola, a 435th Security Forces Squadron unit deployment manager, grew up 15 minutes from Ground Zero. Many of his family friends were first responders. One of those heroes was close enough to Scarola for him to consider the man an uncle.

That man was one of the first responder on scene, and Scarola found out later he died during the 9/11 attacks.“He was my father’s hockey coach who would volunteer at the fire department on his off days,” Scarola said. “He was the 11th man on scene at ground zero when he was killed. That’s the first moment that defines who I am today.” A year and a half later, in 2003, Scarola and his brother were playing video games when their father came in with disheartening news.

“Our father came into our room, turned the TV off and told us that our mom was still at the hospital,” Scarola said. “She was … diagnosed with breast cancer. We broke down into tears and didn’t know what to do or think. I just wanted to find her, to hug and kiss her, and to tell her everything would be OK.”

After a few months, Scarola couldn’t recognize his mother. She had started chemotherapy and cut her hair. “I fell in love with lacrosse more after my mother got breast cancer. She wasn’t able to come to my games because of all the treatment, so I would put her initials and a cross made out of tape on my face mask,” he said. “She wasn’t physically there, but she was in spirit, and I was playing for her.” Toward the end of Scarola’s high school tenure, he realized he wouldn’t be able to get into college because of his grades. He decided to join the military and told his mother right away.

He thought since the Air Force Academy didn’t accept him, he would try lacing his boots as an Airman. Scarola signed the papers, and in October 2006, was shipped off to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for basic military training.

Following basic training, Scarola went on to security forces tech school, playing war and learning how to do his job. The day he left school, Scarola found out a close friend and mentor was killed in action. “He was my first ever lacrosse coach in summer camp and a freshman at Duke University, one of the best lacrosse players from Long Island, N.Y.,” Scarola said. “To find that he was taken from his family was truly heart breaking because he turned down law school to enlist in the Army.” Losing his mentor was the first time the war felt real to Scarola and not just something seen in movies or on TV.  That thought stuck with him throughout his trip from Texas to Arkansas.

“My sponsor was very respectful and he treated me like a person. He called me by my first name, helped me with my luggage and helped me get settled into my dorm room,” Scarola said. “That was the last time I ever saw him. On May 7, 2007, he was killed in Baghdad, Iraq. For the second time this war got way too real for me.” Scarola wanted to fight in the war, but he had to wait his turn. He got his chance to deploy, but it was to the United Arab Emirates where his mission wasn’t what he expected, but he was known as the most motivated defender out there.

A year later, on May 7, 2009, Scarola volunteered for a yearlong deployment to Iraq to train the Iraqi police. Three months later, Scarola found himself in Baghdad, Iraq, where he was responsible for 12 lives as the lead gunner in a four-vehicle formation. His job was to spot threats, from combatants to roadside bombs.

In addition to being the lead gunner, he was also
responsible for DNA collection. Whenever there was a suicide bomber or an IED blast in the district, Scarola’s squad was the first unit on scene. “The day I’ll never forget on my deployment was the Iraqi election day,” he said. “I’ve never heard so many explosions before in my life, except 4th of July. There was an explosion at one of the election polls that killed 62 people, so my unit went out and I just knew there were things there that I didn’t want to see.

“We dismounted and I started to swab for the bomber’s blood. There were body parts in the area and I became numb, but I still did my job,” Scarola continued. The team finished the job and headed back to base. “On our way back we took the same route we always do, but it wasn’t nearly as busy. We noticed that the Iraqi guards were behaving differently, but we decided to press through the checkpoint anyway,” he said. “As soon as our second vehicle crossed the checkpoint, the guards ran away. We made it about 150 feet past the checkpoint when I saw (the checkpoint) explode.” Scarola’s team sped back to base, where he debriefed the intelligence team about the situation.

“I could have died or become a wounded warrior that day. It really stuck with me. I thank God every day because I made it out of there alive,” he said. Scarola made it back from deployment, but he returned a different person.

“I had a chip on my shoulder; I wanted to be back in combat,” he said. “That was home to me.” The sounds of war echoed in his thoughts. Listening to those sounds were the only thing that helped lull him to sleep. After a while, a couple of Scarola’s friends pulled him aside and mentioned he should seek help.

“I walked into mental health the next day, and six months of one-on-one treatment with mental health brought the worst out of me,” he said. After those sessions, Scarola realized he wanted to give back. He became an instructor at the 435th SFS Creek Defender Course, teaching deploying Airmen skills and techniques that could save their lives.

“After teaching these Airmen for two years I realized this was the most gratifying job I’ve had,” Scarola said.

“I’ve gotten emails and phone calls from people who have come back thanking me for what I’ve done. It was easy for me. Speaking about what I’ve gone through helped my healing process.”

Scarola moved on from the Regional Training Center to become the unit deployment manager for the 435th SFS. Currently, Scarola has applied to the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard where he hopes to give back to the families of deceased service members.


(Editor’s note: This is the second part in an ongoing series where Ramstein Airmen share their stories with the community.)