To honor all who served along with her
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 11, 2011 1:50 AM
Retired Master Sgt. Tina Jorae chokes back tears as she talks about the attack on her base that led to her Purple Heart ceremony at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base late Friday morning.
The floor was hers but she was at a loss for words.
There were too many tears falling.
The standing ovation had taken her aback.
She still didn't feel like she deserved the recognition a group had just bestowed upon her.
But after a long pause -- and a deep breath -- Master Sgt. Tina Jorae talked briefly about the experience she characterizes as "the scariest moment of my life."
And she thanked the dozens who showed up late Friday morning to watch an Air Force colonel pin the Purple Heart on the uniform her injury will prevent her from ever putting on again.
It was Aug. 15, 2009, and Jorae was in her "living container" -- a small room with walls that consisted of a one-inch Styrofoam board nestled in between two sheets of aluminum -- on a base in Kabul, Afghanistan.
She had no idea that a car packed with explosives was speeding toward the installation gate -- that the suicide bomber driving it would, within moments, detonate them.
"My living container wasn't built to withstand something like that," she said. "So when it happened, the wall caved in and I just flew."
But in the minutes after the blast, the airman felt no pain.
So with the knowledge that others were seriously wounded, she began clearing the building -- and even carried a traumatized soldier to the medical facility she would visit hours later when a "shooting pain" made its way down her right leg.
"He asked me, the medic, why I was there and I was like, 'I was in Aztec Building when the explosion happened. It blew me back,'" Jorae said.
But the doctors were busy treating those with injuries that were far more visible.
So Jorae left the clinic with a prescription -- and instructions to return if the pain did not subside.
Several days later the medicine was gone, but the discomfort was just as intense.
"The doctor looked at me and said I probably had a slipped disc, but he couldn't confirm it. He said I needed an MRI," she said. "I only had a month left (in my tour) so I just decided to put up with the pain. I'm the type of person that doesn't like to be an inconvenience."
But three months after her return from theater, an MRI revealed that Jorae had, indeed, suffered a slipped disc during the attack.
"The doctor said, 'You need surgery,'" she said. "He said, 'If you fall again ... the pain you're experiencing now could paralyze you.'"
So she went through with the surgery -- hoping that life would return to normal.
But when she awoke, the pain had been replaced with numbness.
And when her condition worsened, a second MRI conducted weeks later showed that three more discs had slipped.
Her Air Force career was in jeopardy.
Not long after she was transferred to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, a retired chief master sergeant offered to nominate Jorae for the Purple Heart.
"I said, 'I'm not about the medal. I just want to get better,'" she said. "I didn't feel like I deserved it. You know, most people associate (the Purple Heart) with an injury they can see. What am I gonna do, show them the scar on my back?"
But after the man explained to her that she would wear the decoration for her comrades -- that it would show the Air Force, and her children, that even those who don't serve on the front lines still face danger when deployed -- she allowed him to fill out the paperwork.
"I did it for the overall good -- and I wanted them to see that this is something that happened to their mom," Jorae said, looking back at her teenage daughters, Jessica and Allaura. "This could have ended up much worse."
In a blast, an airman lost far more than the feeling in one of her legs.
She lost her career to the early retirement forced upon her by an Air Force medical board.
She lost a sense of security she never knew she had until it was replaced with frequent panic attacks.
But more importantly, she lost the will to talk about her service -- to share, with those she comes into contact with, the experience of being an American airman.
"Somebody will ask me, 'Hey were you ever in Afghanistan? Did you ever see anything?' I'll say, 'No,'" Jorae said. "I just really don't want to talk about it."
Not even now, after being awarded one of the nation's oldest decorations.
It is, after all, something she will never quite feel worthy of.