Nov. 10, 2021
Combat veteran and VCU Nursing student charts new path to connect with people and help them heal
Purple Heart recipient Benjamin Shields has experienced trauma and tragedy. Those moments have instilled in him a strong sense of compassion for others.
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Eerily quiet. That’s how Benjamin Shields remembers that October day in 2007 on Firebase Wilderness in Afghanistan.
The small Army base was a joint U.S.-Afghan outpost, home to the 473rd Calvary of the 82nd Airborne. The base, Shields said, was on one of the main supply routes from Pakistan to Afghanistan, known as “the death or KG pass.” It was surrounded by mountains, and it felt like soldiers were basically “sitting in a bowl,” said Shields, now a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing student. Rocket fire was not unusual. The underlying feeling was one of fear.
“I feared daily,” Shields said. “The analogy is like going out to a remote campground with 50 to 60 people and everywhere around you is hostile. The leader from your camp says we have intel and there are 150 people close to the area planning an attack.
“Imagine being surrounded by people that want to do harm to you. You get anxiety. It was constant. We didn’t know when or where an attack would happen.”
When the attack did come on that October day, it escalated quickly. An Army specialist trained in welding and vehicle maintenance, Shields was servicing a Humvee. Another soldier was working under the vehicle. The first rocket fired by the enemy landed about 30-40 feet away.
White phosphorous exploded on impact “like huge, loud flickering fireworks. Shrapnel flies everywhere and burns things,” Shields said.
He suffered burns on his right arm from the explosion. Fueled by adrenaline and training, his first concern was not about himself but rather the soldier working under the Humvee.
“As soldiers, we are concerned about everybody else and not ourselves,” he said. “The first thing I did was to check to see if he was OK.”
Deep fears, strong character
Benjamin Shields gained his first understanding of real compassion early in his military service when he was deployed for 30 days to New Orleans to provide emergency assistance and relief after Hurricane Katrina.
His team was assigned to clean up an elementary school near the French Quarter. Shields worked tirelessly for more than 12 hours each day for six days. When the job was finished, the school’s assistant principal spoke to the unit.
“I will never forget the gratefulness she had that day. It was just cleaning the school, but I felt the emotion she had and I carry that with me,” Shields said. “Instantly, I realized that by selflessly serving others it filled my emptiness with purpose and happiness. For the first time, I felt pride in what I was doing and it came from helping others and changing someone else’s life.”
Shields joined the Army at a rocky time in his life. He was floundering in a sea of resentment and confusion connected to his upbringing. His parents divorced when he was 5, and he spent years bouncing between households.
“I was going to four or five different schools. I was never in one place at one time,” he said. “Never having routines, which are important at that age, and not having friends for an extended period of time was tough and very challenging.”
Shields was 12 when his father was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a mental health condition that includes both schizophrenia and a mood disorder.
“My dad would have phases of mania and depression. That was hard for a child who didn’t really understand what was going on,” Shields said. “Plus, my mom neglected everyone but herself at that point in her life.”
His father twice tried to commit suicide while Shields was in high school. In 2006, a year after Shields joined the military, his father took his own life.
Changing life for the better
Shields said he enlisted in the Army because he was struggling in college.
“I was very irresponsible after I graduated from high school. I was a mess. I didn’t take accountability for my failures in school,” he said. “I didn’t have many options. I couldn’t hold a job. I didn’t have money to pay for school. I had to do something to become more disciplined, something that was worthwhile and fulfilling.”
Being in the Army represented more than just a steady job.
“It was more about my development. I always made an excuse as to why I couldn’t be successful. I needed something to change me as a person for the better,” he said.
“I realized that by selflessly serving others it filled my emptiness with purpose and happiness. For the first time, I felt pride in what I was doing and it came from helping others and changing someone else’s life.”Benjamin Shields
Shields’ service did change him for the better. In 2009, he was promoted to sergeant. He received a Purple Heart after the rocket explosion on Firebase Wilderness, an attack both he and his fellow soldier working under the Humvee walked away from. But Shields’ experiences also left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He noticed his PTSD about four months after returning from Afghanistan in 2008.
“You try to learn to survive over there and that frame of mind is not a good mentality to have when you are back in the U.S.,” he said. “A good majority of the time after you get back home you are transitioning from the tempo and environment of combat. A few months after I got back, I had problems socially.”
Shields’ wife, Erica, had a difficult time understanding his PTSD.
“When you go to combat, you are likely not coming back the same person you were, for good or bad,” he said. “Spouses have expectations that you will be the way you were when you left.”
Shields’ experiences have instilled in him a strong sense of compassion.
“What I do know is that I have the capacity to empathize with people and establish rapport with people that are having a difficult time,” he said. “I want to try to use my PTSD to help others struggling. When I can connect with people, it can have a profound effect on helping them in the healing process.”
‘I will never stop trying to do better and be better’
Shields came to VCU in May after earning his bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia State University. He considered medical school but felt nursing was a better fit.
“Medical school was going to be four to eight years, and I needed to find something where I felt like I was contributing to other people’s health and helping to get them healthy,” he said. “Plus, there are a lot of options in the nursing field.”
He chose the Accelerated B.S. in Nursing program. Shields is on track to graduate in December 2022. After graduating, he is interested in possibly going back to school to become a nurse practitioner.
“The accelerated nursing program is a fast-paced program, and I love that type of high-stress, high-pace environment,” he said.
He enjoys the clinical experience, talking with patients and interacting with them.
“It’s the satisfaction of knowing I am going to do everything I can to make this patient’s life better. That coincides with the sense I had with the assistant principal in New Orleans,” he said. “I know that not every outcome will be like that, but whatever I have to do to help others, I am going to do now. It’s really just being with patients and providing them comfort and hope.”
Shields always thought he wanted to work exclusively with veterans. He still does want to work with them, but he wants to work with other patients as well. He minored in psychology at Virginia State and believes that will also help him better understand and empathize with others.
“I will never stop trying to do better and be better,” he said. “I think I can make a bigger impact with people who are going through difficult times than if I hadn’t gone through the experiences that I have.
“We all have the opportunity to use our experiences in positive ways and that’s what I am trying to do.”
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