MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --
More than a decade ago, Lt. Col. Kevin Lombardo was in Iraq when the area he was defending was hit by a rocket attack.
The battle smells, the sounds, sights, touch and even the taste from that attack still haunt him on most days.
Reliving the horror of that day over and over--and the fear and emotions that come with it--is what it's like to live with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the battlefield.
In 2007, (then U.S. Air Force Captain) Lombardo deployed as the provost marshal for the 82nd Airborne Division out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq.
"Our charge was to protect COB Adder within the fence line and five kilometers outside the fence line," said Lombardo, 341st Missile Security Forces Squadron commander.
At first, Adder was very busy for security forces at the gate, but nothing they couldn't handle, Lombardo said.
But as the months went on, rocket and mortar attacks were increasing, he said. In one attack, two rockets hit part of the housing area, injuring more than 25 people and damaging 14 housing units.
Even though everyone was shaken, Lombardo said, they were fortunate because everyone survived.
However, on March 12, 2008, that all changed for the young captain.
The attack that changed it all
In response to an attack on Adder's main gate, Lombardo came across an allied vehicle that had been struck by an enemy rocket, engulfing it in flames.
He hastily made his way to the vehicle.
"There was one individual who successfully jumped out of the vehicle, rolled onto the ground and started running to take cover," Lombardo said. "I noticed at the time there was another individual."
The individual in the vehicle was Army Spc. Joel Tavera, one of the U.S. Army Soldiers Lombardo worked with in the joint environment.
Tavera was on fire.
"At that time I jumped out, grabbed a hold of the individual and moved him approximately 30 meters away from the vehicle he was traveling in," Lombardo said. "I went back to the vehicle to see if anybody was inside and there were individuals inside. I tried to get one of them out, but it was already too late."
Lombardo radioed in to the base’s defense operations center and described what was happening. All he heard was back and forth static. He hoped his message was being received.
Lombardo returned to Tavera and assessed his wounds. Tavera was alive, but barely.
"His right leg was blown off, he had severe burns to his entire body, the right portion of his skull was missing and both eyes were burned," Lombardo said. "At that point your training kicks in."
While three to four rocket volleys landed within 200 meters of them, Lombardo, along with two U.S. Army Soldiers who had just arrived on scene, put a tourniquet on Tavera's leg.
Lombardo and the soldiers shielded Tavera with body armor and received a radio transmission--the ambulance was en route, but 20 to 25 minutes away.
"The whole time I was there with Tavera he was conscious," Lombardo said. "He was talking, which is a great sign, because it meant his motor function is still going, and his speech is still going."
"He had a very strong voice, but we knew he was in dire need," Lombardo continued.
Lombardo and the soldiers continued to care for Tavera and got an IV into his arm. The soldiers then went to treat the other individual who was able to escape the vehicle.
All of this was happening as more rocket volleys bombarded the area.
According to Lombardo, a total of 22 rockets were fired that day, most of them exploding within 200 meters from that single impact site.
As the sirens echoed in the distance, Lombardo spoke with Tavera until the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. The ambulance took Tavera and the other injured soldier to the hospital.
"After Tavera was taken by ambulance, that was the last I saw of him while we were in Iraq," Lombardo said. "When you are in a combat zone, you have to go on."
"You take the next mission, and you go. And more missions were coming in for me and my guys, so we were busy taking care of those missions," Lombardo continued. "It wasn't until the end of that deployment to Iraq in 2008 that things started not feeling right for me."
Far from normal
Lombardo returned CONUS to work, to home, to his wife and kids and tried to adjust. However, Lombardo said he felt "far from normal."
"I was having dreams that I couldn't explain," Lombardo said. Dreams that disturbed him. Between that and the way he was feeling he knew something was wrong.
He thought about going to see the professionals at mental health, but had heard of stories where security forces members lost their security clearance or were no longer allowed to carry their weapons.
In some severe cases, Airmen can be medically disqualified from the Air Force if the issues create problems in day-to-day duties. Lombardo had almost 12 years in and didn't want to forfeit that time. So he was worried.
How could he support his family, stay in his career and do his job if he lost these things, he wondered.
But "it" was just getting too bad for him, so he decided to lay it all out on the table with his boss. He went into work and did just that.
"Don't worry about all that, let's get you better," Lombardo remembers his boss saying after Lombardo expressed his fears.
He was stationed at Peterson Air Force Base at the time when he had his first appointments with mental health professionals at the clinic on base.
"The first couple of days of treatment, I have to say, were probably the hardest. I didn't know what to expect and I didn't know how to talk to them. I didn't want to lose my Air Force career," he said.
Lombardo said they planned treatment for him at the mental health clinic, and that is when he learned clinically and physiologically what was happening to him: the dreams, the thoughts playing through his mind over and over.
Lombardo was suffering from PTSD.
"Over the course of a couple of months, I was able to remember all of the incident that happened," Lombardo said. "I was actually blocking out some details of that incident and that's what was causing me not to feel normal."
He continued in his treatment, and still seeks help when he needs it.
Lombardo said with the help his days are better.
The battle on two fronts
Without the help from mental health and wellness professionals, Lombardo said he doesn't know if he would be here today.
"With the guidance and the help of talking to other people who were involved, either in that specific mission or other people who had similar missions, we were able to discuss what exactly I was struggling with," Lombardo said.
"Either the doctors or the assistants were able to connect with me, or they could connect me with other people that I could talk to, who I felt really understood what or how I was feeling," he said.
"Talking to the mental health specialists, by far, saved my career," Lombardo said.
"I have my clearance, I have my weapon and I'm a commander of a unit," Lombardo said. "The stigma of mental health is usually you go there, and you can lose your career, but if I didn't go to mental health and talk to the doctors about my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, I probably would have lost my career."
One thing that happened after the return from Iraq, and during his own long journey towards wellness, was that Lombardo went to see and spend time with Tavera and his family. During this visit, the men furthered their bond and friendship.
Tavera had been gravely injured. After making it to the hospital, he was in a coma for 81 days and remained bed-ridden for many months more.
Lombardo said he watched Tavera go from "barely walking, to talking, to dancing, to enjoying himself," which he said was outstanding.
Lombardo said that as Tavera progressed in health and healed, and dealt with bodily trauma over time, so did he.
Lombardo's story tells the world that fighting in war often means the warfighter comes home only to have another battle--his own PTSD. But on both fronts, Lombardo has saved lives, grown the bonds of family and friends, and fought for peace as his personal destiny.
If you would like to hear Lombardo tell his own story in his own words, please see the 341st Missile Wing public affairs video at
If at any time you, or anyone you know, feel at risk for hurting yourself or others, there are numbers to call.
For help resources, please see below:
Chaplain (non-duty hours) -- (406) 731-3801
Voice of Hope, Great Falls -- (406) 453-4357
Malmstrom AFB Mental Health Clinic -- (406) 731-4451
National Suicide Prevention Hotline -- 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Military One Source 24-7 -- 1-800-342-9647
Malmstrom AFB Military Child Life Consultant -- (406) 224-3813 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Malmstrom AFB Military Family Life Consultant -- (406) 750-8481/8061
Malmstrom AFB Sexual Assault Program Coordinator -- (406) 731-4225
Malmstrom AFB Family Advocacy -- (406) 731-2161
Malmstrom AFB Violence Prevention -- (406) 731-1499