Tag Archives: 2013 Warrior Games

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: Track and field star has ‘wings on her back’

by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Midway through retired Tech. Sgt. Katie Robinson’s first track and field practice at the Air Force Warrior Games training camp, she pulled out a pair of butterfly wings from her workout bag and strapped them to her back. The wings were both comedy relief and a symbol of the dramatic change several fellow wounded warriors noticed in her personality from her first Warrior Games last year.

“She’s a little jokester, which is great because from what I understand, she was a little reserved last year,” said Capt. Ben Payne, first year track coach. “But Katie doesn’t have any reservations about being herself this year, either on the track or with the team. She makes it fun and goes out there and gives her all at everything she’s doing competition-wise and makes everyone feel comfortable. She’ll bring the butterfly wings out, and she’ll bring out some laughs on the track.”

The wings or the laughter don’t hide that Robinson still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from her injury while deployed as a combat camera videographer in Iraq in 2007. She only competed in her first Warrior Games in 2012 because of her friend and fellow wounded warrior, retired Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall.

Wounded Warrior Katie Robinson prepares to swim a lap at the U.S. Air Force Academy pool.

“Last year, I had a lot of meltdowns at the games,” Robinson said. “I had to leave a couple of the competitions I wasn’t in just because of the noise and the people. But I lost it when I saw the amputees swimming. They took me to my mother who was in the stands, and I cried uncontrollably for about five minutes. I told her, ‘It’s so sad. Everything is so sad.'”

Robinson’s almost 20 years of military service includes stints as a crane operator, truck driver and military police officer in the Arizona Army National Guard and as a cook and videographer in the Arizona Air National Guard before she joined the Air Force Reserve and the 4th Combat Camera Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. On her second deployment while documenting combat operations with the Army in Iraq, she was shot through her arm and lost the tip of her right thumb. Her Sony camera is in a combat camera exhibit at the U.S. Enlisted Heritage Hall at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex, Ala.

One thing that has changed is Robinson ability to recognize many of the triggers that can launch her into full-fledged depression. She compensates for the biggest one – winter – by travelling. The last place she wants to be when the weather turns cold is home in Detroit. So leading into this year’s Games, Robinson had back-to-back trips with friends in Costa Rica and Mexico. She calls it her “outrunning the crazy” tour or perhaps vacation therapy.

“It gets me through the winter, and I don’t think about giving up,” Robinson said. “Once the flowers and trees start blooming, it’s nice, and I can work in my yard, but winter is really hard for me. I plan on going (to Florida) for a month or two because I don’t want to get back in that dark place where I think about giving up. I’ve always maintained a sense of hope that things are going to get better, but the thing about relapse that is very frustrating is I will be doing great, then something will happen, and I will have a setback. So I’ve put together what I call my own little treatment plan and support system, but I haven’t really mastered it yet. Right now, I guess it’s still about survival. I’ll keep traveling until the money runs out, or I find a better solution.”

So until she masters her own PTSD treatment plan, Robinson plans to keep trying to find the figurative wings that will help her outrun the damage the trauma left in her psyche. Being around her fellow athletes and wounded warriors helps, because she doesn’t have the same support system at home in Detroit. But for right now, she’s focused on doing her best in track and swimming and the time with her teammates.

“To pinpoint exactly how this event has helped my recovery, I think I’m able to tolerate people more,” Robinson said. “I’m spending more time outside of my room and talking to people than I did last year. Stacy’s not here this year, so I had to make new friends. I think what’s important to me is having a connection to other people and to something bigger than yourself. When you’re not in the military anymore, you don’t have the same purpose, and it’s hard to find a new purpose. Being around people who are like me helps. Not everybody has the same injuries, but there are a lot of people who do, and that is enough.”

PHOTO: Katie Robinson checks her form before swimming a lap at the Academy indoor pool during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 17, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree Palacios)