Air Force Staff Sgt. Deondra Parks survived mortar attacks while guarding a U.S. air base in Iraq, then came home and got shot inside a cafe in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“I knew what I was walking into when I went to Iraq,” Parks said in an interview at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Wednesday, “but I never expected this to happen in my own country.”
Parks was sitting with two airmen friends inside the cafe near Sheppard Air Force Base on April 20, 2010, when a man barged in, shouted a racial slur at the group, announced it was Hitler’s birthday and started shooting a 12-gauge shotgun.
Parks, now 27, recovered fairly quickly from the wounds to her legs. The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has taken longer to heal.
Assigned to Wright-Patterson where she will spend the next 18 months, the emergency medical technician wants people to know her story of recovery and to recognize the importance of having a plan in an active shooter situation.
She was training to be an aerospace medical technician when she became the victim of a hate crime.
The man at the cafe, Ross William Muehlberger, waited outside before entering the business and targeting Parks and her friends.
“I didn’t see him,” said Parks, who is African American. “I felt him next to me and I looked up and I thought he was going to ask us a question or ask us for directions or something.”
After uttering a racial slur and the remark about Hitler, Muehlberger raised the shotgun and started firing, Parks said. She ran, tripped over two chairs and felt a shot graze her face. She decided to “get low, get down and to play dead.” She brought her breathing under control.
“He was screaming ‘white power.’ Yelling, laughing and shooting at the same time,” she said.
He then fired at her lower legs. “I didn’t move, I didn’t budge,” she said. “I just laid there trying to play dead so he wouldn’t shoot me again.”
One of her friends was shot in the hand. Another had shotgun fragments graze her. A cashier inside the store lost a thumb. The four survived, but a doorman at a nearby bar died when he was shot as he tried to disarm the suspect, a news account in the Times Record News in Wichita Falls said.
Police chased after the 22-year-old Muehlberger, who shot and killed himself inside a home, said Sgt. John Spragins, Wichita Falls Police Department public information officer.
Parks credited her training with saving her life. “At the same instance while I’m laying there, not able to defend myself, I still wanted to get up and try to save every last person in that cafe because that’s just what I do every day,” she said.
Parks spent eight days in the hospital after she was shot. Weeks later, she had additional surgery at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Dallas during a 30-day recuperation at the Fisher House, a place where her family gathered to support her during her recovery.
She also started therapy for PTSD, and developed a friendship with a fellow PTSD sufferer who is a Vietnam veteran.
“We still feel the same things,” she said. “The intrusive thoughts, the nightmares, the obsessions with death. Everything like that. That’s one thing I do suffer from is the obsession with someone wanting to harm me, no matter what their skin color is.”
Parks said she had a conversation about what happened with Air Force Materiel Command Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, the first female Air Force four-star general. Wolfenbarger encouraged her to meet with an AFMC senior enlisted leader who urged her to share her story as an example of persistence and resilience.
Staff Sgt. Parks said she never considered a medical retirement. Now in her ninth year in the military and engaged to an Air Force reservist, Parks said she intends to stay in uniform for a full 20-year career.
“The Air Force asks a couple of things from you. And that’s to be spiritually, physically and mentally fit, and that’s all they ask,” she said. “I can do every last one of those and more so why can I not have a chance to retire from the military.”