I recently had the opportunity to work as a journalist for a couple of months at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. While there, I wrote many news articles on Air Force-level issues, with a few feature stories sprinkled in.
Though I’ve written several articles that have touched me throughout my seven years in the Air Force, none have touched my heart and soul as deeply as the story of Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen and his service dog, Yoko.
Spending a good portion of the day with them was truly a blessing. Yoko is a tremendously sweet and smart dog, and Chief Simonsen is an inspiration to us all. I wrote this for Wounded Warrior Month this month; however, I think we should always appreciate and remember our wounded warriors – without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have this great country.
So, without further ado, here is the article for your reading pleasure …
Coming back from deployment, Airmen face the home-station work environment, reintegrating with family and settling back into day-to-day life.
What happens when an Airman is diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and mild Traumatic Brain Injury upon return?
For one Airman, his path to recovery has been slow, but he’s overcome the challenges he’s faced.
“I gave myself permission to let my traumatic brain injury and PTSD be there,” said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling senior enlisted leader. “Then, I gave myself permission to reset everything and not be embarrassed by it.”
Simonsen’s last deployment was as a Public Affairs officer with a provincial reconstructive team in both Nuristan and Kandahar Provinces in Afghanistan. He completed 66 outside-the-wire missions with five attacks on their team. Due to the attacks, he was hospitalized for back and hip injuries and again for head injuries.
“The toughest thing is feeling you cannot be as productive as you used to be,” Simonsen said. “Concentration was more difficult; writing e-mails was more difficult; composing my thoughts and expressing myself was more difficult.”
A big piece of the recovery process for Simonsen has been his service dog.
“Yoko is a wonderful addition to my life,” said the wounded warrior. “I say she’s a resiliency tool of the first order. My recovery was really, really slow – it still is. Physically, I’m broken. And, the emotional, mental part was recovering slowly as well.”
While at the TBI clinic one day, he interacted so positively with the facility dog that it was suggested he look into getting a service dog for himself.
“Once they placed her with me, the change was almost immediate,” Simonsen said. “I’m not the old Rich Simonsen – I never will be. But, I’m a lot closer, because of her. She’s an unobtrusive companion; she provides a calming influence. She’s a good wingman for me.”
Yoko also enables him to be in crowds and speak in public, like when he speaks to Airmen at Right Start briefings or Airmen Professional Enhancement Courses. And, although Yoko is noticeable, she doesn’t detract from the chief’s message.
“A lot of his focus I felt was on ways to deal with people,” said U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Ceremonial Guardsman Airman 1st Class Nicholas Priest at an APE Course. “I thought he had a lot of valuable information on how to deal with what we may have issues with. If you have a positive work environment, it helps people work a lot harder. Look out for people, especially where sexual assault prevention and suicide awareness are concerned. We’re one force, so we need to work as a team.”
Though Simonsen said he has a tendency to isolate himself and has a hard time dealing with the physical pain from his injuries, he tries not to focus solely on the negative.
“The biggest difference on a positive side is I take a little more time to think about things before I respond,” the senior enlisted leader said. “That gives me a little more contemplative way of being.”
Aside from the resources of mental health and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, Simonsen said his family and church have been a huge source of support for him.
“My wife has followed me around the world for going on 25 years,” he said. “She loves me no matter what. But, she knew I was suffering when I came home. She pushed me to get help. Everyone has a support system they can tap into. We need to use them in our recovery, but we also have to remember they’re there working hard and taking a lot of the stress.”
For those who may be suffering silently with PTSD, Simonsen offers this piece of advice.
“Coming forward shows courage and strength and is in line with our core values. You can go get help and still succeed in your career.”
Though there are many programs out there for wounded warriors, November helps shed light on issues facing wounded veterans as it is Wounded Warrior Month.
Click the hyperlink to view view the video on Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen.
Photo 1: Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen hugs his service dog, Yoko, while on a walk. Simonsen lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition he endured on a deployment to Afghanistan and the service dog helps him with his daily activities. PTSD can occur after one has been through a traumatic event. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)
Photo 2: Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen works as the senior enlisted leader at Joint Base Anacostia- Bolling in Washington D.C. Simonsen speaks to Airmen about his daily struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how to seek help. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)
Photo 3: Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen works as the senior enlisted advisor on Joint Base Anacostia- Bolling in Washington D.C. He lives with Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) a condition he endured from a deployment to Afghanistan last year. Yoko, his service dog, helps him with his day to day activities. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)