‘They just get it’: Wounded airmen recover with help from their own
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 24, 2019
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The first time Senior Master Sgt. Brian Williams attended an adaptive sports camp for wounded airmen like himself, his prosthetic leg fell off while riding a spin bike.
“I was the only amputee,” he recalled. “I was slightly embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. I was like, ‘I’m not doing this.’”
But Williams stuck with the program and four years on, he’s helping other airmen do the same.
This week, Williams is at Ramstein coaching sitting volleyball at the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program’s Warrior Care event, the first ever in Europe.
Participating along with caregivers and families are more than 40 warriors — active duty and medically retired airmen facing serious wounds, injuries or illnesses. Most are from Air Force bases in Europe, though some are from the States.
It’s hoped the weeklong event will boost airmen’s resiliency and healing through adaptive sports such as wheelchair rugby and activities like painting, yoga and journaling.
Care events are part of a federally funded program to help wounded, sick or injured airmen return to duty, said Marsha Gonzales, the branch chief for warrior care support. “If we can’t, we focus on helping them through that transition.”
The other services also run similar programs.
Williams, 37, said he feels fortunate to still be in the Air Force. He was injured in 2012 in Helmand province, Afghanistan, while on a mission as a military working dog handler.
“The dog went in a room and didn’t come out,” he said. “I went up the stairs to get him. Something went off. Instant leg amputation. Missing teeth. Compound fracture to my left wrist. Ruptured ear drums. I mean you name it, I had the gamut of injuries from that explosion.”
Williams didn’t attend his first wounded warrior camp until 2015, after he recovered and returned to duty.
“I did fine at the end, but other people will say I was moody, I was hesitant,” Williams said of the experience.
Spinning exercises didn’t go well for him and sitting volleyball “looked dumb,” he said. And when a staff member asked him if he was excited to try archery, “I told them in very colorful language that I wasn’t,” Williams said.
But he went and, “now, you have a hard time getting me out of archery,” he said, comparing it to shooting, minus the bang, cleaning the weapon and picking up spent bullets — all the things he dislikes about target practice.
Sweat and camaraderie
Airmen enroll in the wounded warrior program while still on active duty via referrals. About 110 sign up for the first time every month, Gonzales said.
Congress mandated the program in 2008, as combat injuries from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq mounted.
“In the beginning, the goal of the program was to help them through the transition (to civilian life),” Gonzales said. “But what we realized is many of these airmen can still serve. If we show them how they can do things … then they were recovering a lot faster.”
The program still sees combat injuries but they are fewer; filling the gap are airmen dealing with a range of physical ailments, such as tickborne illnesses and cancer, as well as traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress syndrome from deployments and sexual assault.
At the Ramstein event, not all injuries were obvious. But regardless of one’s condition or number of limbs, everyone plays modified sports — sitting for volleyball or playing basketball in wheelchairs — to level the playing field.
Jordan Lee-Fatt was hesitant to be part of his first Air Force wounded warrior care event last year.
Only 24, Lee-Fatt is struggling with an autoimmune disease while trying to return to active duty. He was a staff sergeant at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia before being placed on temporary disability. Doctors still don’t know what caused his illness.
“I felt like I wasn’t physically ready to travel and try all of these things,” he said.
But the program has helped Lee-Fatt turn the corner, both physically and emotionally, he said Tuesday after a round of sitting volleyball at Ramstein.
Strapping into the track chair, and racing with his knees tucked in and his hands madly spinning the rims, replaces that feeling of intense physical activity that he used to get from running.
“I love to sweat and go fast,” he said.
Lee-Fatt used a walker at work for about a year; at his first warrior clinic, he used a crutch and people helped him carry his things.
On Tuesday, he walked off the volleyball court without assistance and recently competed in the Pentagon’s Warrior Games last month in Tampa, Fla.
While there is no cure — only treatment — for his condition, “I’ve gotten way stronger than when I started out in this program,” Lee-Fatt said. “I’m forever grateful for that.
“I made a lot of friends here,” he said. “If I’m in a dark place again, they would pull me out of that.”
Proud again to wear blue
The program has also helped medically retired Air Force Maj. Lisa McCranie pull through her struggles with combat-related PTSD, in the face of unsupportive Air Force leaders and medical personnel in a culture that makes it difficult for pilots to seek mental help and maintain their wings.
McCranie flew numerous cargo and combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, often dodging mortar attacks on base; she helped coordinate enemy strikes and watched personnel get blown up and bleed out.
McCranie, 34, left the Air Force bitter. But the wounded warrior program has made her proud to wear the service emblem again, she said, while tugging at the blue shirt she wore as a sports mentor and ambassador at the Ramstein event.
McCranie also competed in the Warrior Games last month in powerlifting, rowing, swimming and rugby. Being part of a team and competing “builds so much camaraderie,” she said.
But “the biggest thing for me,” she said, “is I never had support in the military. I never had somebody stand up for me.” The wounded warrior staff “will do what it takes,” from providing emotional support to helping with paperwork.
“They speak the same language — we’re military — you don’t really have to explain yourself because they just get it.”