The Story of Aaron Downing – Behind the Purple Heart

A convoy rides through the streets of downtown Tikrit, Iraq, on July 28, 2007. Inside the lead vehicle, sits then Staff Sgt. Aaron Downing, a security forces Airman working with the Army 82nd Airborne, 89th Military Police Company.

After a long day of training the Iraqi police, Downing and his team are headed back to Camp Speicher.

The convoy weaves through the streets just like any other day of the week.

The team is vigilant despite how routine the day seemed, however, they have no idea just what they are about to drive into.

The vehicles briefly stop at the corner of Saddam Boulevard and Business One to make a left hand turn. The lead vehicle makes the turn and the rest follow.

As the fourth vehicle makes the turn, Downing loses his memory. Moments later, he regains consciousness and emerges from the wreckage of the first vehicle with a ringing in his ears. He sees the vehicle; its entire engine department demolished from the blast. Before he has time to assess what just happened, adrenaline takes over.

He jumps into action.

“I directed the driver to move out of the kill zone 10 more feet before the engine gave out. There was some sporadic gunfire after we moved out of the kill zone,” said Downing. “That’s when I called for support over the radio.”

A truck arrives and Downing picks up a bulky tow bar and links it to the convoy lead. Once connected, the tow truck drags the shattered vehicle back to Camp Speicher.

Once they arrive at the camp, Downing along with the rest of the team are evaluated for injuries.

Downing later learns that his team was attacked by an improvised explosive device. Two 155 artillery rounds of 15 gallon cylinder propane were linked to a command wire that detonated three to four feet away from the convoy lead and totaled the engine compartment of the vehicle.

With his quick thinking and training, Downing was able to get his team back to safety.

“Even though I wasn’t in the right state of mind, training and muscle memory kicked in,” said Downing. “We did what we were trained to do, which was recovering the vehicle and assessing any wounded.”

After the IED event in July of 2007, Downing was in the close proximity of nine more IED incidents.

“I didn’t expect to be a part of that many IED events,” said Downing. “Honestly, you never know what you’re going to expect. You go into a deployment expecting the worst and hoping for the best.”

After his deployment to Iraq, Downing did two tours to Afghanistan.

Traumatic events within deployments, like IED blasts, can create a heavy emotional and physical toll on the body. To keep up with the demands of the mission, Downing found himself turning off his emotions.

“In certain points during deployments, you pretty much have to shut off your emotions,” said Downing. “You have to go numb to get the mission complete. It’s kind of mandatory.”

Although he said shutting off emotions was easy, Downing has had some difficulty adapting back to the real world.

“The hard part is turning it back on when you get home,” said Downing. “Seven years after the fact, I’m still trying to do that. I’m not the least bit ashamed that I have sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder for seven years on and off.”

In between his deployments in 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2013, Downing has had to balance his treatment with his deployment requirements.

“I couldn’t handle the thought of someone going in my place,” said Downing. “If something were to happen to someone whenever it was my time to go and fight, I don’t think I could live with myself. When it was my time to go, I went.”

Seven years after his deployment to Iraq, Downing received a Purple Heart for his actions during his 2007 deployment in a ceremony Sept. 5, 2014, at Little Rock Air Force Base. Today, Downing, now master sergeant, works with the 19th Security Forces Squadron here as the weapons and tactics superintendent.

Although Downing has had many experiences in his military career, his perspective has changed thanks to help of his treatment.

“It’s given me a different outlook on life,” said Downing. “It’s slowly helping me reconnect with my family and friends. It’s helping me from pushing people away. I’m learning a lot of coping techniques that help with functioning in society. Am I there? No. Will I ever be there? I don’t know. But, I’m hopeful. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be continuing my treatment.”

By Airman 1st Class Mercedes Muro
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Master Sgt. Aaron Downing, a 19th Security Forces Squadron weapons and tactics superintendent displays his Purple Heart Dec. 10, 2014, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. During his deployment to Iraq in 2007, Downing was wounded when his convoy was attacked by an improvised explosive device. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mercedes Muro)

Master Sgt. Aaron Downing, a 19th Security Forces Squadron weapons and tactics superintendent, was struck by an improvised explosive device blast while riding in a convoy during his deployment to Iraq in 2007. In 2014, Downing was awarded a Purple Heart by Lt. Gen. Carlton Everhart, 18th Air Force Commander, for his wounds during his deployment to Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mercedes Muro)

Master Sgt. Aaron Downing was deployed to Iraq in 2007 to train the Iraqi police force. During his deployment, Downing was wounded when his convoy was attacked by an improvised explosive device. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. Aaron Downing sits in a Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter in 2013 at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Downing and his partner were conducting aerial reconnaissance of enemy crossing points. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, 18th Air Force commander, thanks Master Sgt. Aaron Downing, a 19th Security Forces Squadron noncommissioned officer-in-charge of operations for his and his family’s service and sacrifices Sept. 5, 2014, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. Downing was recognized during a Purple Heart presentation for injuries he sustained from an improvised explosive device while in a deployed location July 28, 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Scott Poe)

Master Sgt. Aaron Downing, a 19th Security Forces Squadron weapons and tactics superintendent displays his Purple Heart Dec. 10, 2014, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. During his deployment to Iraq in 2007, Downing was wounded when his convoy was attacked by an improvised explosive device. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Mercedes Muro)

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Jose J. Sanchez, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Defender Magazine, USAF Honor Guard, Bolling AFB, Washington DC, 416th SFS, Griffiss AFB, NY, 89th SFS, Andrews AFB, MD