TAMPA — The typical image of American troops in the lethal line of fire in Iraq and Afghanistan usually involves Army soldiers and Marines.
The Air Force folks are the ones in the jets at 30,000 feet, right?
Air Force Capt. Tim O'Sullivan can dispel that notion.
In a ceremony today at MacDill Air Force Base, O'Sullivan will receive a bronze star and purple heart after a roadside bomb nearly killed him March 2 while he rode in a tank in southern Iraq.
The blast knocked him out, leaving him with mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), internal bleeding and a long road of recovery that brought him back to his home base, MacDill. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the Brandon area.
"People don't always realize the Air Force is out there making things happen," O'Sullivan, 37, said on Thursday. "Everybody who is over there is at risk."
From August 2007 until that bomb blast, O'Sullivan worked with Australian and British troops, including the 1 Scots Battle Group, as an adviser to Iraqi forces on things like construction and supply logistics.
On March 2, it was just another routine mission when O'Sullivan joined a convoy of four British Warrior tanks for an 80-minute drive to the outskirts of Basra. O'Sullivan wanted to check that Iraqi troops in the city had adequate ammunition, fuel and other supplies.
Less than an hour into the trip, his tank passed a particularly lethal bomb known as an explosively formed projectile: 80 pounds of explosives that melt copper to penetrate armor.
O'Sullivan never heard the explosion before losing consciousness. "I remember feeling the pressure from the blast wave," he said.
A member of the tank crew thought he was dead. When O'Sullivan awoke, the tank filled with smoke and dust, he saw blood on his leg and his heart jumped.
"The first thing I thought was that I lost an arm or a leg," he said. "I could feel my legs but my mind wasn't processing everything. I thought, 'Oh, no.' Your mind assumes the worst."
The blood, however, was from his Iraqi interpreter. Nobody was killed by the blast, which detonated just several feet from him.
O'Sullivan, who received the worst injuries, eventually flew back to the United States on March 21 — his birthday.
He quickly began treatment at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, the busiest VA hospital in the country and a leading center on traumatic brain injury treatment.
Often called the signature wound of the Iraqi conflict, TBI is as real as any other physical injury. It can be a maddening journey of confusion, memory loss and frightening uncertainty for those who suffer it.
At times, O'Sullivan said, he didn't even realize how TBI affected him. He might leave the house with the door wide open. Massive headaches plagued him. Dizziness made a walk down a hall feel like a ride in an elevator.
At one point, a neurologist asked him to name any animals that came to mind. O'Sullivan was stunned when he couldn't recall one. "And I love animals," he said.
As often occurs with TBI patients, post-traumatic stress disorder is a troubling part of the mental brew. O'Sullivan most felt its effects on Independence Day.
Visiting family in Ohio, he stayed in the basement during fireworks.
"I just can't do fireworks anymore," O'Sullivan said. "The survival instinct kicks in when you hear the boom."
It's too much a reminder of his near miss, as are Florida's booming thunderstorms, which quicken his pulse.
With the help of doctors at Haley, most of the worst symptoms have disappeared. O'Sullivan said he still gets the awful headaches.
O'Sullivan, a 16-year veteran back on duty, is proud of his work in Iraq and feels lucky he escaped more serious injury.
Recently, he talked with his grandfather, who told him about a relative who survived D-Day in World War II. It took the relative six years to get used to fireworks again.
For O'Sullivan that meant one thing: hope. He knows he can get better. He knows the headaches may disappear. And one day, Florida thunder will mean nothing more than rain.