Tim is one of the earliest of today’s wounded warriors to have joined America’s war on terrorism. In fact he would have been inducted into the Army before the end of the day on 9/11 had the planes not all been grounded that morning when the towers fell. By the time his enlistment was up, he was a Sergeant and a combat veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Still contending with the pain from wounds sustained in Iraq, he is on course to graduate from Texas State University next year, becoming one of the earliest beneficiaries of the “Post 9/11 G.I. Bill.” Here is his story.

Timothy J. Gaestel was born at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii in 1983. His father retired from the Army at Fort Hood, Texas in 1988 and moved to the Austin area. Tim went through public schools in Leander and graduated from Leander High School with the Class of 2001.
Shortly after graduation he determined to enlist in the Army. By coincidence he was all set to be inducted into the service on 9/11, when events of that fateful day upset his plans. Tim describes it this way, “I initially decided to join on August 12th. It took me all month, and several trips to San Antonio’s Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) because I needed a medical waiver (for a metal plate in my leg). My final day to leave was scheduled for September 11, 2001. On September 10th I took a bus ride down to San Antonio and woke up the next morning at 4:00 AM, ready to start my journey. I had already sworn in for my first time when I looked up on the television and saw breaking news of the first plane flying into the world trade center. Then minutes later, sitting in the MEPS waiting room, I watched as the second plane flew into the second tower. By the time the third plane flew into the Pentagon the MEPS station was on lock down and all planes were grounded nationwide. Even though we were going to Basic Training we couldn’t leave because the planes weren’t going anywhere, so the staff sent us back home. I repeated my trip from Austin to San Antonio two more times before finally being given word that we would be shipped out the following Monday. When Monday came, my original group of twelve being sent to Fort Sill had dropped to only three. The others decided not to join because 9/11 changed everything. That’s how my date of entry became September 16th instead of September11th, and that’s why I will always remember where I was when 9/11 happened.

Private Gaestel went through Basic Training followed by Advanced Individual Training in Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After qualifying as a Cannon Crewmember in January 2002, he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for Airborne training in February. After earning his “jump wings,” he arrived at his permanent duty station at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in March 2002 and was further assigned to C Battery, 1st Battalion, 319th Field Artillery, 82nd Airborne Division. But, he was not there very long.

Elements of the division, organized as Task Force Panther, were deployed to Afghanistan in August 2002 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Tim’s unit was part of that force and his C Battery was located at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno. Six months later, the division sent a replacement, Task Force Devil, that took over their mission and Tim’s unit returned to Fort Bragg in late February 2003, completing that deployment. Again, he would only be back at his home station for a short few months.

In August 2003 the 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters with one Brigade Combat Team and supporting units deployed on Operation Iraqi Freedom where they provided command and control and conducted operations in and around Baghdad.

Tim’s 1-319 FA battalion was part of that deployment, and he continues his story here, “We arrived in Kuwait in late August, crossed the border into Iraq on September 11th and moved on up to our new home, FOB Chosin, and soon began taking on security missions around Baghdad. We did route security, escorted convoys, and also secured and transported detainees, I remember having taken some to Abu Gharib.

I was wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on September 21, 2003 during a mission on the road we called “ambush alley,” which was very appropriately named. I was the gunner on top of a Humvee and we were at Al Iskadariyah, nearing the end of ambush alley, when a loud and thunderous explosion went off. I felt a slap on my back and was jolted up against my weapon. I didn’t think I was about to die but I knew something had hit me really hard. I reached around to feel my back and when I pulled my hand back it was covered with blood. My chief called and asked if I was going to be okay or if I needed a medevac and I told him to just get back to the Forward Operating Base. I was on my knees with an M-4 (carbine) at the ready as we drove back as fast as those Humvees can go. I felt fine at first, but was losing a lot of blood (they told me later that I was white as a ghost) and was beginning to go into shock by the time they got me to the aid station. I was returned back to my unit exactly one month later and a week after that I was back doing missions again.

Aside from that, I had observed something interesting as we were on the way back to the FOB. Black kites were being used to signal when U.S. and coalition forces were close enough to set off an IED. A couple of missions before this one I had seen a black kite flying in the air as we passed what was later discovered as a IED. On another mission after that I saw another black kite flying as we passed through a town square, and again we found an IED. When I got hit the last thing I saw as we sped away from the site was a black kite. I told all that to my Command Sergeant Major when he visited me in the medical tent at the FOB. That was something that had not been reported before and I later received an Army Commendation Medal for doing so.”

The 82nd Airborne Division elements in Iraq were replaced by 1st Marine Expeditionary Force units in early 2004. SPC Gaestel was with his battery when they returned to the United States on February 28, 2004. By late April 2004 the entire 82nd Airborne was back at Fort Bragg and all together again for the first time in two years.

Tim Gaestel served out the remainder of his enlistment at Fort Bragg. In January 2005 he was promoted to Sergeant and later that year he had another operation that successfully removed the remaining IED fragments from his wound. However, damage to his back remained and it would be permanent and painful. He says, “I had always told myself that in four years I was going to leave the Army and go to school, but after I made Sergeant, life became better and less stressful. I had tempting reenlistment offers that were hard to turn down, but, in the end the pain in my back made my decision for me.” He was discharged September 16, 2005 and returned home to Austin, Texas.

Tim had contributed to the Montgomery Plan in anticipation of attending college and he enrolled at Austin Community College using those benefits. He says, “The opportunity to attend Austin Community College renewed my passion for learning. Another opportunity began in the Army that developed during my time at ACC. Andrew Carroll, writer and editor of a book sponsored by the national Endowment of the Arts, had held writing workshops at several military installations, including mine. After working with him abroad, Carroll contacted me with the news that my story would be included in the book, “Operation Homecoming.” Through this one event, I was able to travel to Washington, D.C. for the book release, participate in a book signing in the Library of Congress, and see my story published a second time in the New Yorker Magazine. I have also recently been informed my story is being republished in a University creative writing text book. These experiences taught me that individual voices can make a difference. I am grateful for my exposure to the educational experiences of the book project and the community college.”

Currently, Timothy is continuing his education at Texas State University in San Marcos. He is a recipient of this year’s Purple Heart Scholarship and he has had the benefit of the new “Post 9/11 G.I. Bill” since it went into effect last August. He says, “The new G.I. Bill is very impressive. I wish I was able to utilize it more (the combination of the old Montgomery G.I. Bill and new “Post 9/11 G.I. Bill” benefits cannot exceed 36 months), but for future soldiers, getting a degree will be a lot less stressful and allow the student to focus more on their education instead of worrying about how to pay for it. The new G.I. Bill also allows soldiers who don’t want to use their benefits to pass them to their children, which is amazing. Luckily, I will still be able to utilize Texas’ Hazelwood Act benefits and the scholarships that I have received. I am really lucky to belong to an organization like the Military Order of the Purple Heart that cares about its members and beneficiaries.”

Tim expects to graduate in May 2011 and he looks forward to becoming a teacher and a coach in high school. Chapter 1919 wishes him great success and anticipates great things for him in the future, and this month PATRIOT BULLETIN proudly salutes Patriot Timothy Gaestel.