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Warrior Games 2013: An inside look

Air Force News Service
Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Warrior Games, a spirited competition that pits wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans against their representative services, continues into its fourth year as teams converge on Colorado Springs, Colo., beginning May 11.

This year, 50 Airmen and former Airmen will compete in individual and team sports including archery, cycling, shooting, swimming, track and field, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.

Over the next two weeks you’ll get a close-up look at these warriors and the long road they’ve travelled from, in some cases death’s door, to becoming some of the premier wounded athletes in the country.

There’s the story of Katie Robinson, a former combat camera videographer who was shot in Iraq and has worked through PTSD issues to compete in both swimming and track and field. Then there’s Darrell Fisher, a former senior airman who was pronounced dead in a random shooting and went through an intense near death experience before a long road to recovery.

Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa tells the story of her fight against invasive mammary carcinoma. “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…” She, along with two other cancer survivors, will compete this year.

Then there is the story of Master Sgt. Paul Horton, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal NCO, who says he was always the unlucky one growing up and has been blown up on six different occasions to prove it. He tells his story of overcoming the odds each time and somehow turning potential tragedy into a series of learning experiences. Maybe he’s not so unlucky after all.

These stories and more will be highlighted over the next two weeks as warriors from all services come together to show their mettle and compete over six days and seven events. These stories will sometimes amaze you, sometimes pull at your heart strings, but in all cases show examples of turning tragedy into something much more positive.

As a beginning to this series on the warrior games, below is a special post submitted by one of the Air Force wounded warriors.

By Keith Sekora
Air Force Wounded Warrior

Last month, 55 Airmen came together to represent the Air Force at a training camp for all 2013 Warrior Games competitors. Throughout the camp, we endured a rigorous training regiment to compete in different sports like track and field, shooting, swimming, cycling, archery, wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball.

For me, training days started out with more than two hours of track and field practice where I was put through the paces of throwing a discus and shot-put by coaches Buddy and Jenn Lizzol. After a quick lunch break, I attended another two-hour training session to gear up for seated volleyball where I was physically and mentally challenged every day by coaches Nicki Marino and Adrieen Rank. After a short drive to the archery range, I spent another two hours honing my archery skills under the watchful eye of Coach Gary. My favorite sport is definitely seated volleyball because I played it before I was wounded and love the fact that with some adaptation I can continue to play.

Retired Tech. Sgt. Keith Sekora practices a serve during sitting volleyball.
PHOTO: Retired Tech. Sgt. Keith Sekora practices a serve during sitting volleyball at the 2013 Warrior Games training camp at the Air Force Academy, Colo. Sekora is competing in volleyball, shot-put and discus.

After shrapnel from an improvised explosive device struck the back of my neck during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, I suffered a series of four strokes and was left with post-traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, vertigo and loss of feeling on the left side of my body. But, that hasn’t swayed my confidence in participating because I love competing in the Warrior Games. It gives me a sense of purpose again and also lets me know that I am not alone. Each of us compete under the flag of our branch of service, but I think it’s more important that we get to meet other wounded warriors who understand what we are going through. Everyone is willing to help each other out, no matter what branch you are from.

This is my second Warrior Games, and this year’s team is very young. There are not many returning athletes from last year’s games, and those who have returned are mentoring the new athletes.

Another big change is in the behind-the-scenes staff who worked hard to help things move along smoothly. This is by far the best training camp I have attended yet. Last year, leading up to the 2012 Warrior Games, I attended several adaptive sports camps with members of the Navy, Coast Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command teams and developed good friendships with many of them.

Don’t get me wrong, the competition is hard and no one lets up at all. We are here to show the world that even though we are wounded or disabled, we are still fierce competitors. I think 55 individual athletes came to training camp and left as a team with one thought in mind — to win!

Seven Summits Challenge Update

By Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson
920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

In this blog entry, Staff Sgt. Nick Gibson, a U.S. Air Force Reserve pararescueman and physician assistant student from Gulf Breeze, Fla., stationed at Patrick AFB, tells his story about the journey to the top of Mount Everest with his fellow Airmen. The team of six Airmen are on an independent 50-day journey. For more information, you may read Gibson’s previous blog post.

Photo of the Black Pyramid formation on Mount Everest.

April 22: Today we got up bright and early at 3 a.m. and packed up to hike into the icefall for the first time. While we are only going in about halfway and then turning around, we are all a little jittery over the known dangers that the icefall holds. We planned to go to what is called the “football field” and then return back to camp. I had my Sherpa, Mingma Tenzing II, with me and we got within 30 minutes of the football field before heavy fog turned us around. This was our first experience after practicing earlier with ladders across the crevasses. As long as you focus on your crampons and the ladder, and not what lies beneath, it’s fine. Easier done at night under headlamp than during the day when it’s hard not to notice the deepening blue of the dense ice beneath you. I was pretty exhausted by the time we returned, however as the sun surfaced from the horizon, the beauty of the icefall revealed itself almost as an explanation of the danger toll. The mystery of the icefall no longer hangs over us.

April 24: I am writing this from Camp 1 (19,900 feet) as we all recover from a long day through the icefall. This morning felt much better than the previous half-trip we made. I am relived to be past the West Shoulder with its overlooking dangers. The tent is getting hit by midday sun and is almost unbearably hot! What a contrast to the cold temperatures at night. We are finding any way we can to pass the time as our bodies adjust to the low pressure at this height. Colin, one of the other Air Force guys, has his Sherpa pitching snowballs at him that he swings for the fences on with a shovel. Books are very popular, although it can be difficult to read about the “cold beer and pizza” that the characters consume within the pages. Often, though, it eventually turns back to swapping stories from adventures on deployments or training. This bond becomes the only glue that survives any temperature the mountain provides. After tomorrow night, it is on to Camp 2 and 21,300 feet!


April 27: We are enjoying our only full day at Camp 2 (21,300 feet). The air makes it difficult to want to do much but sit around and read or nap. The point of these rotations aren’t to do much anyway, but to simply be at that altitude. Many of us have begun battling the cough, which makes laughing at each others’ jokes a dangerous thing, ha ha! One of the climbers, not part of our group, has become ill and was showing very low oxygen saturation levels. Other happenings in camp have given me an opportunity to care for this climber and exchange information with the physicians at the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) at Base Camp. They have established a good care plan for the climber that we are implementing with good results. We are all going to descend tomorrow morning back to Base Camp for some much needed recovery time. This is the highest I will carry my good Nikon camera due to the weight and the desire to have maximum focus on climbing. I am very pleased with the images I have been able to capture and look forward to using them in my exhibit show in Atlanta when I return!

April 30: I am finally back to the Internet here in Gorek Shep! I got very little sleep the last night in Camp 2, but the trip back down to Base Camp went well. I could feel my strength returning as I got lower. I went in to the HRA to follow up on my patient and see about getting treated myself for my cough. The patient made it down, slow, but fine to Base Camp and is doing much better. Best medicine in these mountains is almost always descend, descend, descend. While my oxygen saturation was around 90%, I am starting some antibiotics (second course of the trip) for an upper respiratory infection. I have between four and seven days rest to make sure I am healthy for rotation two. This time we will spend a night at Camp 3 (24,000 feet). This is the highest we will go without oxygen. The next rotation after that will be our summit bid and we will sleep on oxygen upon arrival to Camp 3 on that trip. I feel strong today and slept like a rock last night! I am so grateful for the support of my family, friends and all those who’ve been so supportive of this expedition. Please, let’s not forget that our veterans are climbing their own mountains of recovery from injuries, physical and mental, and while we can’t climb for them, our support could be the oxygen that means all the difference in reaching their summit. Please engage and support you veterans!!!

PHOTO: (top) Early morning photo of Mount Everest from Camp 2 walking to Camp 1. The black pyramid formation is on the left. A team of six active-duty Airmen is currently on their way to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. (Courtesy photo) (bottom) Airmen descend a three-part ladder in the Khumbu Icefall. (Courtesy photo)

Information courtesy of USAF Seven Summits Challenge blog. For more information, follow the team’s progress on the Seven Summits website, Seven Summits blog and Facebook page. You can also visit the 920th Rescue Wing Facebook page. The USAF 7 Summits Challenge is not officially sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force. It is a team of military members acting unofficially, and with no DOD financial assistance, to spread goodwill about the U.S. Air Force.

Air Superiority: 60 years in the making

by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service

A North Vietnamese Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 is hit by 20 mm shells from a U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief

A few months after the D-Day invasion in June 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower surveyed the Normandy beaches with his son. “You’d never get away with this if you didn’t have air supremacy,” then 2nd Lt. John Eisenhower told his father. “Without air supremacy,” the elder Eisenhower replied, “I wouldn’t be here.”

The United States won air superiority in Europe by 1944 and the Pacific by the fall, won it in Korea in 1950 and hasn’t lost control of the skies since. No American service members on the ground have died from enemy air attacks since three were killed during the Korean War more than 60 years ago.

Control of the air gives a military power the opportunity to exploit height, reach and speed, enabling informed decision-making, the ability to strike freely at a distance, and the ability to maneuver unconstrained by the limits of terrain or ocean, said Dr. Richard P. Hallion, former Air Force Historian and senior advisor for air and space issues with the Directorate for Security, Counterintelligence and Special Programs Oversight.

“I go back to David versus Goliath,” said Hallion, author of “Storm Over Iraq: Airpower in the Gulf War” and “Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Attack.” “There wasn’t a manhood issue here demanding he engage in the close fight, where he could have lost. Instead, David hit him with an aerospace weapon – a rock at a distance. In the airpower era, that aerospace weapon is the airplane and missile of today.”

When the North Koreans invaded the South in June 1950, they did so with overwhelming military force, and initially, without encountering immediate air attacks, Hallion said. Retired Marine Corps Col. Warren Wiedhahn experienced combat in Korea as a private first class, both with and without close air support.

During the initial days of the Korean War, “there was no close air support, the North Korean juggernaut moved very rapidly with their tanks, artillery and infantry. They annihilated everything in front of them until there was nothing left in Korea but the Pusan perimeter,” Wiedhahn said.

But by then, robust air power forces – Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps – assisted by British, Australian and South Korean airmen as well – were taking a heavy toll on North Korean attackers, Hallion said.

“During that period of time, the close air support was building up,” Wiedhahn said. “The ships were coming in. The Air Force was flying. Now, all of a sudden, we began to see aircraft.”

After participating in the Inchon Landing and helping to liberate Seoul, Wiedhahn also fought in the battle of the Chosin Reservoir a few months later. United Nations forces chased the North Korean army to the southern tip of South Korea until China sent more than 100,000 troops that surrounded about 30,000 U.N. troops.

“When we were up in the Chosin Reservoir, and the Chinese decided to attack, we began to see air – mostly Navy and Marine Corps (Vought F4U) Corsairs off of the carriers. That’s how I really began to appreciate close air support. It (Control of the air) is absolutely, positively vital. After a 17-day battle in sub-zero temperatures, the Marines managed to withdraw to the coast, where they were evacuated in December.”

“Indeed, air power saved the Marines from annihilation as they made their way from the reservoir down to the coast,” Hallion said.

Five years after Wiedhahn retired as a colonel in 1982, he talked with four of the Chinese he fought against in the Chosin Reservoir during a visit to Beijing as part of his Virginia-based Military Historical Tours organization. About 40 years later, the sights and sounds of American aircraft were still engrained in their memories.

“One of the greatest things we feared was your airpower,” the Chinese told Wiedhahn. They said, they always moved at night, and never moved when the weather was clear because of their fear of our planes.

Air superiority and supremacy are two of the five conditions in the air warfare spectrum, along with air paralysis, air inferiority and air parity. There is actually a huge difference between air superiority and supremacy that can be especially costly in war, Hallion said.

“Air superiority is the absolute minimal condition we should ever be prepared to fight with,” he said. “Air superiority means that the enemy is still able to undertake air action against you, but you are able to confound and defeat it. What we should really seek is what we had in the latter stages of World War II and what we had in the (Persian) Gulf War, where we had air supremacy, indeed, we had air dominance. That’s where you so thoroughly dominate your opponent that they are instantly confronted with air attack, and they are unable to do anything about it.

“We had air supremacy, clearly, in the first Gulf War because in that war, the Iraqi air force was simply unable to intervene either against our coalition air forces or against coalition surface forces. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, by the second or third week, the Iraqi air force was fleeing the country, and the air action there was primarily intercepting aircraft trying to flee to Iran.

That’s what happens when you have air supremacy, and in the best of all circumstances, air dominance. You can then devote 100 percent of your air effort to ensure that the people on the ground get the support they need to prosecute the ground war.”

Gen. Charles A. Horner, who commanded all U.S. and allied air assets during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, credited the airpower dominance to the intelligence, preparation and training before the invasion.

An F-4G Wild Weasel fighter (foreground) and an F-16 Fighting Falcon are serviced on the flight line prior to departing for Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.

“When did we get air superiority? We had it before the war began because we had the means to get it – the equipment, intelligence, training, and the courage of the aircrews,” Horner said.

“But do not get the idea that gaining control of the air was easy. It was not a macho, no-sweat operation. What turned into a turkey shoot in late January and February started out as a bitter struggle; those first few days were the hardest-fought, most-critical aspect of the entire war.”

Because the Air Force has had almost an unprecedented control of the skies for decades, it might be easy to forget how costly it was to achieve air superiority, especially during World War II. In the European and Mediterranean theaters alone, the U.S. lost 4,325 fighters and bombers before D-Day, with 17,000 killed and 21,000 wounded or POW in the fight for air superiority and didn’t achieve theater-wide supremacy until the final days of the war.

More Airmen were killed in aerial missions over Europe “than all the Marines who unfortunately died in the entire span of World War II,” said retired Gen. David Deptula, who was the Air Force’s senior intelligence community official when he was the Headquarters Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Deptula was also the main attack planner during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and a joint task commander for Operation Northern Watch in 1998-99.

“If you take a look at how many aircraft we lost in the Vietnam War – 2,781 Air Force and Navy combined, that was against a fifth-rate power with only 206 fighter aircraft. Why did that happen? Because, we were late in achieving air superiority.

469th TFS pilots Capts. Bruce Holmes, Will Koenitzer and William "Bart" Barthelmas. Barthelmas was killed in action on July 27, 1965, on the first Air Force airstrike against North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile sites.

“It took us some 30 years to apply the air superiority lesson, but we did it in the form of
developing the F-15 (Eagle). But those F-15s first flew in 1972, and now some of them are more than 30 years old. In 1979, I flew F-15s at Kadena Air Base, Japan. In 2008, my son was flying the exact same tail numbers I did, but it was 29 years later, and that was five years ago.

Today, we have a geriatric combat Air Force, and we badly need to recapitalize it in order to maintain the advantage of air supremacy in the future.”

Without control of the air, troops on the ground face many hardships and hazards, as the late Gen. Bruce K. Holloway, vice chief of staff during the Vietnam War, wrote in an article for Air University Press.

For six decades, American troops haven’t had to experience “what it’s like to lose mobility except at night; to be cut off from supplies and reinforcements; to be constantly under the watchful eye of enemy reconnaissance aircraft; to be always vulnerable to strafing and bombing attacks; to see one’s fighters and bombers burn on their handstands; and to be outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered in the air,” Holloway wrote in his article, “Air Superiority in Tactical Air Warfare.”

However, there are some who aren’t convinced the Air Force’s decades-long dominance of the air is a certainty, especially with recent cuts in weapons systems such as the F-22 Raptor, which Deptula calls “the most capable aircraft ever built specifically to achieve air superiority,” and F-35 Lightning II. In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for capping the original 722 Raptors to 187. Three years later, across-the-board defense spending cuts have put the F-35 at risk.

“There are newer threats out there, quite frankly, that could defeat the aircraft that we currently have,” Deptula said. “That’s why the Air Force works so hard to recapitalize those aircraft by building F-22s and F-35s that can operate, using modern technology, to achieve air dominance by networking capabilities with sensors that we never had in the past.

“Our challenge in the future is we’re not going to have time to do what we did in World War II – bring America’s industrial might to bear over the time necessary to create the kinds of aircraft to maintain our superiority advantage. It falls on Airmen of today, to articulate the air superiority lessons of the past and to make the Airman’s voice in the defense of our nation heard. Today’s Airmen need to be unabashedly clear about the lessons of history in order to maintain our capabilities in the future.”

As vital as Eisenhower perceived air superiority to success on D-Day, some airpower experts wonder if the day will come when the U.S. won’t have the control of the skies needed for a crucial confrontation with another military power.

“I think the greatest danger we face as a nation today is to assume that air and space power is a God-given right to the United States of America, and we will always enjoy it,” Hallion said.

“We see that sometimes, unfortunately, in our sister services. They have labored so long with perfect freedom of maneuver because of the American airpower shield that we’ve put over their heads that I think many individuals fail to realize that it is perishable. Air dominance is like freedom itself – you have to constantly nurture it, care for it and invest in it to ensure that you will still have it.”

Watch a video of General Henry “Hap” Arnold as he discusses the need for Air Superiority during a World War II briefing.

No regrets

Texas A&M cadets perform retreat

By 1st Lt Tori Hight
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

With every birthday that passes, I stop to think about the things I have done in my life. Among the most significant, I have been given the responsibility of shaping the lives and futures of young Airmen placed in my charge.

Looking back on life, no matter your age, you always linger on the things that you haven’t done yet. Some people might call that feeling regret, or consider those things missed opportunities, but I don’t really see it that way.

Six years ago, I was in my senior year of high school filling out college applications. I was pre-accepted to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. While messing around on the Internet one afternoon, I came across a website for the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After a little research, I realized the deadline for applying to my congressman for a nomination to the upcoming class was that same day. I hastily put my application together, and with a little help from the local office store, faxed my materials to be reviewed.

While the rest of the process is a blur, I’ll never forget the feelings I had stepping off the bus at USAFA to the yells and screams of upperclassmen as I scurried to the footsteps at the base of the Core Values Ramp.

The Academy would prove to be the best years of my life so far and some of the most difficult.  Instead of wearing normal clothes to school, we wore uniforms every day and marched to lunch three times a week. There was no such thing as skipping class or briefings–attendance to most events was mandatory. We had unique traditions like spirit cheese, taking the hill and a special way to open a jar of peanut butter. I was able to fly an airplane solo, while other classmates experienced skydiving or joined the honor guard. Even with all the unique opportunities, I’m sure everyone there at some point wondered what life would have been like at a “normal” school.

I was recently offered the opportunity to visit Texas A&M and speak to the Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets about my job in the military for their annual career day.

Texas A&M cadetsI drove onto the campus and right into the main parking garage, marveling the entire way at the vastness of the school and its lack of fences and guarded entry gates. Our group walked right into a building and among the students, making our way to the cadet corps area. It was surreal to take in the sights and sounds of students around us strolling to class in normal clothes, fast food lunches in hand.

The cadet area of the campus was a more familiar environment. Freshmen were hastily making their way around the quad, greeting upperclassmen and offering our group salutes and a big “howdy!” Upperclassmen quickly corrected those who were unfortunate enough not to notice our group pass by.

We toured the dormitories and watched the freshmen stand at attention, calling minutes until the evening events and reciting memorized knowledge about the military.

Speaking with the cadets was a wonderful experience. They had numerous questions about the Air Force and my career field, and they listened with enthusiasm. I remember having similar questions about the military before I joined, and it felt so strange to be on the other side of the experience. During the last session, several cadets returned to our area for further discussion. It warmed my heart to see how sincere they were about devoting their lives to the military. The visit wrapped up with an evening retreat ceremony and the cadets scrambling to dinner—another experience altogether.

As we drove away from the campus, I couldn’t help but consider: what would my life be like had I attended a “normal” school?

The answer is that it would be…different. I made some of the best friends I will ever have during my time at the Academy. I was assigned to an amazing base after graduation. The people there helped mentor me and teach me things about my job that technical school didn’t cover.  I even met my husband at that base.

It can sound so cliché, but my point is that it all came together the way it needed to. Had I not gone to USAFA, I might not have gone to my first base. If I hadn’t been stationed there, I would not be the same person able to offer the same mentorship and wisdom to my Airmen and to those cadets. 

So the next time you catch yourself wondering how things could have been different—don’t look back with regret. Every moment, every experience and every person you meet along the way helps shape you into exactly the person you are meant to be. That’s exactly what I told the cadets. The best advice I could share: make the most of the opportunities that come along.

PHOTO TOP:  The Texas A&M Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, Detachment 805, perform retreat April 9 at Texas A&M University. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Tori Hight)

PHOTO BOTTOM: The Texas A&M Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, Detachment 805, listen to an officer professional development presentation April 9 at Texas A&M University. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Tori Hight)

How I became an American Airman

Amn Weckerlein and familyby Airman Basic Martin Weckerlein

Last Friday, almost 13 years after I graduated from German Army basic military training, I graduated from United States Air Force Basic Military Training.

I was a former German tank commander and military training instructor in the Bundeswehr, serving as required for my native country. Now, I will be an air transportation specialist in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, serving my adopted country.

I like the military lifestyle. It is organized and has a structure. If you work hard, you can advance faster, go through the ranks, get more responsibility, and always learn something new. You always meet new people and get to move around the world. 

I joined because I liked the military. I gave up my German military career so that my American wife, Julie, could have her U.S. Air Force career. I don’t regret my decision, as we have a beautiful family and a great life. But, I was missing the military, and I’m glad to have this opportunity to serve again.

Since I already served in the military, and since I was once an instructor myself, there weren’t really any surprises for me during U.S. Air Force BMT. I was reminded, though, about the importance of patience. Most of the trainees were much younger than me. They didn’t catch on to military lifestyle as fast as I wanted them to. I was picked as element leader in the first week, and it was easy to fall back into the instructor role. I knew I could do the things that were required, but the others were still learning. I had to slow down and be hands-on with helping others, teaching them to pay attention to detail.

There were many differences between German military basic training and U.S. Air Force basic training. At the time of my service, all young men had to serve. Not everyone wanted to be there. Eventually, everyone learned what they needed to learn and came together as a team. But in the U.S. military, everyone volunteers. While there were still attitude problems every now and then, ultimately, everyone wanted to be there, and I could sense the difference.

I am glad I have this second opportunity to serve again, and I look forward to my Air Force Reserve career.

PHOTO: Airman Basic Martin Weckerlein stands on the parade field with his family after graduating from Air Force Basic Military Training on April 12. Weckerlein was assigned to the 326th Training Squadron, Flight 270, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. (Courtesy photo)