Two GTCC veteran students tell their stories
Their stories resonate with the heart.
They are tales of triumph and of sorrow, of friends made and of friends lost.
What they experienced changed their lives, both in good ways and bad.
These are the war stories of Guilford Technical Community College students, Dustin Bundy and Ricardo Black, both military veterans whose lives and the lives of their families have been affected by war.
Each of their stories provides a small window into their experience as a war veteran, and although years have passed since their service, they still carry with them emotional and psychological wounds from the war.
Their stories deserve to be told, and they deserve to be heard.
In commemoration of Veterans Day, GTCC is highlighting the stories of these two brave veterans and all that they’ve overcome.
— Carla Kucinski/GTCC
ARMY VETERAN HAS NO REGRETS
First came the nightmares.
Three months after Dustin Bundy returned home to the United States from his 15-month deployment in Iraq, images of war began to haunt his dreams. But one night in particular replayed in his mind.
“That night would ring over in my head, over and over,” said Bundy, 30, of Trinity, N.C. “I’d sit there and think about it and think about what I could have done different, and what I should have done different.”
March 2007. Iraq.
Bundy and his team had just entered and cleared a building. He secured a couple soldiers at the front door while another team including Bundy’s squad leader, Chris, climbed a rickety staircase to the roof.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw him, and by the time he got to the top, all I saw was just a bright flash, and it blinded me,” Bundy recalls. “And the next thing I know, I’m face down on the ground. All I heard was like a busy signal on a phone.
“I went upstairs, and when I got to the top, there was a basketball-size hole right at the top of the stairs right where Chris was. I just remember crawling up there and the first thing I smell is blood. By the time I got to Chris, I saw he had his eyes open. He breathed out, but he didn’t breathe back in. I started looking at him and his body was separated. His whole leg was gone, his arm was missing, his insides were hanging out. … There was nothing I could do. I picked him up and carried him out. He didn’t make it.”
Bundy suffered a brain injury from the blast and partial loss of his nose, which was reconstructed a year later. But he also lost a close friend. Chris was only 32.
“Chris was a good friend of mine. I knew his daughters, and I knew his wife. I’d go eat dinner at his house,” Bundy said. “I knew going into the army that combat was dirty and nasty, but you also don’t expect to make the brotherhood and friends that you’re going to make. And you can’t just turn it off and expect it not to affect you on an emotional level because those were some of the best friends I ever made.”
Bundy enlisted in the Army at age 19. After graduating high school, he spent a year trying to figure out what to do next. His first thought was to join the Army. And it turned out, he was good at it.
His first deployment was a 12-month tour in Afghanistan. But Bundy says Iraq was the worst deployment of his life. Half his squad that he deployed with was gone. And for Bundy, it wounded him emotionally, physically and mentally.
Since returning home, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that occurs after experiencing a traumatic event such as combat, a natural disaster, abuse or a serious accident. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 5.2 million adults have PTSD during a given year. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression and irritability.
Bundy’s symptoms began to surface a few months after he returned home from Iraq and realized his life was no longer the same. War had changed him. He struggled returning to civilian life and adjusting to the “new normal.”
“Nothing was the same,” he said. “I wasn’t the same. None of my friends were the same. It was like I started over.”
That’s when the nightmares began. He suffered from horrible dreams, including the nightmare about Chris, and couldn’t sleep at night. During the day, he was so tired and irritable that the smallest thing would set him off. He turned to alcohol to numb the pain, which only exacerbated his symptoms.
“I was bottling it up, and it would just eat me alive from inside out,” Bundy said.
It wasn’t until he met his future wife, Natacia, that he realized the severity of his symptoms. He’d sleep walk at night, thinking he was back in combat reliving his experiences. One night, he dragged Natacia under the bed to protect her from warfare and screamed in her face to stay down. Terrified, she grabbed their kids and left the house.
“That was actually my turning point to seek help,” Bundy said. “I wasn’t going to do anything but destroy my new family had I not sought help.”
With encouragement from his wife, Bundy saw a psychologist and psychiatrist and started taking medication to relieve his symptoms. It’s not a cure, but it’s helping. Now he averages two to three hours of sleep a night – an improvement. He still sleepwalks sometimes, checking locks on the doors or standing guard at his wife’s bedside at night. But now, he says, he has more control over his symptoms.
“Before I didn’t feel like I had any control,” he said. “I still have nightmares. I still have residuals from everything that’s happened, but that’s what makes me who I am. I don’t think they’ll ever go away, but it’s how I let them affect me.”
Bundy medically retired from the Army in Nov. 2011. He had planned on staying in the military longer, making it a full-time career, but he says God had another plan for him. In the fall, he enrolled at GTCC to pursue a degree in avionics, a field that sparked his interest while he was stationed at an air force base.
“When you’re in the infantry, you don’t learn any job skills other than the infantry,” Bundy said. “I couldn’t come out and get a job doing anything. But I don’t have any job skills and that’s the problem. That’s why I chose to come back to school.”
Assimilating to college life has been tough at times for Bundy. Because of his PTSD, he gets anxious when he’s on campus. Crowds make him uneasy, and in most of his classes he selects a seat close to an exit and keeps to himself most of the time. But he’s working on it. In the classroom, he’s not shy about participating, and he uses every opportunity to talk about his military experience – the good and the bad. That’s the leader in him, and he credits the Army for molding him into one.
Despite all he’s endured, he looks back at his military service without regret.
“I’ve never had a regret in my life,” he says. “I made the decision I made, I stuck with it and did what I had to do. I think what makes our country great and our military great is the fact that it is a voluntary force. You have people who are willing to put their life on the line and put their lives on hold and deploy all around the world to protect the views and the beliefs of the people of this country. That’s what makes this country great is the fact that there are people willing to do that.”
VETERAN CARVES NEW PATH TOWARD HEALING
After years of struggling with PTSD, Ricardo Black is looking to the future.
Ricardo Black learned he was going off to war at age 18.
The news came during his first few weeks of Navy boot camp. He was heading to the Persian Gulf.
“Reality didn’t really set in until I was actually over there,” said Black, 42 of Greensboro. “You hear about it on TV, but actually being in the midst of it is something totally different. You’re awakened out of your sleep to prepare for battle.”
A native of Oxford, N.C., Black joined the Navy in 1990 after graduating high school. College didn’t interest him, and he was determined to leave his small hometown. The military was his best option.
“To be a part of that would be to be a part of history,” Black said.
Athletic and mechanically minded, being in the military came easy to Black, and he discovered a leader inside of him.
“I’m very military gung-ho,” Black said. “I think every kid coming out of high school should do at least two years. Why? Discipline. It teaches you work ethic, responsibility.”
But nothing prepared him for the emotional and mental aftermath he would experience.
“It left a scar on me.”
Black’s six to nine-month tour in the Gulf War turned into one year. When he signed up for the Navy, he didn’t think he’d see the thick of combat. But in the Gulf that changed the moment the ship he was stationed on became the medical ship.
“We were pulling dead bodies out of the water,” Black said. “And at one time it was almost like an all-day thing. Bloody bodies. Bodies that are almost beheaded. We did that for about two weeks. Even the older guys who witnessed this and had to pull bodies out of the water, it had an effect on them.”
By the end, Black says he pulled out of the water 25 to 30 of his fellow American soldiers. He reached a point where he had to desensitize himself in order to carry out the tasks he was assigned.
“You kind of detach yourself going out there. You have to,” he says.
Within six months of returning to the United States, Black joined the Marines and was sent back to the Persian Gulf. But this time, Black said it was a completely different experience.
“I was actually out there in the thick of things,” he said. “You really have to remove yourself from the norm to actually go out there and defend yourself. Period. It’s killed or be killed. That’s something you can never get used to. It was just something I knew I had to do.”
This time Black was stationed in the Gulf for two years. For one of his missions, Black was assigned to Rwanda where his team provided security and evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.
“We went out into the fields where the two different sides were fighting each other. Where the people from the embassy needed to go for the evacuation was in the middle of where they were fighting. We had to go out there and patrol that area and prevent them from fighting. .. Your mind is pretty much, ‘Okay, we have this to do, let’s get it done.’ It’s more psychological than it is physical.”
When Black came out of the Marine Corps, he continued to carry with him images of warfare.
“One of them was three of my buddies getting blown up. That just stands out in my mind,” he said.
Sometimes, the images emerged in his dreams. Other times, they would spring to the forefront of his mind while he was awake. Over time, the incidents worsened.
“I could be sitting and watching a comedy on TV or something and my living room or bedroom would become the desert and it would take me a couple minutes to snap out of it,” he said. “Certain incidents would take me right back. I flashbacked to the Gulf or Rwanda.”
The flashbacks got so bad that Black resigned from the San Diego Police Department where he worked as an officer for four years. He continued to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, thinking it would help him cope.
“For a minute there, my life was a total wreck,” Black said. “There was a time when I had a home but was kind of living a nomadic-type life, living the homeless lifestyle. It was just easier. I was cursing the military for teaching me how to survive. I found it okay to hang in front of a liquor store all day and live that lifestyle.”
Then one day, Black had an epiphany. He went home and couldn’t believe what his life had come to. And he told himself, “I’m better than this.” It was the beginning of a long road to recovery. He stopped drinking and checked himself into a hospital where he learned from a psychiatrist and psychologist that what he was suffering from had a name: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I didn’t know what PTSD was,” Black said. “I just thought it’s something that happened in my life that I dream about.”
PTSD is a condition that occurs after experiencing a traumatic event such as combat, a natural disaster, abuse or a serious accident. According to the National Center for PTSD, about 5.2 million adults have PTSD during a given year. Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression and irritability.
Today, Black takes a combination of three medications to alleviate his symptoms. If he doesn’t, he gets irritable and he can’t sleep. Sometimes he’ll patrol the house or yell out military orders in his sleep.
“I still have anxiety, but it’s nowhere near like it used to be,” he said. “And I don’t think any medicine can stop all of that from happening. To do that, I wouldn’t be human. You can’t just wipe away someone’s memory.”
For the last year, Black has been concentrating on making his life better. He’s trying to put his past behind him and look to the future.
In summer 2013, he enrolled in GTCC majoring in human services technology with a concentration in substance abuse. One day, he and his wife would like to offer housing for displaced veterans. It’s something they’re both passionate about. In order to do that, they’ll need various degrees. GTCC is Black’s starting point. After he graduates, he plans to pursue another degree in social work or case management.
In addition to being a full-time student, Black and his wife established a church, New Birth Deliverance and Inner Healing Ministries, Inc., in High Point, where they also serve as pastors. God, he says, helped him turn his life around.
“I’m not that person anymore.”
– Photos and story by Carla Kucinski/GTCC
Nov. 7, 2013