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Brian Ohler Photo by Patrick L. Sullivan

A soldier’s courage: Three tours of heroism and healing

FALLS VILLAGE  — Army veteran Brian Ohler of North Canaan was wounded three times between 2001 and 2013. He told the story of his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of his recovery from brain injury, at the South Canaan Meeting House Tuesday, Sept. 5.

“In the 10 years since I got out I’ve never publicly spoken about it, start to finish.”

Ohler enlisted in July 2001, about two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He said he numbers among his heroes his relatives who served in law enforcement, and at age 17 decided he wanted to join the Army — specifically, the Military Police.

After 9/11, he was still a senior in high school (Oliver Wolcott Tech). “After 9/11 Mom was doing all she could to rip up that contract.”

But it was a done deal. “Uncle Sam had me for six years. I knew I was going overseas.”

Ohler was assigned to Baghdad, Iraq as an MP in 2003. In sharp contrast to what came later, the vehicles the MPs rode in were basic and offered little protection.

“We rode with no doors, no armor.”

As the situation worsened, with insurgent groups emerging, things got progressively dangerous.

“We were fighting an enemy with no uniforms, no line to cross. So it was psychologically taxing. You don’t know where the enemy is. There’s no way to truly know what side they were on.

The insurgents practiced guerilla war.

“They were killing us one by one, five by five.  And while the guerillas lacked training and equipment, they had one significant advantage.

“We were in their home. All they had was time.”

Ohler was wounded on Thanksgiving Day, 2003. An Iraqi police station was under attack, and Ohler’s MP unit responded.

The truck Ohler was riding in hit an improvised explosive device (IED).

Ohler, who was the gunner on the truck, received a “pretty traumatic brain injury.”

But he recovered and was cleared for duty.

In 2007, near Mosul, the MPs were going to the aid of guards when an Iraqi prison was overrun by insurgents.

“We didn’t know that every route was booby-trapped.”

Ohlers vehicle was again hit by an IED, and he suffered a second, more severe brain injury.

He spent some months in recovery in the U.S., and was again cleared for duty.

On Sept. 17, 2011, in Afghanistan, Ohler’s unit was escorting a group of 31 people that included civilians and high-ranking military personnel back from a meeting in a village. 

Three hours travel time away from their base, they were attacked.

“The truck ahead was disabled. We had no air support. It was getting dark.”

“We hunkered down for two and a half long hours.”

Help did come, and the group made it back to the ase safely.

“But in the days that followed it was clear something was not right with my brain.”

Ohler went to the hospital at the American base in Kandahar. On Oct. 4, 2011, he was taking a walk near one of the base entry points when a car bomber attacked.

The explosion blew Ohler against a concrete wall.

Ohler was evacuated to a military hospital in Germany. “They said ‘Sgt. Ohler, your time in Afghanistan is done.’”

At Fort Belvoir near Washington, D.C., Ohler found himself on 11 different prescription medications, including opioid pain medication.

“You name it, they were giving it to me.”

One night, Ohler said, he looked at the pill bottles lined up on the nightstand and wondered if this was going to be his future.

“I could no longer accept it. No way I can go home and live on this stuff.”

So he prayed for a sign, something to tell him what to do.

“After an hour, I heard a resounding voice that just said ‘love me.’”

“It was an indescribable voice. I had no idea what that meant.”

But the next day he informed his doctors he was refusing his medications.

“All I had was the power of knowing that somebody said ‘love me.’ I would spend the rest of my life honoring that.”

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