Chico Iraq War vet survives to fight another day
In the instant that the U.S. Army Chinook helicopter exploded into a thousand pieces outside Fallujah, Iraq, Rigoberto Oceguera fell 130 feet from the sky.
Two fellow soldiers found him among the strewn wreckage and struggled to lift a large piece of the helicopter off his crumpled body. The impact from the fall had cracked his pelvis, popped an eye out of its socket, filled his lungs with blood and damaged his spleen so badly it would later be removed.
And Oceguera’s brain had moved within his skull, resulting in a permanent condition known as traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Oceguera, a Chico native, joined the Army in 2000 with the hope of making its elite tae kwon do team. But before he could qualify, the Army sent him to Iraq.
On the November day in 2003 that he was to begin his midterm leave, he overslept and missed his helicopter out of Iraq. So he climbed onto a second chopper. But this one was hit by a missile in an attack that injured 26 soldiers and killed 16.
Today 24-year-old Oceguera is back in Chico. After a difficult and painful recovery, his physical wounds have healed, but he lives a daily struggle with his brain injury.
According to estimates by mental health professionals, the number of soldiers like Oceguera with TBI has increased dramatically over previous wars. New technologies, such as Kevlar vests and helmets, help soldiers survive blasts and impacts that previously would have killed them; but the new technology does not prevent brain injuries.
Ironically, Oceguera’s injuries did help him achieve his life-long goal. With the disability compensation he receives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he runs a tae kwon do studio on Mangrove Avenue.
Oceguera’s passion for tae kwon do remains one of the few threads connecting him to his pre-accident days. Tae kwon do took him down the path that led to his injury, but the activity’s mental discipline may have also saved his life.
“I love the sport,” Oceguera said of the Korean martial art. “It gives me a good feeling. I like fighting, but in tae kwon do you bow first. It’s respect. Most sports don’t have that stuff. Korean culture is so beautiful.”
Speaking over coffee at a local Starbucks, Oceguera explained that he initially liked kung fu. But one morning, when he was 9 years old, he saw tae kwon do Olympic sparring on TV.
“I fell in love with it.”
Due to his brain injury, Oceguera still has difficulty with his memory, but he has slowly been able to recall parts his youth. The son of a Mexican-American mother and Mexican immigrant father, he said his family struggled to get by with the help of welfare checks while he was growing up. It was hard, he remembered, but like the many other challenges he has faced, he thinks it has only made him stronger.
He said that as a student at Pleasant Valley High School, he was determined but never fully focused on academics. In fact, he didn’t like school; he was “slow,” and felt out of place, “like a lost puppy.”
During those high school years, he turned to the ethics of tae kwon do for structure and inspiration in his life. He trained diligently and showed promise, winning several medals in the California State Junior Championships.
At the time, all he did was “eat, sleep and do tae kwon do,” he said.
“I would go to tae kwon do straight after school. I would train in the morning by myself, shadow kicking. Tae kwon do is very disciplined, and the other kids were smoking pot. I was totally different.”
Wary that college life would hold more of the same, he chose a different path. He joined the Army in 2000, just after his high school graduation. Recruiters didn’t convince him to enlist—he’d stumbled across a Web site featuring an elite Army tae kwon do team.
He joined the Army specifically to be on that team and dreamed of one day competing in Olympic sparring, just as he’d seen on TV years before.
Oceguera seemed well on his way in this quest. He thrived in the disciplined environment of military life. Though at first he didn’t make the first tier tae kwon do team, he spent a year in Korea instructing and training with the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division tae kwon do team and participated in an open international tournament in 2002.
The progress toward his goal, however, would prove short-lived. Oceguera drove home to Chico for Christmas 2002, after again trying to make the tae kwon do team that had originally attracted him to the service.
When he returned to the military base in Colorado Springs, his hopes of making the team crushed. Not only was he not going to compete in tae kwon do; he was headed for duty in Iraq.
“We got orders. We got alerted. I was pissed off, ‘cause I had all these things I was doing. I almost got picked [for the team]. But, I told myself, ‘I’m a soldier. I fight.’ At the time I was so angry. I always told myself, ‘I’m young. I can compete again. I have another year.'”
Oceguera said he was deployed to Iraq in March or April 2003. He reluctantly admitted to feeling unprepared for his tour, but was determined to do his duty.
“I wish we did train more often in the Army. We learn basic stuff, but we’re the Army, not the Marines. The Marines train hard. We shoulda done a little better. But, it doesn’t matter how you train—you can’t stop a bullet.”
Once in Iraq, he spent most of his time on an Iraqi Air Force base. Typically, he and his friends would get up for breakfast in the mess hall, and then spend the day working out in the gym or watching TV and mail-order porn videos. At night he would have eight-hour shifts of guard duty, where he and his fellow guards sometimes drifted off to sleep.
“There was too much talking,” Oceguera said of his time on the base. “It was like a soap opera. Not enough fighting. Talking, and talking. We’d be like, ‘What the hell am I doing? Why are we here?’ some days. Sometimes we were bored, waiting for war … Do you know how bored I was?” he asked, his voice choked with frustration.
In the first few days of November 2003, however, that monotony blasted into a thousand pieces when the Chinook he was riding in was shot down over the heart of Iraq. By a stroke of bad luck or pure coincidence, Oceguera sat in the back of that helicopter. His life changed in that instant.
Oceguera said he had begun his annual “three days of R&R” that day. He planned to go to the small country of Qatar, where he would wear civilian clothes and drink a beer on his midterm leave.
Instead of rest and relaxation, Oceguera nearly died and was changed forever because of a routine mistake.
“I slept in,” he said simply. “I was late for my first helicopter. They bumped me to the second helicopter. The first helicopter that I was [supposed to be] on didn’t get hit. But ours did.”
The last thing he remembers is a Halloween party that happened a few days before what he refers to as “The Incident.” Sometime after the party but before the crash, he re-enlisted in the Army, though he has no memory of when or why. Oceguera doesn’t remember the accident, but after seeing news coverage said, “I can’t believe I lived through that.”
It was snowing when Oceguera first regained consciousness. He woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“I feel like I’m dead and this is a dream. When I woke up in the hospital, it’s like how do you know if you are dead? To this day I think I’m dead, I’m dreaming,” he said. “It’s like I’m dying or already dead and this is my past [flashing] back at the end.”
After a month at Walter Reed, he was transferred to the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, a rehabilitation center for soldiers with brain injuries. Since fewer soldiers are dying in combat in Iraq but more are ending up with brain injuries, the hospital in Palo Alto has been particularly busy lately.
For eight months Oceguera recovered in Palo Alto. He spent five of those months in a wheelchair after doctors replaced a bone in his pelvis with a titanium plate.
Being incapacitated frustrated the normally active Oceguera.
“It was the most boring thing ever in my life,” he said, “because I love training in tae kwon do. I love doing that sport. In Iraq I was like, ‘I want to be in the States to do tae kwon do.’ Then this happened. I was in the wheelchair. It was terrible."’
“The Incident” changed him. Physically, he is scarred, and he says his body constantly feels the effects.
“It feels like a marathon runner, when they finish the race and they’re so tired. That’s how I feel. Always. I feel like I’m 50 years old, and I’m only 24.”
Though wounds to his body have healed, his brain injury is permanent. TBI can cause some fundamental behavioral changes. Symptoms include irritability, poor memory, disinhibition, anxiety and depression. Oceguera has noticed many of these changes himself since the incident.
“I get lost a lot,” he said. “My brain injury made me angry, mean. That’s not me. Ever since my brain injury, I’m not shy anymore. I miss being shy. [It] made me more talkative. I never was like that. I want to be quiet, like myself.”
He paused to consider his changed personality.
“That’s life. I’m already used to it.”
But improvement is possible and his memory is coming back. “It’s getting better every time,” he offered, reassuringly.
Still, after waking up in the United States, Oceguera didn’t remember anything about tae kwon do for at least a week. Then, while watching Kung Fu: The Legend Continues while immobile at the hospital, he suddenly had a revelation. “It was like, ‘I did tae kwon do!’ I didn’t remember,” he said.
After that day, Oceguera once again devoted himself to his art. Practicing tae kwon do in the hallways of the hospital made him stronger and helped him focus. The discipline of tae kwon do told him to never give up.
“Tae kwon do saved my life,” he said matter-of-factly. He sometimes felt like losing hope, but on those occasions he’d tell himself, “I’ll never quit. I never will.”
The strength and discipline he cultivated in his tae kwon do training made him determined to recover. “Everything … makes me stronger. Some people don’t have food, and I think about that. If I quit, and those people don’t quit …” he said, shaking his head, humbled by the thought. “How could I quit?”
Rigoberto Oceguera never gave up, but coming home to Chico was hard and he often got frustrated. He had to relearn the most basic aspects of living a normal, civilian life. His old friends thought he should remember things that he couldn’t, and soon, he said, they “went away.” Now he doesn’t hang out with any of the friends he knew before the incident. Instead, he made new friends who won’t expect or pressure him to be anyone but who he is now.
Still, even two years after the crash, interacting with civilians, even a supermarket checker, can still be a strain for Oceguera. Because his injury is not visible, like an amputated limb or a scar, the people he interacts with often have no idea what he’s been through. They often become impatient or irritated if he needs extra time to process a question or a request.
At first he tried to explain his situation to strangers, but he said that now “I just tell them I’m slow,” because the truth is not something he can just “explain in a couple of seconds.”
He said some people think they can take advantage of him because of his injury, something he deeply resents.
But the most frustrating part for him, Oceguera said, is when people talk down to him, rather than like a normal adult. “Treat me like a normal person,” he pleaded. “Don’t treat me like I’m slow. Don’t treat me like a little kid—I’m 24 years old. Treat me like a man. I fought for your country. Treat me like a person. Just treat me like a person.”
Despite daily difficulties, he has been able to adjust to civilian life. He is now fit, lean and agile. He keeps his dark brown hair cropped close to his scalp. A scraggly beard clings to his square jaw and a mustache dusts his upper lip. When he’s really concentrating hard—something he does frequently since the accident—his forehead wrinkles above his gentle but intense eyes.
Recently, Oceguera has been concentrating on his future as a civilian. He wants to attend Butte College in the spring. He’s considering going into politics one day, because he feels Mexican-Americans aren’t well represented.
For now, Oceguera lives in an apartment with his brother and a cousin. He pays his rent with his disability compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The monthly VA payment, he said, “is enough to survive on.” (See sidebar at right.)
Even so, he briefly considered getting a job at McDonald’s, “just for the heck of it.” But he had a better idea one day when thought of starting his own tae kwon do school.
Soon after, he was driving down Mangrove when he noticed an available building between Third and Fifth avenues. He rented it the next day and opened O.C.'s Tae Kwon Do Center shortly after.
The disability payments helped with start up costs, like uniforms, equipment, business cards, fliers and a computer.
After being in business for nearly three months, O.C.'s Tae Kwon Do Center has 13 students. The studio’s brightly painted window ad offers six weeks of lessons for $65, including a free uniform bearing his logo. He recently joined the Chico Unified School District after-school program to provide free classes for registered kids.
Having a studio is like returning to his high school days before “The Incident"—tae kwon do gives him structure and inspiration. Oceguera finally has the time and space to do all the tae kwon do he wants.
Except now he’s also sharing it. He delights, he said, in teaching children and watching their rapid progress.
So far, his star student is Angela Oceguera—his 12-year-old sister.
After she gets out of school, Angela meets her older brother at his studio, replete with a floor-to-ceiling mirror along one wall and a squishy red mat covering the floor. The American and Korean flags hold a place of honor above the front mirror. Oceguera’s old belts hang on the back wall: white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, red, and first-degree black.
He wears his second-degree black belt and a starchy white uniform as he and his sister bow to each other before starting the private lesson. He calls out instructions and she springs nimbly into action, practicing kicks barefoot across the floor, letting out a small yell with each exertion.
Oceguera provides positive feedback and reassures her every step of the way. “Relax. Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Pick up your heels. That’s it. Good,” he tells her, smiling. He is proud of her and doesn’t attempt to hide his satisfaction.
“When she fights, she does it like art. Like she’s been doing it for 20 years. Everything I told her. She fights like she’s drawing a picture. It’s beautiful,” he beams.
Before his injury, Oceguera trained hard and dreamed of competing one day. But, his goals have changed.
“Ever since the incident,” he said, “I don’t like to dream. I try to live day by day. My dreams went down the drain. At first I was planning to fight again, but I’m tired now. I can’t fight. I have a head injury. I’ll die. I don’t plan on dying again. Not yet.”
Though that old dream seems impossible, he does have a new dream: seeing his sister accomplish what he can’t. This new life is good, but hard.
“I miss the Army so bad,” said Oceguera, “but I don’t want to go back. I want to see my sister compete. I want to see her fight.”
Oceguera will continue to compete. “I’m a person who never quits,” he said. “I go forward, never backwards. I’m always competing. My life is a competition.”