By Senior Airman Chris Willis
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth article in a six-part series about medical response capabilities for deployed service members from start to finish and the various milestones for care and transportation of combat-wounded troops throughout Afghanistan.
I have spent more than a year telling the story of our nation’s wounded warriors as I followed their transport from the mountains of Afghanistan to their medical care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Unfortunately, concluding this series will never end what our troops have to endure in the face of war, but this last entry will give me a chance to finish a chapter in my life.
It was my first Sunday back from a recent deployment, when I unknowingly woke up in the middle of the night and proceeded downstairs. My wife followed me and observed I looked lost, and then I began to crawl on the ground calling out for my comrades to come with me, resembling a war movie I watched earlier that day. I was so erratic that I destroyed some of our property in efforts to escape the house.
Later that week, I left to check into a hotel room hoping to get past what had frightened my wife. Then, I went off the grid and no one was able to reach me. My supervisor eventually found me wondering lost in a nearby city carrying an almost empty suitcase; I had been missing for days.
At this point, my leadership decided it was essential I met with mental health and get a full assessment. That assessment helped me realize my deployment had taken a great toll on me mentally, and led me to get treatment, which most likely saved my life.
I was deployed as a photojournalist to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in November 2013. My job was to cover what our Airmen brought to the mission inside and outside the wire. In an average week, I could go from highlighting Airmen ensuring aircraft are mission-ready to Airmen patrolling the surrounding area outside of the airfield looking for possible threats.
Another requirement of my job was responding to real-world events that called for specialized documentation. Two missions stand out above the rest; an F-16 Fighting Falcon mountain mission and a Boeing 747 airliner mass causality.
Early Thursday morning, I received a call. An F-16 aircraft went down in the North Eastern mountain range of Afghanistan. Within hours, our teams of first responders were in helicopters on our way to the crash site.
In full battle rattle and armed up, we hiked to the crash site, only stopping to document parts of the aircraft and the pilot’s remains scattered across the mountain.
After a long morning of hiking, we came to a steep ledge where we found the downed pilot. We were all exhausted from the hike, but there was a great sense of urgency to get the body off that mountain. Almost everyone aided in carrying his body up the mountain where he could be lifted and transported to the closest airfield.
As I watched the helicopter fly off with the pilot’s remains, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, but also a great sense of pride. We accomplished our mission to find the downed pilot and get him home.
Three weeks later, I was driving on the perimeter road inside Bagram when I witnessed a 747 airliner fall out of the sky. I instantly knew this was going to be a mass casualty.
The aircraft appeared to be doing a combat takeoff when it froze in midair. As it hit the ground all the birds in the surrounding area scattered and the plume of smoke from the explosion looked like something out of a 1950’s nuclear training video.
I went straight into alert-photo-responder mode and drove toward the crash. After arriving at the site, I noticed everything was either burnt or still on fire and the sky was turning black.
Fighting through the smoke, I split my time between documenting the crash and supporting the efforts to recover the passengers. I was sure there weren’t going to be any survivors, but the goal was to get to the passengers before they were engulfed by flames.
The smell of burning metal and rubber tires still lingers, as well as the dark clouds only parting to let in hail and freezing cold rain. Many first responders had to be medically evacuated due to the extreme weather conditions.
A month after being involved with the two severe aircraft accidents I was on a C-17 Globemaster III on my way home. I remembering being tremendously nervous throughout the flight. As we arrived at the final destination, Ramstein Air Base, everything started to feel surreal. My family, to include my baby girl who was born while I was gone, were there waiting for me outside the terminal. I was finally home, but I still did not feel like I truly left Afghanistan.
As I was getting settled to the home life, I started to feel depressed and anxious. I was having problems sleeping and I was distancing myself from my family. I just wanted to be alone.
After a few sessions with mental health, it was confirmed I had post-traumatic stress disorder. At first, I didn’t understand how that was possible since I was never physically wounded and never engaged in a bloody battle.
My mental health provider told me the events that happened over my deployment could have taken a toll on anyone, dragging bodies that were either burnt or in pieces would have a lasting impression on most people.
This was a dark time for me, but I wasn’t ready to give up.
I’m still on the road to recovery a year after returning home. With help from my medical providers, family, friends and co-workers I am able to talk about my experiences and overcome them one day at a time.
I wish I could say that I am back to normal, but there will always be a piece of me left behind. I have decided to keep living life to its full potential, not only for myself and my loved ones, but for my military brothers and sisters who never made it home.