JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- Resiliency is not a new concept. The idea that developing a person to be mentally, physically, spiritually and socially strong so they can adapt to stressful events in their lives is the basis of the Comprehensive Airman Fitness program. But what happens when even the strongest among us reaches their breaking point?
The Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) Program highlights the importance of reaching out for help and building resiliency to hundreds of Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers and Marines across Oahu during the 2019 AF Hosted Warrior CARE Event at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Jan. 7-11. The event included an adaptive sports competition, as well as ambassador workshops and mentorship programs.
“One of the objectives of AFW2 is to connect wounded warriors with the services they need to begin healing from their endeavors,” said Bradley Britt, AFW2 support specialist. “Not only do we have the connections to get Airmen in touch with the services that ensure they are getting the best treatment possible, but we also connect Airmen who are in similar situations with each other so they can mentor and help each other build resiliency.”
Throughout the week, the Warrior CARE events integrated all support programs into one platform to strengthen mental, physical, spiritual and social well-being of enrolled Wounded Warriors and their caregivers, while helping others by sharing their stories of resiliency.
During an ambassador briefing, two Chief Master Sgts. recounted their stories of recovery and how the connections they made through AFW2 helped them continue serving in their career fields.
Chief Master Sgt. Neil Jones, Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal operational training and exercise program manager, assigned to Tyndall Air Force Base, was deployed when he lost two members of his team.
“I was the kind of person who was continuing to hide things,” said Jones. “Like a football player who suffered a concussion and asks to be put back into the game, event thought they’re not ready to go back in. As an Airman, someone who has being training for it their entire life, it was no different.”
Several years ago, Jones deployed with five members of his unit, including his best friend. Unfortunately, his friend died while on a mission.
But the mission didn’t stop after they sent Jones’ friend home.
“You don’t go through the grieving process when you’re down range,” said Jones. “You pick up and keep moving out, and that’s what we did.”
A month later, Jones lost another Airman during a patrol mission. But again, Jones continued the mission.
Once home, the burden of the deployment began to affect him.
“I kept pushing everything I was feeling down and focused on training and that was a huge mistake because it started to weigh heavily on me,” said Jones. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, it was tearing me apart, but I kept hiding it because I didn’t want to be booted out.”
It wasn’t until Jones was flagged by AFW2 that things started to turn around and he was able to begin to heal.
“AFW2 stepped in and have been a part of every single appointment, every person I’ve seen, to make sure I am getting the care I need,” said Jones. “It has made me a better father, a better friend, a better husband, and a better man in blue. The best thing is I was not forced to stop serving in the job that I love doing.”
The AFW2 Program works hand-in-hand with the Air Force Survivor Assistance Program, Airman & Family Readiness Centers and the Air Force Medical Service, connecting Airmen and their families with services they need to recover and either return to duty or transition into civilian life.
For Chief Master Sgt. Dwight Tucker, 673rd Mission Support Group superintendent from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, it was an unexpected illness that tested his resiliency.
“In June 2017, I was the happiest guy in the world,” said Tucker. “Everything was going right, my career was blooming as I had just been hired as the mission support group superintendent, and things were going well. But on June 14, my life took a dramatic change.”
On June 14, 2017, Tucker went to the medical group for a routine procedure, an upper gastrointestinal series. Everything turned out well and Tucker received the all clear to resume his normal diet and activities. But later that evening Tucker did not feel well, and started having stomach cramps.
Soon after the cramps began, Tucker began throwing up blood. Thinking it might be internal bleeding from the procedure, Tucker went to the emergency room. After three days in the intensive care unit, the doctor told him the one thing no one wants to hear.
“The doctor pulled my wife a side because he didn’t want to talk in front of me, but I overheard and he asked her if I had any immediate family nearby,” said Tucker. “My father and mother lived nearby, so my wife said yes, and that’s when the doctor told her to call them because I had about three days to live.”
Unable to get a diagnosis at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the medical staff decided to send Tucker to the local hospital.
“As a Chief, I’m a bad patient,” said Tucker. “I wanted to control things, to get things done, and I didn’t like waiting for things to happen. Despite rank and position, life happens and you have no control over what happens.”
While in the hospital, the medical staff decided to put him in a medically induced coma for two weeks. When he awoke, Tucker was diagnosed with necrotizing pancreatitis and he found out that his mother had died.
“I was already messed up mentally from everything that I was going through,” said Tucker. “But finding out that my mom had passed, messed me up even more. I felt like my entire world was collapsing around me. My mind took over and I began to question everything about myself.”
While Tucker’s wife was attending his mother’s funeral in Florida, Tucker found out he was being medically evacuated to Seattle, Washington.
“They had the air evac waiting to take me to Seattle, and I told them ‘I can’t go without my wife’,” said Tucker. “But they told me I had to go.”
That’s when the AFW2 Program stepped in to help take care of Tucker’s wife.
“Before I knew what had happened, the AFW2 Program had already coordinated my wife’s transportation from Eglin Air Force base to Seattle,” said Tucker.
The AFW2 Program’s goal is provide well-coordinated & personalized support to wounded, ill or injured total force recovering service members and their families.
“Last April I went to an AFW2 event and that’s when I started healing,” said Tucker. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned from the AFW2 Program is that healing starts with connecting. Once I began connecting with others I began to understand a little bit more about myself.”
The stories these wounded warriors shared bring to light that sometimes even the strongest among us can struggle with resiliency and need a little extra support to heal.
In addition to having ambassadors share their stories, the AFW2 also hosted a series of adaptive sports competitions for the wounded warriors.
For more information about the AFW2 Program, please visit www.woundedwarrior.af.mil.