About a year ago, Brian Goodwin’s doctor told him he’d have to consider not working.
“At the time I laughed,” said Goodwin, but in mid-May, he did finally leave his job as principal of Wahtonka Charter School.
He left due to a variety of health complications that his doctors attribute to his deployment in 2003-04 to Iraq, where he was exposed to a toxic brew of chemicals from burn pits at Balad Air Base.
“The only ‘safe’ way to get rid of our garbage was to burn it, and it was a base the size of The Dalles with as many people,” he said.
The burn pit was the size of several football fields, right in the middle of the base. The garbage, which ranged from body parts to plastic, was doused with jet fuel and set on fire, but it didn’t burn hot enough, so it smoldered.
The levels of toxins in the air and soil were 2,000 to 5,000 times the federal limits for a variety of pollutants and chemicals. “It was Agent Orange plus a lot more,” he said of the resulting brew.
His health symptoms are connected to the endocrine system. Multiple glands are involved, such as the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands. “All the ones that give you your energy,” he said.
“I’m well enough I can do stuff, it’s just that, instead of being able to pursue hobbies ruthlessly like before—I can still work out a little bit and do some things—it’s nowhere near where I used to be able to,” he said.
Leaving his work at Wahtonka was tough. “I love this job, more than any other job I’ve ever had. It didn’t feel like a job; it was like a calling.”
He started Wahtonka Community School, an alternative school, in 2014, and after a lengthy effort got it established as a charter school last fall.
Goodwin, who is 49, started working for North Wasco County School District 21 in 1998 as a social studies teacher, but within two weeks was moved to an administrative post, serving as athletic director and then a vice principal.
In 2002-03 he became principal at Colonel Wright, and was there just seven months when he was activated with the National Guard and was deployed for a year.
Then he came back to the principal’s job in the 2004-05 school year. His first day back on the job, a garbage truck that loudly unloaded a dumpster with a thud sent Goodwin diving under his desk.
“We were mortared and rocketed every day in Iraq, so you get a little jumpy,” he said. On his last day there, a rocket was fired from 15 miles away. “It ended up about 200 yards short of me; it left a hole you could put four or five Suburbans in.”
He vividly recalls the exchange he had one day with a smart fourth grader, who asked him if he’d killed anyone in Iraq. He honestly answered he hadn’t. Then, she asked if he’d been ordered to shoot kids. He said they were ordered to, but “of course” nobody followed those orders.
The question the girl asked was, “‘If I was a kid over there, and you had the order, would you shoot me?’” Goodwin recounted. “Can you imagine being asked that by a 10-year-old?”
The girl skipped off to play while Goodwin was left with “this philosophical punch to the gut.” “You’re part of this organization, and this organization had orders to shoot kids, and you think about that, and how bizarre that is. And you start thinking about the use of force to impose law and order.”
He said, “What right do I have to impose discipline and punishment on any human being? That’s kind of where I was at that moment.”
The order to shoot kids came because their base was in an economically destroyed area with no jobs, no food and no power. But the American base had food, and threw tons of it away.
“The adults know if they cross that fence, they’d get shot, so they sent the kids,” Goodwin said. A commander ordered that kids be shot. “These are 5-6-7 year-old kids. No kids were shot. Everybody just refused the order.”
Coming back home was tough. Everybody knew “this guy is wrapped really tight. It was a tough year for all involved.”
“Your wife’s there, and your kids are there, and you’re elated and you’re happy,” he said. But on a deployment, “you have this mission and you have these people, and you are tighter with these people than you will be with anybody else in your life, and you cannot replicate that in the civilian world.”
And civilians, “try as they might, will never understand. It’s not their fault.”
He said, “half of who you were before is dead. So you have to recreate that other half.”
He got help, but said, “you start to feel better but you never feel as good as you did before you left.”
If your best day before you left was a 10, when you get back, a 6 “would be an amazing day. It’s just the way it is. But every year it gets better, so.”
He said D21 Superintendent Candy Armstrong was one of just four or five people in his life that “just sat and listened. She said, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What happened over there?’ I sat in her office, and I just vomited all the icky, nasty, horrible stuff that I’d seen and witnessed.”
She saw he wasn’t doing well and suggested he run the district’s alternative education program starting in 2005-06. “It was a life saver,” he said.
He also took on other administrative tasks, including writing grants, managing federal programs and the homeless program, and getting the education foundation revived.
But he got permission to start Wahtonka Community School in 2014. “I just missed working with kids so bad. I just felt like my soul was dying pushing papers.”
When Goodwin first stepped away from his job in May, the thinking was he was going to take two months off to see if his ever-worsening symptoms improved. They didn’t, but they also didn’t get any worse for the first time in three years, “so that was nice.”
It was three years ago that the slow, steady decline began. “It was like every month the symptoms got worse.” He’s already lost a buddy who served in Iraq with him, and he’s hoping the federal government acknowledges the health toll their service has caused them. “They’re still not owning up to it,” he said.
He said, “I’m not like on the verge of dying right now or anything. I have zero pity for myself, nor do I feel sorry for myself. I’ve been really blessed, had a great life and will fight for the rest of it.
“And so, yeah, I’ve got no regrets, I’m not angry or bitter. I could be, but I signed up and took an oath and carried out my end of that and even if the government decides it doesn’t want to, it’s not my fault, not my problem. I did what I was supposed to do, so I have no regrets.”
He understands the decision to burn all the garbage on-base. “Had I been in charge of the whole thing, I don’t know how I could come up with a better solution.” Having the garbage hauled off wasn’t an option since it would’ve meant allowing local trucks into the base constantly, which was too risky.
At Balad Air Base, his unit was 82 ROC, Oregon National Guard. He served as liaison between the commander in charge of the base itself and the brigade commander of the U.S. Army Fourth Infantry Division, Third Brigade Combat Team, who was in charge of protecting the territory for a several-mile radius immediately around the outside of the base.
Goodwin’s job was to make sure the interior defense of the base and the exterior forces protecting the base were united together at that seam, “so we didn’t have American guys shooting other American guys.” He said of that task, “It worked for awhile, and then it didn’t.” They had incidents of friendly fire.
In the second half of his deployment, he led the intel section for base headquarters and did counterterrorism work.
That included tracking the 3,000 locals who came to work on the base every day, and overseeing the process of how they were searched.
In college, Goodwin did ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps). He then had a variety of roles in the military, including going to airborne school and artillery school, then becoming a platoon leader and a company commander.
He worked with an engineering company and did demo and obstacle removal and was also a tank commander.
His varied work was “just in my nature. I get bored really easy.”
He was also a police officer for 10 months in Post Falls, Idaho, but he “arrested a person with connections one night and my report got ‘lost’ quote-unquote, the next day, and it got lost again the next day and it got lost again the next day, so I turned in my badge.”
Now, following his medical retirement, he’s developing a new role for himself. “Instead of being in a leadership role I’m now kind of moving to a support role for my family and for my Army buddies, and it feels pretty good. For so many years I’ve had the benefit of having people here at home that supported me to have a great career and do all the things I did and now I get to pay that back and help take care of my Army buddies. They’ve got a lot of health problems and a lot of PTSD, so it feels pretty good to help.”