Two dates stand out in my life: July 29, 2003, the day I enlisted in the Air Force like my father, SMSgt. James A. Kelley, USAF (Ret.), and July 29, 2011, my last day of active duty, the day my wings were clipped forever . . . or so I thought. Everyone has dates that are etched into their soul and burned into their heart – every heartbeat coursing a rush of blood that surges through their body like a mighty roaring river. Some dates are joyous while others are so full of pain they cut like knives that torment heart, mind, body and soul. Like everyone, my life is full of joys, sorrows and pains. It’s a roller coaster of ups and downs, twists and turns.
Thinking back on the day I enlisted, I still feel tremendous joy at the opportunity to serve – deep pride in America and elated thoughts of being the essence of what an Airman is expected to be. I proudly followed in my father’s footsteps and led the way for my two younger siblings who followed in my footsteps. But this is not a story about Air Force family tradition. It’s about getting injured, not seeking physical and mental health treatment in a timely manner, and the death of a prosperous, joyous, amazing career in the Air Force.
I joined the Air Force as an Airfield Systems Technician and deployed in 2006 to Iraq in this career field. However, while in the talcum powder, wasteland desert world of Iraq, I fell in love with medicine and became a medic. While in theater I endured military sexual trauma (MST), a hip injury, and other mental and physical injuries for which I should have sought medical and/or mental health attention. However, I didn’t seek help because I didn’t want to appear weak.
I soldiered on like this for years. My hip injury put me on profiles on-and-off for years, as I endured four surgeries during the last five years of my career. Nevertheless, having transitioned to an Aerospace Medical Technician, I loved my job. It was such a joy to get up in the morning and serve until I could no longer mask the pain or hide the atrocities that my body had endured. Finally, I sought the treatment that I needed, which eventually led to the dreaded medical evaluation board (MEB). Devastatingly, MEB decided I was not fit to stay in the Air Force.
I was 26 years old, broken – both mentally and physically – and being asked to leave the service, which was the reason I got out of bed each morning. I felt alone. I believed in my soul that no one understood me and thought I was a drag on everyone around me. Life was worthless, especially mine. So I attempted suicide – right there, in my own office, in my clinic. I didn’t want to be a drag on those I loved. And I didn’t want to live an isolated life in the dark away from the people and activities that made me feel useful as a person.
Luckily my clinic saved me. I went to the psych ward for a few days to receive additional help and, for the first time in a long time, felt there might be “hope.” Unfortunately, no matter how much hope I had, no one can control Father Time; his clock keeps ticking no matter what we want. The date I feared most – my grounding date – would come no matter what, and it did.
Nov. 29, 2011, dawned as a cold day in Missouri. My husband’s alarm clock woke me. As he put on his uniform, I sipped my coffee. No matter how much sugar I added, I couldn’t get it to taste sweet. I kissed him goodbye and jokingly said, “Enjoy work; I’m retired!” But inside, I was crying. I had to face the realization that my suicide attempt caused pain to my family. Imagine experiencing the gut wrenching horror of having the ones you love – who love you most – ask, “Why?” Or, feel their pain turn to anger as they ask, “How could you be so selfish?” You have to answer to that, as I did, or at least try. As difficult as it is to explain, it’s even more difficult to feel.
The days became darker and darker. It tore me to shreds to kiss my husband goodbye and say, “Have a good day.” I envied him so much. As each day passed, I felt like a body with no purpose; danger screamed at me at every corner. There was no safe haven. So I just stayed in my house, only leaving to go to doctors’ appointments. Often I would cancel my appointments because a panic attack would stop me in my tracks before I even left the safety of the base.
Once a physically active person, I loved sports. I was never the best, but I always tried. Unfortunately, after my injuries and subsequent surgeries, I was not as able as I once was. Sitting on my front porch at Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in Louisiana was heart breaking. Day after day I would see mothers walking their babies, and men and women running, preparing for PT tests. There I sat, barely able to walk the 400 feet to the mailbox due to pain.
By this point I had gained substantial weight due to both physical inactivity and medications. Eventually something had to give. I needed help. I found a group that gave me a service dog – a beautiful black standard poodle named Hope to help me with my PTSD and, eventually, my mobility. She is learning to alert me to my non-epileptic and epileptic seizures. And she eventually enabled me to become part of society, slowly but surely. I would later learn how much God intended her to be in my life and for me to be part of life itself. Hope was named for me. She was born on the day I tried to kill myself. That day was one of my lowest of lows; everywhere I looked I saw darkness. Yet, I remembered afterward this little crack of light struggling to force its way into the veil of darkness that was trying to snuff the life from my body. That crack of light showed me there was hope.
TSgt Tim McDonough, USAF (Ret.), a board member of the group that gave me Hope, asked if I was in the Air Force Wounded Warriors (AFW2) program. I said, “No, I never heard of it.” He explained it to me, but I didn’t think I would qualify. He swiftly got on the phone knowing the dark place I was in. No doubt he had a sneaking suspicion that I needed a program like AFW2. Within days Marsha Gonzales sent me an application and said “yes,” I qualified. Before I knew it, I was on a plane to my first camp.
The day my life changed forever was the day of my first camp at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just south of Tacoma, Wash. I was terrified and excited at the same time. This would be my first trip with my service dog and one of my first trips alone. Upon arrival, we (my service dog and I) were greeted with so many smiles it was hard not to feel genuinely loved by the staff and mentors involved with the program. As we walked around the welcome table getting paperwork signed, we were met with a hug here and a hug there. My feet started to tingle and feel warm.
Next, I received my itinerary with some t-shirts. Chills rushed through my body, and I lost my breath. The t-shirts said “Air Force” on them. Warm shivers radiated through my body as I felt joy. Finally, I was handed my name tag and room key, and at the bottom of my name tag were the words “Air Force.” The pride rushed through my body, and I started to shake. Hope started to alert; she thought I was about to have a panic attack. But mine was a good feeling, not a stressful one. A staff member eagerly helped me to my room with my luggage, as Hope and I wheeled up and settled in.
Alone in my room, I lay on the bed and looked at the schedule: archery, track (Are they insane? Hello, wheelchair!), cycling (again, hip problems), swimming (OK, but I guess I can swim like Nemo and just drag my leg.), sitting volleyball (Weird, I have to see this!), wheelchair basketball (Cool!) . . . these were the thoughts running though my head. Nevertheless, I was going to give this a go because I knew I was dying inside – hoping maybe an asteroid would hit me or something. I knew I couldn’t get back to me and life by myself; I needed help.
The ramp up night, where we met our group, was a little scary at first. It was slightly claustrophobic for me, but there was a great mix of old and new participants – retired, temporarily retired and active duty. There was someone for everyone to speak to at every step of their journey. Then it hit me like a M.O.A.B. (Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb) hitting terrorist mountainside hideouts: Marsha Gonzales called us “Airmen” – not wounded, not wounded warriors, just Airmen. Tears of joy built up inside me like the Hoover Dam, and I could barely contain them. But I didn’t want to cry in the middle of the dinner. I exhaled my first breath of Airman blue in a long time, with Marsha reminding us that “once an Airman always an Airman.”
Those few days I breathed blue all week. I learned to do track from a race chair. Looking down, I could see the track speed by, as if I was running, and felt the wind against my body. I could ride a bike in a hand cycle, using my arms to propel my body not my legs, once again feeling the speed in my face and the wind in my helmet! After that first camp I never stopped. I went to 2015 Air Force Trials, 2016 Air Force Trials and made alternate in track/field, cycling.
While being part of the program I became a mentor, which is a great honor. It makes me feel like a medic and NCO (non-commissioned officer) again because many of the tools that I learned all those years ago I use as a mentor. And being a mentor gives me a way to reach others who need someone to talk to, unlike me who had no one to talk to. Hopefully I can help them keep the darkness from getting too close. For example, I can ask them, “Hey, when did you go to the gym?” Or, “How is your archery going?” Or we can talk about how our training for this year’s trials is coming. It’s a way to be positive; it’s a way to build a common rapport.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made calls or received calls at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. to talk about nightmares. Our spouses don’t understand, neither do our families. They try, but it’s like a woman in natural childbirth giving birth to an 8-lb breach baby. Only those who have given birth in this same way will truly ever understand. Now that my husband and I are retired, we live in the country about 30 miles from a town with only 12,000 people and no neighbors for five miles. I would be a lost woman right now, if I did not have the AFW2 Program in my life.
I think it would enhance the lives of Air Force retirees, bring them out of the shadows and back to the light, if they became a participant in the Air Force Camp. The friends I make at each event, and keep through social media, texting and phone calls, know when I need help or when there is a change in me. And they pounce on me like a cat on a mouse to set me right. It’s an “I got your six (I:GY6)” community.
With the help of Air Force Aid supplementing costs, permanently retired Airmen and their caregivers can attend camps and trials. Through this program, we are able to come together to help “heal broken wings, mend hurting souls, restore families” and allow me to breath blue for one more day. Programs like this, modeled like this, are needed to save the lives of the 22 military veterans our country loses every day to suicide. I was almost one of them. The AFW2 program ultimately saved me.