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Airman reflects on recovery, resiliency

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

It was a normal summer day for Ashley Barnett as she drove down the highway, reminiscing about her vacation. With her home city of Philadelphia behind her, she was on her way back to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.

Unfortunately, nothing could prepare her for what happened next.

"In that one second, my life dramatically changed forever," Barnett said. 

While driving southbound on I-95 in Virginia in June 2011, an 18-wheeler struck the car behind the then-staff sergeant, creating a chain reaction. The collision resulted in a four-car accident, blowing out all four windows and totaling Barnett's car, leaving her injured.

"I didn't see it coming," said the 1st Operations Support Squadron weather mission services NCO in charge. "That's probably what saved me."

Barnett said the next few hours were a blur.

"I don't remember much of what happened after the accident, only bits and pieces," she said. "I remember the ambulance, and I remember laying down, completely braced to a stretcher, wiggling my toes to make sure I wasn't paralyzed."

Upon reaching a nearby hospital, the emergency staff rushed Barnett to the MRI machine to ensure there was no serious trauma. 

Barnett was released from the hospital and returned to work after a week of convalescent leave. However, the accident left Barnett with chronic back pain and an injured neck. She said it was hard adjusting to her injuries, and with only six months at Langley AFB under her belt and no car to make her numerous medical appointments, Barnett relied heavily on her co-workers.

"It was hard to rely on others for help," she said. "It was the little things in life that I never thought of before that suddenly were hard. I felt like my independence was taken away."

By fall, things started to return to normal, and with the first taste of freedom after weeks of recovery, Barnett said she was overwhelmed with happiness.

"It was indescribable," she said. "I was 'high on life.' I appreciated things that I had never had before, like the leaves changing color."

But Barnett's story didn't end there.

"By late fall, things took a turn for the worse," she said. "It was a gradual decline, and I didn't know what was going on until it was bad."

Plaqued with constant back pain, Barnett was unable to run, which denied her main form of stress relief. Without her outlet, everyday stressors began piling up.

"Chronic pain affects your mood, focus and every aspect of your life," she said. "I was becoming moody and sad."

By the holidays, Barnett had retreated inward, and while home on leave, she was uninterested in seeing friends and family. 

"I was uneasy and started to become uninterested in things that were always very important to me," Barnett said. "I just told myself I didn't want to drive all over the place (to see my friends and family)."

Barnett said as time went on, her symptoms became worse as the "fog" of depression lowered around her.

"At that point I was in denial, I didn't want to let anyone in," she said. "I felt like I was wearing a mask and playing my part. I pretended to be happy so no one would pry."

Barnett's facade started to crack when outward signs of her inner turmoil started to manifest. 

"I would get snappy and angry," she said. "I was having nightmares and uncontrollable crying spells at work. I was supposed to be getting better, but everything seemed to get worse and worse."

As things spiraled ever downward, she said the pressure continued to build.

"There's an old saying that says not to make mountains out of mole hills," she said. "At that time, I looked around at my mole hills and saw a mountain range."

Barnett said things started to become clear for her in spring while at a commander's call where resiliency and depression were addressed.

"I felt like everyone could see right through me," she said. "I was in a room filled with people, but I felt like I was the only one."

As the commander stood in front of the sea of Airmen, Barnett said he told them a surprising story of his personal trials early in his military career.

"I realized I used to be such a happy person, and I had changed," Barnett said. "Knowing my commander could stand up and tell an entire room that he had problems made me realize that I too could get the help I needed."

Barnett met with her first sergeant and unit leaders and decided it was time to find help.

"I had to get out of my own way and set my pride aside," she said. "I realized I couldn't will myself to get better. It was hard to take the leap, but once I did it was the best thing I've ever done in my life."

After experiencing depression firsthand, Barnett said it's important to share her experiences and let her fellow service members know they are not alone.

"It's hard to tell someone there is something wrong and you're hurting inside," she said. "People sometimes think if they're having problems, it means there is something wrong with who they are. If you break your leg or have a cold, you can just go a doctor; these mental problems are no different. It's OK to look for help."

Since finding help, Barnett successfully finished her bachelor's degree and recently resumed running, eager to hit the pavement again. 

"Resiliency isn't about being happy all of the time," she said. "It's about picking yourself up and dusting yourself off when you fall down, even if it's one step at a time."

Barnett said resiliency is now part of who she is, and though her experiences have changed her and the journey is not over, she is determined tear down her "mountains" one at a time.

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