Army National Guard Spc. Crystal Sandor muscled a 5-ton truck through the ragtag roads of Iraq and likely would be dead from an exploding fireball had the 4-foot-10 soldier been just centimeters taller.
She was awarded a Purple Heart, but had to prove to the Army that she deserved it.
Even back home in Ohio, she doesn’t feel much like a soldier.
“What did you do over there?” some gray-haired male veterans in Akron, Ohio, at the Department of Veterans Affairs asked as they sized up her petite frame. “Did you sell Girl Scout cookies?” one asked.
When Sandor’s husband goes to the VA, he gets handshakes and “Thank you for your service” accolades in the waiting room.
Sandor has struggled to get the care she expected from the military since the night she nearly died – June 18, 2004.
She was a driver in a 20-truck convoy during a night mission in Iraq.
She laughs just a little, remembering a conversation with a fellow soldier. She was razzing him for spilling sunflower seeds, a staple during their missions together. Then, a fireball from a roadside bomb came head-on toward their truck.
Sandor woke up pounding on her chest to make sure she was alive. She couldn’t see, couldn’t hear. The voice of a soldier broke the chaos.
“Just keep driving! Just keep driving!”
“If I was that much taller,” Sandor says, putting mere centimeters between her thumb and forefinger, “I wouldn’t be alive.”
After the accident and while still in Iraq, Sandor discovered her superiors lost the paperwork documenting the attack, meaning there was no official record that it ever happened.
“The only reason I have the disability (rating) I have is because I was smart enough to have a video camera on me and we recorded the damage to the truck and we took pictures of everything,” she said. “That is the only reason I have a Purple Heart or disability.”
Since Sandor’s return home in March 2005, she’s been at odds with the Ohio VA system over her treatment.
During her first appointment later that year, she said the VA doctor seemed skeptical of her injuries, treating her as if she never left the base. When she was asked about treatment options, Sandor requested therapy to talk about the attack that injured her. Instead, she left with three prescriptions for anxiety and sleeping. She said she stopped taking the medications because she felt like a “zombie.”
“I don’t think I’ve talked to one female veteran who goes to the VA who has had a good experience, that has been treated and received the care that they deserve,” Sandor said. “I think because the VA has dealt with men for so long, through all the previous wars, they’re not set up to handle females. But we’ve been at this war for 10 years, it’s about time they figure it out.”
She tried group therapy at the VA, but was placed in an all-male group. She left each session feeling guilty, not better, about herself because of the horror stories the men told.
For the last eight years, Sandor has bounced between her civilian doctor and the VA to prove the extent of her injuries — such as the post-traumatic stress disorder the VA denied, but her civilian doctor insists she has, along with ringing in her ears, severe arthritis in her knees, hearing and vision loss, herniated disks, a deviated septum and a brain lesion. She has a 40 percent disability rating.
She tries to dismiss her concerns with the VA, keeping her focus on her 17-month-old daughter and her husband’s National Guard unit, where she volunteers to help other families. She also is pursuing a degree in public health from Kent State University, where she used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for online classes.
It’s been nine years since a roadside bomb nearly killed her, but her PTSD continues to creep into her civilian life both physically and emotionally.
“A lot of people are still like, ‘Why does it bother you? It’s been eight years, get over it,’ ” Sandor said. “It doesn’t go away, it’s with you the rest of your life. I mean, the severity of it might – how much you remember of it might — but that feeling, it’s always there.”