One moment Senior Airman Sean Halsted felt the rope in his hands, and the next, it was gone. That millisecond was all it took to leave the young Airman with a debilitating injury that caused him to reassess his entire future. This accident tested not only his resiliency, but also that of his brothers — brothers in blood and in service.
Life in the Air Force is all the Halsted brothers have ever known. Together, Clark, Sean, Daniel and Regan faced the unique challenges that come from growing up the sons of a career Airman.
“Being a military family, moving around, we always had the four of us together,” said Regan, now a technical sergeant working as a travel pay analyst at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. “We were our own group of best friends, who we could always rely on.”
Even after they left the nest, the Halsted brothers remained close, and one after another, all four enlisted in the Air Force. Though geographically separated, family remained a strong constant.
In 1998, this tight-knit family was truly tested.
While at a movie theater, the youngest brother, Regan, received a call from his mother. She told him Sean was in the hospital with an injury he’d never be able to walk away from.
During an exercise on combat search and rescue techniques at Hurlburt Field, Fla., Sean, then a senior airman, fell from 40 feet from a helicopter while fast roping. The fall shattered the L-1 vertebra in his back and resulted in a spinal cord injury.
“To have this happen was extremely heart-breaking,” Regan said. “My thought at the time was it was going to totally limit him and crush his spirit, basically because he’s always been so physical and active.”
Before Sean was able to be active again, he went through a barrage of surgeries to insert steel rods and replace them after infections started to spread. Recovery became a long and arduous task for the injured Airman, and the time he spent in the hospital climbed to nearly a year and a half.
“It was hard for me to keep that stiff upper lip and to be there to support when he was in so much pain,” Regan said. “His body just started eating itself when he was having the infections. He lost a ton of weight in his legs, his arms. I remember I could feel pain a lot of the times I saw him.”
After a tough recovery and trying to come to terms with his paralysis, Sean began to adapt to his new lifestyle.
“(Sean) was the most physical and would therefore be the most affected by physical limitations,” said Sean’s younger brother, Lt. Col. Daniel Halsted, the chief of aviation safety for U.S. Air Forces Central Command at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. “Over time, I began to realize that in some ways he was the best of us to be able to overcome an injury like this, as he would be the one least limited by it — he would learn to adapt and find ways to do similar physical activity.”
Instead of slowing down and taking it easy, this former athlete used his competitive spirit to get back in the game — the Paralympic games.
“My family supported me, allowing me to recover,” Sean said. “Without their support, recovery would have taken a very different path. They have pushed me when necessary, provided security and helped me feel normal.”
It was through the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic that Sean discovered the thrill of cross country racing in skis. Taking his new sport a step further, Sean tried out for the 2006 Paralympic Nordic skiing team. Though he didn’t make the cut on his first attempt, he was added to a team with other Paralympic hopefuls who would assist him in future training.
“I remember thinking that between (Sean training for the Paralympics) and overcoming some of his initial complications, that the competitions, camaraderie and physical activity saved his life,” Daniel said. “While it didn’t literally, it gave him the pieces in his life that I suspect he questioned whether he had lost them for good or not. He was able to explore sports in new ways and get back to physically challenging himself like he enjoyed in the past.”
Sean continued to challenge himself, and in 2010, he represented the U.S. in the Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games. During the games, he won three top-10 finishes for Team USA, finishing seventh, ninth and 10th.
After seeing what his brother accomplished, Daniel said he developed an even higher level of respect for Sean.
“To not only rebound, but to rebound to the extent he has, is inspiring to anyone,” Daniel said. “Selfishly, he gives me something to brag about to friends and acquaintances, but more importantly, he is a constant point of inspiration on overcoming setbacks and challenges.”
Sean competed again as a member of Team USA during the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games. Shooting for a personal best, the former Airman participated in the biathlon and cross country skiing events.
From their perspective bases, his brothers said they were glued to the television and internet feeds, cheering him on.
“He’s just a big inspiration for us, for our family, and we couldn’t be more proud,” Regan said. “But, you know, it’s Sean. It’s kind of how he’s been — how we see him, always pushing. He even says it; he loves the acid taste that you get from pushing your muscles to the extent of total fatigue. He enjoys that, so he’s kind of a different breed.”
(Tech. Sgt. Mareshah Dickens contributed to this story)