All posts by othanamontoya

Everyone has a story: The grocery bagger

by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

With wild brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and oval glasses accentuating his eyes, Paul Blais easily blends into his surroundings as people rush through the lines at the Langley Air Force Base Commissary – their minds lost in fervor of the day.

He quietly and calmly bags their groceries as he limps from register to register, working for the tips people hurriedly leave him.

It is hard to imagine that on June 24, 1996, this unassuming man was a 26-year-old senior airman, celebrating his birthday inside a laundry room in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

“It was a squadron tradition to have your birthday off,” the former airborne communications systems operator said, his speech slow and strained by a heavy slur. “I stayed in the dorm and did laundry.”

As Paul folded his clothes, his thoughts drifted to Greenland. He and his crewmates, who specialized in combat search and rescue, had spent April enjoying the unseasonably warm weather of the country. On the flight to Dhahran, Paul said there had been some rather nice conversations between him and his friend, Airman 1st Class Justin Wood, about “snow bunnies.”

“Justin was always friendly and quick-witted,” Paul said. “He could turn any situation into a smile.”

The two became fast friends after Wood replaced Paul as the youngest member of their aircrew, talking about the things most 20-somethings talk about while making the most of their deployment. Everyone on the crew was close.

“They were my second family,” Paul said, his cheerful voice suddenly turning somber. “I am the only survivor of my second family.”

Paul Blais speaks to an Airman Leadership School class at Langley Air Force Base, Va., May 15, 2013 - discussing his experience as a U.S. Air Force Airman and survivor of the Khobar Towers attack.

It all happened the day after Paul’s birthday. He and his crew were scheduled to fly a routine mission to Aviano, Italy – taking 50 Airmen home to their families. The pre-flight check stated the plane was in perfect condition, with the exception of an engine due for inspection. The crew agreed to ground the plane until the following morning.

“I went to sleep at 9:30 p.m.,” Paul said. “At 10:05 I woke up, needing to use the bathroom.”

Outside the Khobar Towers, where Paul lived, Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Mughassil, head of the Saudi Hizballah military wing, turned the ignition key to a olive drab fuel tanker truck he and his accomplices had converted into a bomb. Al-Mughassil drove the truck into a parking lot and backed it up to a fence in front of the towers. He and his passenger, Ali Saed Bin Ali El-Hoorie, casually stepped out of the tanker, entered a white Chevrolet Caprice and drove away into the night, never to be seen again.

From the rooftop of the eight-story dorm, Staff Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero was checking a security post when he saw the tanker follow the Caprice through the parking lot. After the truck backed against the fence, Guerrero saw two men in white robes with red and white checkered headdresses exit the tanker and enter the car. As it sped away, Guerrero said his heart skipped a beat.

“At that point I knew something pretty big was about to happen,” Guerrero said in a 2006 interview.

He immediately radioed the control center and started an evacuation of the building. Racing down the steps, he pounded on doors and shouted through the hallway. In seconds, the entire eighth, and half of the seventh floors, were emptied.

On the third floor, Paul was in the bathroom at 10:09 p.m., when an explosion equal to the force of nearly 30,000 pounds of dynamite tore through the Khobar Towers like a hot knife through butter. It left a crater 85-feet wide and 35-feet deep.

U.S. and Saudi military personnel peer into the crater caused by the explosion of a fuel truck outside the northern fence of Khobar Towers on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, at 2:55 p.m. EDT June 25, 1996.

“If I had been in my room, asleep in my bed, I wouldn’t have survived,” Paul said. “Being in the bathroom put an extra wall between me and the explosion. Ten feet saved my life.”

The floor beneath Paul gave way and he plummeted three stories, entering a coma as soon as he hit the ground. As Paul lay unconscious, the five stories above him buried him alive and left him bleeding profusely from the head. For two-and-a-half hours, the blood flowed from Paul’s head, inching him closer to death.

Wood, who lived on the sixth floor, and the rest of Paul’s crew died during the terrorist attack.

More than a month later, then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen issued a statement that forever changed the way the military viewed antiterrorism – specifically citing Guerrero’s actions.

“This sergeant’s good judgment and prompt action unquestionably saved lives the night of the bombing,” Cohen said. “But one individual’s exemplary performance cannot take the place of functional alarm systems and well-conceived evacuation plans and procedures.”

Those inadequacies paved the way for the military’s current view of antiterrorism measures – measures implemented too late to save the 19 Airmen killed, and hundreds more wounded by the attack, including one Airman 1st Class Christopher Lester, who lay comatose in a hospital in Germany.

Lester was a 19-year old young man from Pineville, W.V., who was engaged to be married and serving in the U.S. Air Force as an electrical technician. Dhahran was his first overseas deployment. He was only in the country four days when the towers were attacked. Sadly, Lester was killed in the explosion. The Airman lying in the hospital bed was actually Paul, who had miraculously survived the ordeal.

“When I went to the bathroom, I forgot to take my dog tags with me,” Paul said. “They misidentified me as Airman Lester.”

In a news release, the Department of Defense clarified that members of Lester’s unit had incorrectly identified Blais as the fallen Airman. For Lester’s family, the news that their son had not survived the attack was unbearable.

“They took it as well as you would think,” Paul said. “For one week they thought their son had survived.”

Paul’s mother, Maria Taylor, had been preparing for the worst ever since she was told Paul was missing and presumed killed in the explosion. When Paul was properly identified, Taylor was relieved beyond words.

“I waited a long time for the answer and finally [the officials] call us today and tell me my son is alive and is 100 percent my son,” she said in an interview, June 29, 1996. “It’s a very, very, very happy day of my life.”

U.S. and Saudi military personnel survey the damage to Khobar Towers caused by the explosion of a fuel truck outside the northern fence of the facility on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 2:55 p.m. EDT, June 25, 1996.

Although still in a coma, Paul was well enough to be transported to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His condition steadily improved, and on Aug. 3, 1997, Paul opened his eyes for the first time since his world literally collapsed around him. His first thoughts were of the Air Force and the mission he had sworn to complete.

“I wanted to get up and return to work,” he said. “I wanted to do my job, not be a pin cushion.”

There was only one problem – the attack had left Paul with severe physical injuries.

“I was in essence a newborn child,” Paul said. “I still had the mental capacity of a 26-year-old, but I couldn’t eat, drink, walk or talk. I could think it, but I couldn’t do it.”

Frustrated, Paul became obsessed with thoughts of escaping the hospital and returning to his aircrew, his mind refusing to accept that they had all died in the attack.

“I was not going to stay there and be stuck full of needles,” he said. “Every night, I tried to escape. It didn’t work. Two steps out of the bed and I would fall flat on my face. So I did what I was trained to do in survival school – I low-crawled.”

Unfortunately, the nurse’s station was adjacent to the elevator. Every time Paul got close to “freedom” a nurse would see him and carry him back to bed, chiding him as a “bad Airman.” By the end of the second week, Paul’s escape attempts had become so frequent his doctor began restraining him to the bed.

“My doctor didn’t realize I had been through escape and evasion training,” Paul said. “Those restraints gave the nurses an extra five or 10 minutes of slack time.”

During Paul’s recovery and repeated escape attempts, he was visited by the then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Ronald Fogleman. The general, who regarded the Khobar Towers bombing as “a wanton act of terrorism,” awarded Paul a Purple Heart and medically retired him from active-duty service.

Paul Blais holds his Purple Heart medal in his hand, May 15, 2013.

According to Paul, his doctor hoped the retirement would curb the escape attempts. By the end of the third week, a restraining cage had been built around Paul’s bed to keep him from breaking free.

“I could not get out of that cage to save my life,” Paul said with a chuckle. “I was in there for two weeks, but had I been in there a third, I would have gotten out of that cage.”

As Paul physically recovered, stunning doctors who said he would never walk again, his thoughts began to dwell on his second family.

“I would try to remember the attack and all that would come to mind would be feelings of sorrow and guilt,” he said. “I was the one to survive when they all died. I was the ‘lucky one.'”

For years, Paul would struggle with survivor’s guilt and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he never truly got over those feelings, but rather learned to manage them better. Now, he tries to only remember the trips to Greenland and conversations about snow bunnies.

“I think of all the good times we had together,” Paul said. “They, we, were all ready and willing to give our lives in defense of this country.”

Now, Paul carries on the legacy of his fallen comrades by speaking to every class of senior airmen at Langley’s Airman Leadership School. He stands in front of the future leaders with a solemn and powerful message.

“Freedom really is not free,” he said. “My aircrew paid the price with their lives. I paid the price by having to survive and carry on with the knowledge of what they might have accomplished, had they lived.”

Those memories stayed with Paul as he methodically placed groceries inside bags at the Langley Commissary – his face once again lost in the sea of tasks and distractions that follow people throughout their day.

PHOTO 1: Paul Blais speaks to an Airman Leadership School class at Langley Air Force Base, Va., May 15, 2013 – discussing his experience as a U.S. Air Force Airman and survivor of the Khobar Towers attack. The attack, which occured June 25, 1996 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 Airmen and wounded hundreds more. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton)

PHOTO 2: U.S. and Saudi military personnel peer into the crater caused by the explosion of a fuel truck outside the northern fence of Khobar Towers on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, at 2:55 p.m. EDT June 25, 1996. Several buildings were damaged and there were numerous U.S. casualties. The facility houses U.S. service members and serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Air Force’s 4404th Wing (Provisional), Southwest Asia. (DoD photo)

PHOTO 3: U.S. and Saudi military personnel survey the damage to Khobar Towers caused by the explosion of a fuel truck outside the northern fence of the facility on King Abdul Aziz Air Base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 2:55 p.m. EDT, June 25, 1996. Several buildings were damaged and there were numerous U.S. casualties. The facility houses U.S. service members and serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Air Force’s 4404th Wing (Provisional), Southwest Asia. (DoD photo)

PHOTO 4: Paul Blais holds his Purple Heart medal in his hand, May 15, 2013. Blais was awarded the medal after he survived the Khobar Tower bombing, June 25, 1996. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton)

Joint exercise through a new Airman’s eyes

by Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz
99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

“The drop is in 12 minutes!” shouted a crew member, struggling to be heard over the roar of the mighty C-17 Globemaster III’s four engines, each putting out approximately 40,000 pounds of thrust.

Quickly I made my way down the ladder from the flight deck and started the perilous walk toward my seat at the very end of the C-17’s massive fuselage. I grabbed anything possible to avoid being thrown to the floor during the pilot’s aggressive banking, with thousands of dollars of Air Force camera equipment on my back. Mercifully, I made it to my seat, flipped it down and strapped in.

12 minutes later, like clockwork, the fuselage was flooded with sunlight as the ramp was lowered. The first of many parachutes was attached to a formidable piece of Air Force construction equipment prior to it being slid out the back into the blue sky.

In all the commotion, I had just enough time to get my camera into position and snap off those last few shots as the massive piece of steel was ripped out of the back of the aircraft headed for the desert valley below. I was left in awe watching it glide down through the clouds of flare smoke to the intended drop zone wondering, how did I get here?

Just nine months ago, I was a brand-new high school graduate working at a Sonic Drive-In, in Gilbert, Ariz. Ask anyone who knew me and they’d tell you I was always good in school. In fact, I graduated with a 3.75 GPA at one of the highest-rated schools in Arizona.

But I already knew that college wasn’t for me; the military was all I really wanted.

I was off to basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Sept. 25, 2012, where I was “introduced” to my new life, and started from the bottom to learn the ins and outs of military life. Both of my instructors were staff sergeants, so it’s funny for me looking back to a time when a person with four stripes was intimidating beyond approach, any officer was even scarier and a general was a myth.

I was assigned a 3N0X5A Air Force specialty code, and suddenly I was an Air Force photojournalist expected to show the faces and tell the story of the Air Force. This is a formidable task for a fresh high school graduate who’s been a part of the Air Force for less than six months and remains admittedly unaware of most of its workings.

Fast forward just six months, and I’m packing my camera bag full of water and beef jerky in preparation for what’s sure to be the high point of my career thus far — a day onboard a C-17 flying through a simulated combat environment.

Upon arrival at my assigned aircraft, I was able to observe the last checks and inspections on the cargo, a massive 820th RED HORSE backhoe. Parachutes of various sizes and innumerable cords, ties and hooks adorned the massive piece of equipment, with any moving parts packed tightly in place. This thing was in for a rough ride, and the hours of meticulous rigging and packing were a clear indication of its value to warfighters on the ground.

I sat down and checked my equipment, cleaned lenses and adjusted camera settings as I awaited takeoff. I remember pulling out my phone and checking my Facebook profile, reading about some people I knew back home still at their old jobs, doing the same old things and dealing with the same old problems.

“Where do you want to sit?” asked the aircraft’s energetic loadmaster, Staff Sgt. Steven Doubler from the 57th Weapons Squadron, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., as he pointed to various spots around the fuselage. Thrilled to even have a choice in the matter, I immediately took him up on his offer to spend my day on the flight deck observing the skills and processes involved with flying such a hulking machine in a simulated-contested environment.

At the top of the ladder to the flight deck, I was briefly greeted by the crew who were understandably quite busy checking the functionality of endless buttons, dials and displays.

Once in the air and en route to “enemy territory,” the group of five experienced pilots took the opportunity to really teach me the ins and outs of the day’s mission. My questions and observations were met with great enthusiasm by Lt. Col. Shawn Serfass, the 57th Weapons Squadron director of operations, there along with Brig. Gen. Charles Moore, the 57th Wing commander, to oversee and evaluate all aspects of the exercise from the best seat in the house — the formation lead C-17.

Talking with Serfass, it became immediately clear how passionate and enthusiastic he was about the exercise and the air combat mission as a whole. He showed me a variety of what he simply called “products,” that were really quite complex graphs and maps developed by U.S. Air Force Weapons School, or USAFWS, planners that choreographed every aspect of the mission. Who, what, when, where and what if, all down to the minute.

A piece of heavy land-moving equipment is dropped out of the back of a C-17 Globemaster III May 31, over the Nevada Test and Training Range.

“This is an example of how the mission would go in a perfect world,” Serfass said with maps in hand gesturing towards our pilot, Capt. Matthew Purcell, a 57th Weapons Squadron USAFWC student.

He went on to explain in depth what makes a USAFWS graduate uniquely qualified versus those Airmen who haven’t had the opportunity to attend. He said the sophisticated planning is vital, but pilots need to be trusted to make experienced and educated decisions if things go wrong.

“What if somebody’s a few minutes late? What if we miss the drop zone? What if we lose an aircraft?” Serfass said, listing just a few aspects of the plan that could go awry.

“The air war has started,” said Maj. Nate Hagerman, the aircraft commander, grinning in his seat behind the co-pilot. “Friendly” fighters had crossed into the Nevada Test and Training Range and were engaging with “enemy” aggressor aircraft and simulated surface-to-air missile sites in order to lighten the resistance for the cargo aircraft transporting equipment and paratroopers. Pilots from the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons, flying F-15C Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons bearing aggressive foreign paint schemes, are experts in adversary tactics and certainly wouldn’t make it easy.

Eventually, the formation of 13 C-17s was cleared to converge on the drop zone; it was time.

I watched the numbers on the altimeter in the pilot’s heads-up display decrease at an alarming rate, and grabbed a solid piece of railing as Capt. Purcell threw our aircraft into a plunge between the mountains toward the desert floor — 1,500 feet, 1,200 feet, 900 feet, 600 feet; the numbers kept falling.

“Why are we flying so low?” I turned to my right and asked Serfass, who was also bracing himself against the aggressive pitches and dives over and between mountains.

“It’s the radar!” he said excitedly, turning to me and pulling off one side of his headset. “We need to stay low so we don’t get picked up. Just be careful and hold onto something, you’ll get a good leg work out!”

I laughed and turned my head back toward the cockpit window, where Purcell had us sideways yet again, bobbing up and down in his seat and bending his neck checking all his sightlines and expertly maneuvering into position for the drop.

In that moment I remember thinking to myself, “so this is what it’s like.” I remember thinking about all the dedicated pilots who flew, and continue to fly real missions like this every day. Missions infinitely more perilous than the relatively controlled exercise I was sent to document that day. And as I, a humble airman first class in a cramped cockpit with weapons officers ranging from captain to brigadier general, sat back and observed the focus and attention to detail put on display by the aircrew. It was blatantly apparent to me why the United States has the best Air Force in the world.

PHOTO: A piece of heavy land-moving equipment is dropped out of the back of a C-17 Globemaster III May 31, over the Nevada Test and Training Range. As part of the Joint Forcible Entry exercise, heavy equipment was dropped into simulated-contested drop zones to assist forces on the ground. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz)

Warrior Games 2013: Airman faces challenge at Games as TBI victim

Capt. Mitchell Kieffer gears up for a bike ride during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp.by Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

By looking at him, you would never be able to tell he is a battle-tested, combat-injured Airman. He is a testament to invisible wounds and just how their effects can become visible in everyday life.

Capt. Mitchell Kieffer is a mathematician at heart and an operations research analyst at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. The three-time Air Force triathlete and personal trainer was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., working at the Air Force Research Laboratory there when he got the opportunity he had been waiting for — a deployment.

He had volunteered to go into an engineering job at AFRL to increase his chances of deploying. He got his wish in 2010 and left for Iraq with a team from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I was an Air Force guy in an Army uniform,” Kieffer said. “I was attached to the Baghdad Resident Office, and I volunteered to be an operations officer for them. I planned and executed a lot of movements to the different project sites. We were there to build police stations, hospitals, telecommunications centers, tank facilities for their Army and all sorts of stuff.”

Keiffer said for the most part, the deployment went smoothly. He had been there for five of the six months of his deployment and travelled “outside the wire” more than 40 times without incident. Typically, he and his team would use lightly-armored SUVs when they were going downtown and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles on the outskirts of town.

But on this particular day, things were different.

“We were going to a place that was a one-way-in, one-way-out type of a place, so that’s really not the best case scenario,” Kieffer said. “And this time instead of taking MRAPs, we were in the lightly armored SUVs because the MRAPs were in the shop that day.”

Other factors that day led to a situation that would soon lead to a tragic chain of events. According to Kieffer, there was no close air support available, and the team was going out later in the day than normal.

“Basically we got ambushed,” he said. “The first out of the four vehicles got hit by a conventional (improvised explosive device). Our vehicle, the third vehicle, almost simultaneously got hit by an explosively formed penetrating IED, so it’s basically like a copper plate that has the munition behind it, and forms a slug and basically punches through anything. That went through our vehicle like butter about two feet in front of my forehead, and I was sitting on the blast side.”

Three of the four vehicles in the convoy were hit. In addition to the EFP IED, the attackers sprayed the vehicles with automatic weapons fire and rocket propelled grenades.

“I was knocked out for a few seconds. I can’t really remember,” Kieffer said. “Then I woke up inside (the vehicle) and the major, my boss, was next to me screaming and I was just like, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ All of the lights and AC displays were dislodged. They were hanging by the wires. The entire inside was fragged with the copper fragments, the interior was all ripped; smoke was inside.”

“‘I was like, ‘What do I do?’ I was like, ‘OK, he’s higher ranking than me,’ so I basically just laid on top of him and let the contractors do what they needed to do to break contact to get out.”

The British contractors were able to subdue the attackers and all four vehicles in the convoy managed to make it back to the base. The team changed their flat tires and fixed whatever damages they could before making the two-hour drive back to base with three busted vehicles.

“It was an act of God that we all made it out, especially with our vehicle being fragged,” Kieffer said. “Before I left, my cousin Chris gave me this four-way medal that St. Christopher is part of, and he’s the guardian of travelers. That was the main reason for Chris to give me this, so I never took it off since the day he gave it to me. And I have yet to take it off, except when I have x-rays or when I wear my blues and what not. I feel like that had a great deal to do with me getting out alive.”

Once they arrived back at the base, each person on the team was examined by the doctors. It seemed everyone was fine – until it was Kieffer’s turn. He wasn’t able to pass a preliminary traumatic brain injury test. He was sent to the hospital in Baghdad for doctors there to observe his condition.

“While I was there, things weren’t getting better,” Kieffer said. “I used to joke around with the British contractors, and we would make fun of each other and banter back and forth. I was so slow mentally it felt like English was a second language because the processing speed was so slow. They would ask me how I’m doing and it would take a bunch of time to figure out what they said, to hear it, to break down the message, to figure out what they’re trying to get across and how I would respond. That’s a long time to say, ‘I’m good.’ So the bantering back and forth stopped.”

Besides not being able to keep up with the quick-witted conversations with his comrades, Kieffer said he was worried he wouldn’t be able to do the things he really enjoyed.

“I was pretty darn scared because I always felt like school was pretty easy,” Kieffer said. “I was a math guy and I enjoyed intellectual kinds of things. It scared me quite a bit. It actually brought me to tears one time thinking I was going to be that slow forever.”

Kieffer spent a week in the hospital in Baghdad and then returned to the United States to be treated. He said after a month he began healing but he still faced some huge challenges. His TBI not only affected his cognitive thinking skills, physically it left him to deal with excruciating headaches that nothing could soothe.

He tried to keep his injury under wraps but an upcoming assignment would put him to the test. Prior to being wounded, the Purple Heart medal recipient was accepted into the Air Force Institute of Technology ‘s engineering graduate school program. Just six months after returning home from his deployment, he was scheduled to start school.

“The first assignment I did there took me seven hours straight sitting at a computer,” Kieffer said. “I had to get it done. I had to figure everything out, and it was so frustrating because I knew it shouldn’t be (this hard). It was a probabilities and statistics course and this was stuff I had known for a long time and had mastered before.”

As Kieffer pushed himself to keep up with his studies, he stumbled upon a treatment for his TBI.

“As time went on in the program, that seven hour assignment became five hours and then four hours and after a year and a half in school those assignments were taking an hour and a half, two hours tops,” he said. “I think that has been my best therapy for improving my cognitive capabilities after the traumatic brain injury. It’s been basically just doing mental workouts.

“I thank God that I was able to go that assignment because I don’t know if I would’ve had the motivation to do all that learning on my own,” he said.

He also used his time in school to research the issues he and other injured, ill and wounded Airmen were facing and used it as the subject of his thesis.

These days, Kieffer continues to exercise his mind and his body.

Since his injury, Kieffer married his wife, Ana Maria, and inherited two daughters, Ana Paula and Ana Cristina. The couple was married in his wife’s native Peru, and her family only speaks Spanish. Kieffer said learning to speak Spanish as part of a bilingual family is something that helps him keep his cognitive skills sharpened.

“I noticed that if I don’t do anything intellectually, it’ll start to fade again,” he said. “That stuff goes if I have lack of sleep or high stress. Now it’s just a point of coping with it.”

Keiffer, who has scored 100 points on every active-duty physical training test he’s taken, continues to work his physical muscles in his personal training business and as an athlete in the 2013 Warrior Games. He will represent the Air Force in the Ultimate Champion – a pentathlon-style event that pits warriors from each branch of service, including Special Operations Command, against each other for the title of Ultimate Champion.

No matter what the score cards say, the resiliency and gumption displayed by wounded warriors like Kieffer, pushing through their pain – physically and mentally – has already earned them the title of champion.

PHOTO: Capt. Mitchell Kieffer gears up for a bike ride at the Academy during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 15, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios)

Warrior Games 2013: Competing ‘medicine’ for AF wounded warrior

Master Sgt. Shawn Schwantes gears up for a bike ride at theWounded Warrior Games training camp. by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Master Sgt. Shawn Schwantes may have been a pleasant surprise for his Air Force Warrior Games coaches during the team’s training camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy. But Schwantes fully expected to flourish on the track and with his teammates because he considers sports his most effective medicine.

Representing the Air Force Warrior Games team in the men’s open 30-kilometer cycling and 1900-meter open track and field is a natural fit because of a strong running background that includes ultra marathons with distances of 26-plus miles.

“It’s medication for me,” Schwantes said. “I’m completely off my pain meds, primarily because nothing works. I’ve made the life choice to not stay at home and have self-pity and kind of wither away on a couch, because that’s not me. I live with chronic pain every day. But I’ve chosen to get up, get out, be active and I’m seeing positive results from it.”

In January 2012, Schwantes was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, chronic pain that usually develops in an arm or leg after an injury, surgery, stroke or heart attack. The pain is usually considerably more severe than the original injury.

“Because it’s very rare, and doctors still don’t fully understand it, your mind kind of just goes blank when you hear you’ve been diagnosed with CRPS,” Schwantes said. “You get very worried about what the future’s going to be like.”

Schwantes began his career in security police and combat arms in 1995 and cross-trained into tactical air control party 15 years later. By the time he showed up for his first TACP duty station at Fort Campbell, Ky., after technical training three years ago, he had a severe stress fracture in his heel and a torn rotator cuff.

“I had a bunionectomy and osteotomy in my right foot in January 2010, and a month after the procedure, I started noticing things didn’t look or feel normal,” he said. Schwantes, who was recovering from surgery in San Antonio, sent photos of his foot to his physician. His podiatrist at Fort Campbell immediately determined he had CRPS, although they needed a specialist to make the official diagnosis.

At the time of the training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., Schwantes was waiting to hear the results from his appeal of his Medical Evaluation Board’s disability rating.

Running, especially at a competition level in the Warrior Games, gives Schwantes an outlet for coping with stress from his almost 20-year career being in jeopardy to his CRPS.

“I was told you’ll never run as fast as you did or as far as you did,” he said. “‘You’ll never upright cycle again.’ That was a huge part of my life, and I hate being told you can’t do something.”

Schwantes’ Warrior Games track coaches certainly don’t share the opinion that he lost his ability to run at a high level. Capt. Ben Payne, coach for the running events, was not only impressed by Schwantes’ running, but also by how he motivated his teammates.

“Shawn was a very talented runner from the very beginning,” Payne said. “He pushed himself in any workout I gave him. The altitude has a big effect on long-distance runners, but he’s overcome that. I’m excited to see what he does on his own (for the three weeks between the training camp and the Games), and when he shows up for the Warrior Games being fit and ready to compete with the top guys and maybe get a medal for the Air Force.”

As much as placing in the Games would mean for Schwantes, it is not what his mind is focused on as he’s training for the competition. Instead, he is relishing the relationships he’s building with his teammates and the impact it’s having on him during this pivotal time in his personal and professional life. Just being around fellow wounded warriors has been inspiring him, even as he awaits the decision on his MEB appeal.

“It ignites a fire,” Schwantes said. “It is a competition. I get that. I’m here to compete, but that’s not my priority. My priority is to be with my teammates who have made the same choice I have. Whatever condition or problem occurs, they have similar stories I have of being told they’re never going to be able to do these types of things again. Yet, here they are, world-class athletes performing at a high level, and some of them performing better than able-bodied athletes. Just to hang out with them, with the drive and passion they have, is another form of medicine for me.”

PHOTO: Master Sgt. Shawn Schwantes gears up for a bike ride at the Academy during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 15, 2013. Schwantes is stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Desiree N. Palacios)

For more information check out the 2013 Warrior Games bios.

Warrior Games 2013: Cancer survivor tackles new challenge

Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa listens to her coach at the Academy indoor track.by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa found herself among a trio of female Air Force Warrior Games athletes with a special bond. Ishikawa, Tech. Sgt. Monica Figueroa and Master Sgt. Sherry Nel are all cancer survivors and relied on each other for support and conversation during the team’s selection camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Before the holidays in 2009, Ishikawa, then a diagnostic imaging technologist at Aviano Air Base, Italy, never imagined she would be running track and field events, not to mention in competition for wounded warrior athletes. She first felt a lump in her breast in December 2009, but her invasive mammary carcinoma wasn’t diagnosed until the following April.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Ishikawa said. “Nobody expects to get cancer, and I had no family history of it. I’ve always been very healthy and active, and I tried to take care of myself. It was a shock, still a shock, but you learn to cope and move on.”

While Ishikawa, whose cancer is now in remission after multiple surgeries, a double mastectomy and reconstruction, didn’t want to compete because she didn’t have a combat-related injury, conversations with Figueroa and Nel, along with other wounded warriors, changed her mind. She was already particularly close with Nel, who she befriended near the end of her recovery from chemotherapy and radiation in the 59th Medical Wing’s Patient Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

“Lara and I are pretty much parallel with the complications we’ve had,” Nel said. “We’ve both had just about everything you can throw at us. We’d been doing it individually, thinking that we were both alone. It felt so good to find out that we were not alone. Lara really inspired me with her tenacity. She’s a little bear claw because she just grabs on to something and takes care of it. Her spirit really had me hooked.”

While the multiple surgeries sapped her energy in the past few years, she appears more than ready for the training and competition in the 100 and 200-meter and long jump track and field events.

“I feel more energetic today than I have in the past three years,” she said. “But in the past two and a half years, I had no energy because I had the surgeries, having to deal with the career, and the medications they put you on that make you tired. Last spring, I had a pretty serious surgery. After that, I could hardly walk, hardly make it up my stairs. I found it a challenge to go for a walk around the block, even though I knew it was good for me. I don’t like to sit around doing nothing, so I made myself take a walk and realized I could do that. The next thing I knew, two months later, I was running.

“With the Warrior Games, I’ve been pushed to my max. I’m really sore, but I’m working muscles I haven’t worked in 15 to 20 years, and emotionally, I’ve met some incredible people.”

After the Games, Ishikawa hopes she can continue on with her 10-year Air Force career, but if she’s not able to remain on duty, she will adjust to a new course.

“I’ve enjoyed the Air Force,” she said. “The Air Force has been wonderful to me in every way. I don’t have one complaint. On the other hand, if I get out, I can start a new life, maybe go to school. But the main goal is to stay healthy. If I’m healthy, I’m happy.”

For more information check out the 2013 Warrior Games bios.

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa listens to her coach speak before running laps at the Academy indoor track during the Wounded Warrior Games Training Camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 17, 2013. Ishikawa is stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios)