SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- The hardest part of a wounded or ill Airman’s recovery process is often asking for help, or knowing where to turn when the life they planned suddenly changes.
For retired Senior Airman Christian Vega it meant finding meaning in his life again after a brain aneurysm and stroke left him unable to walk or speak, or continue to serve in the Air Force.
“I told my mom that my life was over,” he said to a crowd of 120 participants in the Air Force Wounded Warrior CARE event held at Scott AFB Aug. 19-23.
He then said his mother told him, “No son, your life has just begun.”
And with the help of many people along the way during the past three years, including his initial Recovery Care Coordinator—Jennifer Welch, who sat in the audience with misty eyes—Vega shared his story for the first time publicly of how the AFW2 team helped him find purpose in his life again.
He was so touched by Welch’s personal care for him and his parents when he became hospitalized, noting the personal care she took and how his mother was never alone. Welch had also arranged for the USAF Band of Mid-America to serenade him while still recovering at a hospital in Chicago, where he now resides.
So moved by her care and the overall support of the AFW2 programs, he lobbied the AFW2 team to become an ambassador, a trained warrior who shares his or her story of overcoming injury or illness, on or off the battlefield, to help educate and inspire others on their recovery journey and know where to go for help.
Not only did he share his story with hundreds of people last week, but he continued to achieve milestones such as running for the first time since he was struck down with his illness. His determination and spirit did inspire all who met him or heard his story or watched him throughout the week, which is why he was chosen to share his story during the closing recognition ceremonies.
Vega was one of 17 ambassadors who spoke at 40 different sessions, spreading the gospel of what AFW2 is all about. For Team Scott, it comes at a time when top leadership in the Air Force has asked for a “tactical pause” to focus on how to have a better culture of resiliency and to get feedback from Airmen and families as to what is preventing them from seeking help.
Noting the alarming number of suicide within the Air Force, leaders at all levels are grappling with how best to get to the root cause of this issue, and the stories shared by the ambassadors provided a window into some of the blind spots and misunderstandings that others should be aware of.
Marsha Gonzales, AFW2’s branch chief for warrior care support, said, “I know these warriors personally and have watched first-hand how they have persevered along their journey to recovery. They bring a ‘reality to resiliency’ that not only educates Airmen on the ongoing efforts of our program, but they give us the unique opportunity to increase the connectedness of our Air Force and directly engage with Airmen who may be struggling and looking for help.”
For retired Master Sgt. Adam Boccher, another AFW2 ambassador, there was a period of darkness in his life and then “a humiliating alcohol related incident” triggered an enrollment in the AFW2 program. He had been suffering from a traumatic brain injury and he said that caused him to withdraw from everything that was important to him.
“I was very active. I enjoyed outdoor sports and things with my family. I stopped doing those things over time. My diet fell off – I let myself go. That’s just the truth. I started having negative self-talk. Those type of thoughts – that I’m not going to be good at those things anymore.”
He said that Airmen need to know that coming forward and letting people know there is something that you need to talk about is OK.
“It doesn’t mean you are going to lose your clearance. It doesn’t mean you are going to lose your job. That was the issue I had. I was in large part responsible for my own journey down that dark path. I want everyone to know that is why this program is so important.”
Through the recovery process, he said he came to appreciate how the AFW2 program not only works with the active duty members, but also their spouses and families as well, and that has made a huge difference in his recovery.
“The caregiver is who I think is critical,” Boccher said, choking up slightly, gathering his thoughts. “I made a series of maladaptive choices to deal with very real stress and trauma that I experienced and it had a serious impact on my wife … she was also grieving and didn’t know where to turn for help. The reality is that no one wants to talk about private business within the four walls of your own home. The AFW2 program has an avenue specific for caregivers that says we know how to provide care to individuals who are supporting their wounded warriors.”
The caregiver program provides that individual with many tools, he added, and connects them with other caregivers who are on similar journeys.
“Community – it’s really important for spouses.”
The AFW2 CARE program is designed to bring a holistic approach to healing through art, music, education and adaptive sports, which was a main source of strength for Boccher.
“The power of sports in healing is remarkable,” he said, noting that competitors took part in sports such as swimming, archery, powerlifting, track and field, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball and more. There’s nothing but hugs and high fives as they practiced and then scrimmaged during the week, with no accomplishment too small to be celebrated.
Boccher who serves as an ambassador telling his story, said, “I’d like to think that by turning things around and working hard to do better with this second chance that I was given, that those individuals who I was privileged to work with would look back to reflect and say ‘he did something with the opportunity he was given.’ And I’m forever grateful.”
(Airman 1st Class Solomon Cook contributed to this story)