Major Rick Horak II '90

Home since September, Horak still carries Iraq with him after three deployments. "It's a part of me," he said.

From his Cessna, the pilot recently caught himself staring down at a car on an Alabama roadway below. Though far removed from harm's way, his training kicked in. "My brain just keyed on that car, because in Baghdad it would have been suspicious," he said. In the parlance of treatment professionals, his response is known as hypervigilance, a symptom of combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Based at a medical clinic in Turkey, Horak implored his commander to let him fly down-range on combat airlift missions. "I wanted to bond with the boys, see the risks they were taking," he said.

He flew six sorties to Iraq and logged twenty combat hours. He can still hear his heart racing on his first mission in 2007 to drop weapons and supplies to ground troops. "I knew I could come home in a box. All I thought about was my baby back home."

The lumbering C-17 cargo planes on which he rode were easy targets. Insurgents, armed with artillery and shoulder-fired missile launchers, trained their sights on his crew. "I don't know why they didn't fire," he said. "Maybe they didn't like the angle they had on us."

Once he waited anxiously in his aircraft while U.S. troops cleared insurgents from each end of the runway at Baghdad International Airport.

Horak has seen the effects of PTSD on other soldiers, whose experiences have led to divorce, substance abuse, flashbacks, and "startle" responses. "PTSD is highly variable," he said. "What I might be able to handle, somebody else may not. I hear a lot of stories about the horrific atrocities guys saw over there."

With a grandfather and father who served in World War II and the Korean War, respectively, Horak said the military "was almost a calling for me."

After earning his medical degree at Wright State University in Dayton, he enlisted in the Air Force National Guard with every expectation of being a weekend warrior. Five days later, terrorists struck on U.S. soil. "It was a reality check," Horak recalled. "I knew then that I would be deployed because there just aren't that many flight surgeons."

He capped his most recent deployment by flying an American flag on 9-11 at the Baghdad airport. He retrieved the flag and recently presented it to his alma mater, St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, to honor two Marines from the school who were killed in 2005 by an IED. "I feel good about what I did because I knew it helped save the lives of our men and women over there," he said.