Aiding veterans his job and his mission for Silver Star recipient
Silver Star recipient ensures they get all possible benefits
March 3, 2013 5:00 AM
Brian Sheetz was awarded a Silver Star for bravery in Iraq in 2006. A hand injury earned him his Purple Heart.
By Sally Kalson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He spends his days helping veterans, their families and/or survivors get all the benefits they're entitled to under state and federal law. But for Brian Sheetz, the work is not just a job; it's also personal.
Wounded in Iraq in 2006 and awarded a Silver Star for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States," he is receiving benefits himself and knows what the extra support can mean to a family.
Mr. Sheetz, 48, of Lemont Furnace in Fayette County, is a service officer at the Pennsylvania Department of Military Veterans Affairs. He works out of the Adjutant General's Office in the Moorhead Federal Building, Downtown.
Explaining his job, he points to a 4-inch-thick manual that de-fines what benefits are available to whom, everything from Agent Orange for Vietnam vets to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"After two years here I'm still learning," he says, fanning through pages marked by an occasional sticker. "There are lots of benefits I knew nothing about." Benefits include special monthly compensation for lost limbs, vision and hearing, and monthly payments to eligible survivors of a veteran who dies.
From his office on the 16th floor, the view is a lot more expansive than the one Mr. Sheetz had from inside an Army tank in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.
In 2005, his Pennsylvania National Guard unit was called up and sent to Camp Habbaniyah in Al-Anbar Province. Mr. Sheetz, an Army specialist, was a loader aboard an Abrams tank that patrolled Highway 10, nicknamed IED Alley for all the improvised explosive devices that made it a deadly route.
During an ambush on Feb. 27, 2006, an enemy grenade landed inside the tank. Mr. Sheetz grabbed it, putting himself between the grenade and the crew. As he threw it out of the hatch, the grenade exploded, hurling shrapnel into his face and hand.
"I remember throwing it outside and seeing it detonate, but not picking it up," he said.
Wounded and bloody, he was flown by medical helicopter to a battalion aid station and then a military hospital, where doctors removed some, but not all, of the shrapnel in his hand and head. A week later he returned to his unit, unable to do much at first, then working as a radio operator and then a tank driver for the remaining two months of his deployment.
The citation accompanying his Silver Star says it is for "exceptionally valorous achievement" and "heroic actions" that "saved his fellow soldiers' lives as he was wounded. His undaunted concern for his comrades at the cost of permanent injury was above and beyond the call of duty."
The attack left him with an injured right hand and wrist. He has Kienbock's disease, which breaks down the small bones of the wrist due to lost blood supply, and mild-to-moderate brain trauma. He still can feel the bump on his skull where a piece of shrapnel remains, and other bits were too small or too hard to reach.
"I can get through a metal detector but I can't have an MRI," he said, showing the Veterans Affairs medic alert bracelet on his wrist.
After returning from Iraq, Mr. Sheetz worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections at State Correctional Institution Greene in Waynesburg as a food service instructor and in the warehouse, then as a benefits adviser for the Pennsylvania Veterans of Foreign Wars before being hired for his current job.
Looking at his Silver Star -- actually a gold-colored medal with a tiny silver star in the center -- Mr. Sheetz said that having it feels "weird."
"At times it's hard to comprehend that I was there, I was in a shooting war," he said. Denise Sheetz, his wife of 24 years, displays the medal at home alongside his Purple Heart, awarded for being wounded while serving.
"It was hard coming back from a state of elevated awareness," Mr. Sheetz said. "From the moment you start training you have to keep your eyes open. Turning that switch off is hard."
Retired now from the military, he said he appreciates things he once took for granted. "Good coffee, hot showers, fresh fruit and vegetables, a clean change of clothes, uninterrupted sleep."
He thinks about buddies hit by gunshots or IEDs, with PTSD and other psychological wounds, and feels good about helping veterans get the help they've earned and deserve.
"It's very rewarding," he said. "You see the financial hardships in their claims, and you know these benefits mean they can keep the house, put food on the table and toys under the Christmas tree."