“Those little pieces of shrapnel had such a huge impact on my life.”

I was in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006 with Bravo Company, First Battalion, 506th Infantry. I was a forward observer, positioned at Three South, which was a little sandbag bunker on top of a hill that we had to improvise because some insurgents were coming over the hill and shooting rocket-propelled grenades into the back of our armored personnel carriers. We put our bunker up there to get a wider view of the area, and maybe some protection

Photo courtesy of Andi Stempniak

Phil Schladweiler | Eau Claire, WI

I grew up in Hager City, right across the Mississippi from Red Wing, Minnesota. I went to school at Ellsworth, where I was a loner. A lot of people were gobsmacked when they found out I joined the military. One day it just hit me: I got a phone call from a military recruiter and I said, “Yeah, let’s give it a shot.”

It was just something I did. At the time, I hadn’t really thought about ending up in a bunker. We were constantly under fire in our bunker. It was a daily thing where we’d get shot at or someone would try to hit us with rocket-propelled grenades. But on the day that I got attackedFeb. 22it was actually pretty quiet.

One of my buddies, Daniel Perry, and another soldier were in the bunker with me. Perry was saying something about there being no attacks that day, and that it was good luck that a bunch of ladybugs had flown through the bunker. He said, “ladybugs are good luck, so we’re going to be fine for the rest of the day.”

That’s pretty much the last thing I remember. The next thing I knew, I woke up at Walter Reed Hospital three days later. The other guys survived, and I was the worst injured of the three. I remember thinking that I didn’t know if what happened was real, because I was completely out of it. I didn’t know whether it was the morphine that they gave me or because I was unconscious. I’d been in a coma, but I didn’t know which memories were real. I thought I woke up a couple of times, and I remember choking on the respirator tube that they were pulling out, but I couldn’t really tell. 

The shrapnel had hit me in a lot of places, and I had many injuries. It hit my eye, right hand, left shoulder and right temple —and the concussion from the artillery rounds going off gave me a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury. I have tinnitus and vertigo and am totally blind in my right eye. My right skull is like a metal mesh kind of thing; my sinus cavities are all screwed up. You know, that good stuff.

When I was in the hospital, they actually gave me the shrapnel they pulled out of me. It was put in a little jar like the ones you use when you take drug tests. When I woke up, they told me the story of the shrapnel pieces. It was shocking to see the pieces in the jar.

 I was medically discharged in 2008 and decided to go to college. I chose a non-traditional route because I wasn’t a very good high school student. I went to a two-year college for about a year and a half and then put in an application to UW-Eau Claire and got accepted. I started in the fine arts department to get a bachelor’s in fine arts. I came up with my ideas for The Shrapnel Project in one of the photography courses I took. 

At UW-Eau Claire, I took one of the university’s advanced photography courses and started thinking about how those little pieces of shrapnel had such a huge impact on my life. It's something small enough that I could hold in my hand that just totally screwed up my entire life.

Photo courtesy of Andi Stempniak

I started photographing the shrapnel and came up with The Shrapnel Project. I took a macro lens and photographed each piece, going farther back each time, starting at the front and going farther back on each piece.

I took about 15 to 25 photos per shrapnel piece. Then I combined those photos into one so you can see the depth of each piece. Then I put each piece on a large white board with no explanation. War and combat can be a touchy subject. I wanted people to look at the photo and guess at what they were looking at. At first, most people thought they were archaeology pieces or some sort of study of rocks. Then when they started reading the little plaque on the wall next to the photos that described what they were looking at, people were shocked to realize it’s shrapnel.

One of my soldiers committed suicide, so I added one plain, white panel to the exhibit. This blank panel represented post-traumatic stress disorder.  It’s a wound, but you can’t really see it. It was just a blank 24-by-36-inch piece of PVC panel just like the other pieces that had the shrapnel photos printed on them, but there was nothing on that one. I titled it, “PTSD Wounds Unseen, Unknown,” because it’s different for everybody. Sometimes those unseen and unknown wounds are huge for people.

I asked other soldiers to let me photograph shrapnel they might have, to do a few more panels. I got some from a first sergeant in Fort McCoyit was shrapnel that wounded his lieutenant and his gunner. There were a few more pieces after that, that a few other people had donated that were added to the project. I donated the prints to the National Veterans’ Art Museum in Chicago; they are showing it there as part of their collection. This project helped my healing.

I graduated from UW-Eau Claire and was accepted at UW-Stout for a Master of Science in applied psychology. I was going to work in industrial and organizational psychology. People had been helping me, and I wanted to be able to help other veterans. But I just started feeling off about it; I wasn’t happy. I felt like I was hitting a brick wall, so last year I decided, with a lot of apprehension and anxiety, to quit the program. I left with a 4.0 GPA as a graduate student and it’s funny that someone with a brain injury l had a 4.0 as a grad student. But I’m a studious kind of person.

I followed my path and I started looking into building houses. I thought it would be good to build something, and I like the feeling of the wood and doing things with my hands. I tried the life of working in a jacket and necktie, but it just wasn’t me; I’m a flannel shirt sort of guy. I was a little bit apprehensive about that though, because I didn’t know the physical and mental limitations of what I can do. I wanted to make sure I could do it.

In the summer of 2019, I started working with a home builder from Chippewa Falls. I loved it so much that, after spending three months there, I went to Chippewa Valley Technical College’s residential construction program. I’m loving working in residential construction, which I’ve been doing since May.

Veterans Day is here, and that’s a weird one for me. I think I have more of an attachment to Feb. 22: I call that my rebirth day. Veterans Day is a mixed bag for me because there are a lot of people that expect to be thanked for their service; that sort of puts me off. It’s really great that everyone served, but when it comes down to it, I don’t need anyone thanking me. Throughout the year people thank me; I’m like, “Yeah, no problem, you’re welcome, but you don’t need to thank me.”

But I guess it’s nice to have that recognition, and I’m not going to lie: When I stop at the local Festival Foods store, I park in the veterans’ parking spot. I love that spot.

 Phil Schladweiler | Eau Claire, WI

Photo courtesy of Scott Schultz
The photo Dizziness is from Phil's Shrapnel Project
The photo Grief is from Phil's Shrapnel Project

Phil’s story is part of our veteran’s story series. This story was produced by Scott Schultz.

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