Every Airman has a mission.
Whether it’s loading weapons onto a bomber or defending the base perimeter, Airmen embrace their Air Force specialty as a way of life, a consistent day-to-day calling.
There are times, however, when that plan to serve is impeded by tragic injury, forever changing an Airman’s life and calling into question whether he or she will be able to continue to serve.
As they lay in a hospital bed uncertain of their ability to live with any normalcy, each had to decide to accept defeat, succumb to their injuries, or push on, adapt and overcome.
These Airmen and nearly 100 more wounded, ill and injured warriors, recently gathered in Las Vegas to try out for the Air Force’s Warrior Games team. For them, this was not only an opportunity to vie for a spot to compete in this Paralympic-like event, it was a chance to find a new mission and continue to serve.
Warrior Game competitors come from all branches of the armed services and have been injured in combat or non-combat events, or suffer from an illness or disease, to include traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Healing through teammates
In these games, winning first place is not their priority. The goal of these athletes is to grow, to heal, and to help their brothers and sisters.
Growth for each athlete comes in different forms. Some may grow through working toward a mission or objective. For others, growth is found through camaraderie in the fellowship of other wounded Airmen who have “been there” and can relate to what it’s like to go through a similar challenge.
“This is a place of healing,” said Tony Jasso, the Air Force Wounded Warrior Adapted Sports program manager. “This is a place to show yourself your absolute limits.”
Jennifer Stone was one of the Air Force team’s original 21 members who competed in the 2010 Warrior Games. This year, she was one of five original members who tried out, and earned an alternate position on the team.
Competition is something Stone loves, but for her, coming to the games is more than competition–it’s about giving and receiving mentorship, and helping her wingmen overcome their personal tragedies.
“I’m here to compete, but I’m also here to help others heal … having that person there next to you through the healing process is something you always need,” said Stone, who was wounded in a drive-by shooting shortly after returning home from her second deployment as a security forces Airman. “(Mentorship is) still something I need, but I’m doing better.”
She said having a mentor next to her can be the difference of getting through a challenge and coming up short.
Mentorship and caring friends are exactly what Airman 1st Class Kamee Mayfield needed and received when she tried out for the Warrior Games.
While stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Mayfield, an ammunitions specialist, was in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when the driver lost control and crashed. Mayfield survived, suffering a serious traumatic brain injury, but her friend was critically injured and died months later.
Traumatic brain injuries can have a variety of effects on a person. For Mayfield, the most pronounced effect was her tendency to isolate herself in social settings.
“When Kamee first came to us, she’d talk to you with her head staring at the ground,” said Steve Otero, a staff member for the Air Force Wounded Warriors team. “She wouldn’t look you in the eyes. She needed to work on gaining back her confidence.”
But that has changed.
Mayfield attended her first Air Force Wounded Warrior camp in July 2013. There, she learned several new sports, but more importantly, Mayfield found a group of people she could relate to and who could help her grow.
“I don’t come back to the camps because of the sports,” said Mayfield, who earned first place in the 100- and 200-yard dash during the trials and will represent the Air Force during the 2014 Warrior Games. “It’s about the people. It’s about my friends.”
Mayfield has made plenty of friends among those competing in the tryouts, but she’s also found a new family.
“She’s one of us,’ said Otero, who’s also a wounded warrior. She laughs non-stop and is part of our family. She’s coming out of her shell more each day. And man, is she a competitor out there.”
Transformations like this aren’t accomplished alone.
“I’m really not sure where I’d be without my friends here,” said Mayfield, who’s currently stationed at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. “Being here, I feel like I can relax a little. I love competing and learning new sports, but that all comes second to being around other people who know what I’m going through.”
One person could relate to Mayfield’s road to recovery was Staff Sgt. Charlie Ming, who has helped Mayfield’s healing process.
“There’s no one I’ve seen grow that fast,” Ming said about Mayfield. “When I first met her, I didn’t know how to act–she was so quiet, I didn’t know what to say. But no way was I going to let her stay in that shell of hers.”
Throughout several camps, Ming looked for opportunities to help Mayfield grow and heal from her accident.
“Every chance I got, I’d joke with Kamee and make her know that we all care about her,” Ming said. “It’s like any family or team. If you’re not joking on one another, there’s probably something wrong.”
Now, Ming says, Mayfield is one of the most positive people at the games.
“She’s constantly picking out nice things to say about you or about a situation,” Ming said. “That’s how she views life–seeing only the best in people.”
The same positivity that Mayfield possesses is the same key component that has helped see Ming through his challenges in life.
Healing through competition
On Feb. 18, 2010, Ming lay in a hospital bed in Guam, not knowing his future.
As he regained consciousness, he saw his family, coworkers, commander and flight chief surrounding his bed.
For a moment, he thought he was dead.
Six hours earlier, Ming was struck by a vehicle while riding his motorcycle home through the roads of Guam–it was his first day back at work after a deployment overseas. The crash resulted in Ming shattering his arm; he’d ultimately need several surgeries to repair it.
As the reality of his plight began to set in, it was hard for Ming to come to terms with the thought of life without the Air Force. Up until the accident, Ming had dreamt of a career full of success. During his deployment, he was promoted to senior airman below the zone and hoped to blaze a path through the enlisted ranks.
Throughout the recovery process, Ming struggled with the limitations his arm surgery placed on him, but a piece of advice his doctor gave him changed his perspective for the better.
“You either let (the injury) hold you back, or you let it push you forward,” he said, quoting his doctor. “For me, I want to achieve greatness and help others achieve the things they never thought possible.”
When Ming had his accident, he went through a medical board process that would decide his future–he’d either be medically separated or retired or given the green light to stay on active duty.
His outlook on the medical board process — “get that retirement shit out of here,” said Ming, who’s a aerospace ground equipment specialist stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. “I told them to give me a test. Any test. I’ll pass it.”
Throughout the healing process, Ming, who worked out nearly every day while deployed, struggled with his limitations in the gym.
Soon after his first few surgeries, Ming’s mobility in his arm was limited. Pain would ensue shortly after beginning a workout. But Ming would not accept any sort of limitation.
After consulting with his doctor, Ming would undergo another surgery to repair damage in his arm. After three months and 12 surgeries, Ming was able to start working out again.
“Working out is part of who I am,” Ming said. “I couldn’t just accept the fact that I couldn’t lift at the gym. Lifting is part of who I am. I need to always be working towards better fitness.”
Currently, Ming’s physical fitness test score is 93.7 out of 100 points.
In August 2012, Ming brought his positive attitude to the Air Force Wounded Warrior program and continues to push himself and his teammates.
“These trials and the camps helped me realize there are so many things out there to do,” he said. “There’s so much I can strive for. I can be a better person.”
After coming in third place in the 50-meter swim and followed by a first-place finish in the 100 meter swim, Ming’s attention turned toward his fellow Airmen who were still competing.
Pacing up and down the pool’s edge at the University of Las Vegas campus, Ming screamed words of support as the competitors poured everything they had into each stroke–some who only had one arm or leg.
“Let’s go! What are you waiting for? This is yours,” Ming bellowed to Daniel Crane, who was the last swimmer in the pool to finish.
As he watched Crane in the pool, Ming said he knew the battle, the dark thoughts of doubt, waging in Crane’s mind, because it was something he had to overcome as well.
“Before I came to my first camp, I had a little devil on my shoulder, constantly telling me I’m not good enough. It was constant negative thoughts,” Ming said. “That devil is gone, and all there is, is an angel, feeding me thoughts of positivity. The angel tells me ‘Yes you can do this. You are great.’ For me, that angel is my wife. I need to be that angel for others. It’s my responsibility.”
At the conclusion of the try outs, 40 athletes were chosen as members of the Air Force Warrior Games team to compete at this year’s Warrior Games.
These are teams of athletes not defined by their tragedies or injuries, but by their ability to overcome, to help and to heal.
“It’s awesome winning medals, but that’s not what brings me back to each camp or what brought me here today,” Ming said. “Seeing Daniel touch the end of the pool after his fight … that’s what brings me back. That’s why I’m here.”