Tony Casada with his family: Levi, 2, Hunter, 4, and his wife, Antonia, outside their home in Central Point. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

Back from the war

After cooling his heels for nearly a week in 2010 at a rest station outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, Tony Casada was more than ready to return to his unit.

Six days earlier, he had been tossed 10 feet by a blast from an improvised explosive device, but he was good to go after an overnight hospital stay.

Now, less than a week later, simmering June heat reflected off the dusty terrain as he clambered into the back of a supply vehicle a few miles away. Nearing the camp, the road squeezed between two centuries-old walls serving as property lines for the surrounding fields.

"It was late in the afternoon, it was time to focus," said Casada, an infantry specialist, who lives outside Central Point.

He doesn't remember the IED flipping the vehicle over.

"Next thing I knew, I was waking up on my back," recalled Casada.  "It was one of those you-gotta-be-kidding me moments. We all made it out; I think one of the sergeants banged his head on the dashboard, but that was about it."

Or so Casada thought at the time.

Within a month, his world changed. The long road ahead was at times both tortured and tortuous.

Today, Casada and his wife, Antonia, will march along with 40,000 veterans, active duty military personnel, marching bands and veterans' supporters in the annual New York City Veterans Day Parade. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Korean War, is the grand marshal.

Casada, who now lives on Ross Lane, grew up in Hollister, California, graduating from San Benito High School in 2006. He enrolled at Fresno State University, where he focused on kinesiology — the study of the mechanics and anatomy in relation to human movement. But that pursuit ran its course after two years, and he left to join the Army. His sister, who was already in the Army, told him he should be a medic because of his related studies.

"I ended up going into the infantry, because that's how I'm wired," he said.

He was inducted September 2009 in Sacramento and shipped off to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. The country was in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades.

"I remember people saying, 'I can't find a job,' or, 'School's not for me,' " Casada said. "The money wasn't great. I was making $1,700 a month, but I didn't have to pay for anything except my bills. I was doing it for my family, and the guy next to me."

Six months later, he was at Fort Drum, outside Watertown, New York, part of a rear detachment training for deployment to Afghanistan. The troops briefed on Afghan culture, what to look for when it came to IEDs, and vehicle rollover simulations.

"It's not the same as the real thing," Casada said. "You do muscle memory for rollovers, but once it's happening, you just act on instinct. I don't remember much about the incident, just that it happened."

In early June 2010, Casada and his fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers flew into Kandahar Airfield then boarded a Chinook helicopter for a short hop to where the soldiers were dispersed in a mammoth zone surrounded by sand barriers.

It didn't take long for Casada to understand what the Taliban could do. His team went to the aid of another platoon that had come under a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

"We lost a lieutenant that day," he said. "Everybody else knew him because they had been there longer; it was evident they had a bond. I didn't process it until later, because we were in the thick of it, and trying to get everything situated."

A few days later, his six-man squad was providing security for a Canadian surveyor, who was working on a school courtyard project.

"It was all busted down, with broken windows and falling apart," Casada said. "The surveyor was doing prep work to bring it back up to working order."

It wasn't the first stop of the day, so his patrol was stopping off on the way back to camp.

"The platoon sergeant said: 'Hey, Casada, be careful, we've never been in here before,' " he recounted. "Those words will always stick with me."

Children often gathered about when soldiers were patrolling, and an Afghan youngster coaxed Casada toward a door, feigning the need for help, then locked it, trapping the troops in a courtyard.

"The little kid hook, line, and sinkered me," he said. "We couldn't get out, and another sergeant came over and stepped on an IED."

The sergeant lost his left leg, another took shrapnel and Casada was hurled 10 feet, catching shrapnel in the cheek.

He and the two more-seriously wounded soldiers were evacuated to a base hospital, where he was treated for neck injuries. He spent the next week off duty, without gear, body armor, his wallet or computer.

"I literally laid there or walked around aimlessly," Casada said.

Not something a 21-year-old soldier, itching for activity, appreciates.

"When I saw the supply unit was making a run, I hopped on because I wanted to get back to my unit," he said.

The trip was a short distance, but there was nothing quick about it.

"The roads are unpaved, and you have to keep an eye on the road looking for anything suspicious," Casada said.

Still, the eight men aboard didn't see what was coming until the blast flipped their vehicle.

"We figured it had to have been triggered by someone with a phone detonator," he said. "Because of the area, they would have had plenty of time to conceal themselves in the field."

He passed the visual once-over and was cleared to go back to his unit the next day.

"We were short-handed," he recalled. "We needed everybody we could get."

But migraine headaches appeared in the following weeks. He would take high-dose Excedrin tablets, two at a time, three or four times a day just to get through his missions, walking up to 10 miles a day with 100 pounds on his back.

But the migraines wouldn't go away.

"Something's going on, it just isn't right," Casada thought.

He was sent to the hospital at Kandahar for a CT scan, but the Navy doctor didn't see anything.

"He pretty much called me a liar, and that I just wanted to go home," Casada said.

Nonetheless, he was sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where an MRI confirmed hemorrhaging in the frontal lobe. His days as a combat soldier were over, but he still had a long fight ahead.

He was sent to Fort Belvoir, which shared medical staff with Walter Reed Army Hospital outside Washington, D.C., where he received speech, occupational and physical therapy, as well as cognitive treatment.

"At first, I thought, I'm OK, I'm OK," Casada said. "But as time went on and my body started to relax, I knew something's going on."

On Sept. 1, 2010, he was transferred to Balboa Naval Station in San Diego, to be closer to his family. After getting lengthy treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injuries along with lower back and right shoulder injuries, he was medically retired Nov. 10, 2011. The following January, he returned to Fresno State, but anxiety and a jumble of emotions led to a quick exit.

He and Antonia married in October 2012 and he pressed on. In 2015, he learned UCLA was doing research on veterans with traumatic brain injuries. In short order, Casada was connected with Operation Mend.

The UCLA program was starting a new project for soldiers and their spouses or caregivers, and Antonia went through the three-week, Monday-through-Friday program with him.

He found his combat experience was different than others.

"I thought things should've been worse and it should have been me," Casada said

Operation Mend taught the veterans to deal with injuries and thoughts, and provided an alternative way of thinking.

"It was grueling," he said. "It was by no means fun. It was stressful, tiring and angering."

At one point, he admitted, he was ready to walk out.

"That means they were doing their job, trying to instill the reality that you're not over there. You're not dead, not missing a limb, not going through that any more. They wanted to make you quit that way of thinking."

The four soldiers in the initial Operation Mend group completed the project in January 2016. He moved to the Rogue Valley with his wife and children last year. She's a nurse and home-schools their two sons, Levi, 4, and Hunter, 2, while he's attending Rogue Community College, training to become a welder.

The Casadas were asked to march in New York in 2016, but couldn't line up child care.

"I don't usually wear my experience on my shoulders," he said. "I know that I would not have met my wife, or had my kids, if I hadn't gone through this. I wear a camo hat, I have a beard and tattoos. Some people can pick out that I'm a veteran, but some don't."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter at or




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