War hero survives brutal attacks, readies junior Airmen (Woznick's story: part 6 of Gunfighter Defender series)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- It was hot, really freaking hot and, as usual, the smell of death lingered in the desert air.

In the distance, an unassuming old car, typical in Iraq, sped toward the intersection where Tech. Sgt. Francis Woznick and his interpreter were conducting vehicle check-point inspections.

The dust rose as the car sped toward him.

"I'm dead. A freaking vehicle-borne (improvised explosive device) is going to kill me," thought Woznick as brakes screeched and the car slid to a stop.

Screaming for the two men to get out of the car and put their hands in the air, Woznick prepared for the distinct fact that things could spin out of control really fast.

The driver obeyed and put both hands high in the air, and Woznick watched in awe, he said, as the skin literally slid off the man's hands, plopping in puddles onto the ground.

After treating him for severe burns and turning him over to British intelligence officers, Woznick learned that the suspect was allegedly burnt while making IEDs.

"That's karma buddy," Woznick remembers thinking. That may have been a Tuesday, and Monday wasn't much different for Woznick and his two fellow Airmen, who's moniker was Dealer 1-1.

"When we arrived in Iraq, it was still what I like to call 'the Wild, Wild West,'" said Woznick, an 18-year veteran from Seneca Falls, N.Y., currently assigned to the 366th Security Forces Squadron. "I'd seen dead bodies before and it's never pleasant, but this deployment was different."

Woznick, now-Master Sgt. Paul Yetsook and Staff Sgt. Burt Tagaloa were a team who worked closely with the British Army, and would conduct daily outside-the-wire routine security and convoy escort duties in Iraq. Dismounted, or 'foot patrols,' were also routine for the team, who were hit with an IED for the first time only three weeks after arriving in country.

"We adapted quickly," said Woznick. "The enemy had adapted as well and started using explosively formed penetrators, which are IEDs capable of penetrating almost any armor we had - very deadly!"

The Mahdi Army, also known as the Mahdi Militia or Jaish al-Mahdi, were the biggest threat to Woznick's team, and he remembers well the first time those terrorists killed three of his British comrades.

"I remember the Brits rolled out first and we were right behind them," said Woznick, who still struggles with nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder from that day, and many others.

"We had just rounded a bend ... then, boom!" continued Woznick. "An IED hit their vehicle broadside and instantly killed the two Soldiers in the back. It cut them in half. The driver was severely injured and while we called in for a medical air evacuation, the driver also died from massive blood loss."

Woznick and another acted quickly and captured the men who set up, detonated and videotaped the IED attack, and turned the insurgents over to British authorities.

Months went by and the weather changed from brutally hot to a bitter cold. But attacks didn't change with the seasons. In fact, brutality and death continued to plague the Dealer 1-1 squad.

One brisk January morning, Woznick and his squad headed out to escort a convoy headed to northern Iraq.

"It was foggy, real-dense fog, a quarter-mile visibility at best," recalled Woznick. "Our lead vehicle pressed forward about a half mile in front of the rest of us to sweep ahead."

Woznick didn't know yet, but his lead vehicle had gotten in a head-on collision with a dump truck, ejecting the gunner from the turret and instantly killing him, as the roof ripped off the military Humvee and crushed the vehicle commander.

The driver escaped the accident with mere bumps and bruises. With his voice and hands shaking and trying not to get choked up, Woznick recounted the scene.

"After seeing this carnage, I made my way to the passenger side of the dump truck and climbed up to check on the Iraqi civilians," said Woznick. "When I looked inside, I saw a father talking calmly in Arabic, trying to sooth his young son, who was in the passenger seat. That father kept calm and persisted as the life literally slipped right out of his son."

Not wanting to interfere with the intimate moment, Woznick waited and scanned the scene for clues in ways he could help.

The boy suffered such an impact that he was literally missing the back portion of his head and skull, remembered Woznick. I could see his brain and knew there was nothing that could be done.

"He turned grey in front of me," said Woznick, who has no children of his own but often thinks of his younger sister who still lives at his childhood home in Seneca Falls. "There was nothing I could do."

Woznick and the men of Dealer 1-1 conducted many more combat patrols during his deployment. In fact, they found themselves under fire again a mere six days before Woznick was scheduled to leave Iraq.

"We had our replacements out on convoy and were showing them the ropes when, as usual, as we approached a bridge, an IED detonated, missing our vehicles but blanketing us with dirt and dust," said Woznick. "The new squad leader looked at me and I'll never forget the look on his face as he bellows, 'What the shit was that?'"

Woznick, hardened to the chaos of war, just looked at the incoming leader, smiled and said, "Welcome to Dealer 1-1."

After Iraq, the Security Forces career field put Woznick's experiences to good use, making him an instructor at the basic combat convoy course at Camp Bullis, Texas. He later went on to teach at the Security Forces Academy at Joint Base San Antonio.

Woznick said he feels grateful he could help fellow Defenders get ready for war, but sometimes wishes the Air Force did more to identify the struggles he was going through, as he was secretly dealing with significant PTSD symptoms.

His father, who fought as a Marine in Vietnam, first noticed something wasn't right with Woznick and recognized his own PTSD symptoms in his son. He convinced his son that he needed help, so Woznick reached out.

"I was left to my own devises to adjust, and if it was not for my father, I don't think I would have reached out for the help I needed," said Woznick. "It almost cost me my career and friends."

He hadn't returned from war the same man he was when he left.

"I was mad, hostile and mean - quick to anger and didn't like being in closed areas or around a certain type of people without getting on edge," said Woznick. "That was, and still is, a battle. It will always be that way, but I have learned valuable lessons, and have an amazing wife who believes in me and helps me when I need it."

Woznick trained in advanced marksmanship with the Army and Marines, and now serves on a vital position at Mountain Home Air Force Base as an exercise evaluation team member. The hot, hostile roads of Iraq are burnt into his memory and serve as a valuable tool, as he "gets the Defenders here ready for upcoming readiness exercises and war."

Editor's note: This is part 6 of series on 366th SFS Defenders. Be prepared to read the riveting stories of Tech. Sgt. Francis Woznick, Master Sgt. Ryan Glosson, Master Sgt. Brian Wilson, Master Sgt. Robert Simpson, Senior Master Sgt. David Williams, Joshua Williams and other brave Defenders in the coming weeks.