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Air Force basketball athlete defines resiliency

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AFNS) -- When the combat rescue helicopter Pedro 66 was brought down by enemy fire June 9, 2010, in Afghanistan, retired Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera thought his life was over, literally.

"I thought my last job as an aerial gunner was to make sure that the aircraft and everything around us burned to the ground and to ash," Aguilera said. "I had a broken ankle, broken femur, broken hip, broken tail bone, broken back in five spots. I had four broken ribs, broken sternum, broken collar bone, broken jaw, brain injury, punctured lung and I was on fire -- and surrounded by the enemy."

Aguilera was one of two survivors of the Pedro 66 crash, and said the survivor's guilt he felt took a greater toll on him than his physical injuries.
"Recovery was tough, because I was severely injured with amputations and burns and broken bones," he said. "At first the only thing that they were teaching me was how to transfer from a wheelchair to a toilet seat to the bed, and I realized there was no way I was going to get my job back, there was no way I was going to live the rest of my life like this.

“What I was finding was that I still had a lot of anger,” he continued. “I was very, very angry all the time. There's still times now when I can just let my anger get control and, to be honest with you, I am very comfortable with it because when I get angry, people stay away from me and leave me alone and I find that peace that I want. Whereas when I'm nice I kind of get overwhelmed and I don't like the large crowds or the people. I was very angry, and I needed help."

Despite his successful road back to flying and combat-ready status, Aguilera had to have his left leg amputated, due to infection, after a deployment to Africa in 2013.

"I was running out of options," Aguilera said. "I was realizing that I had limitations I didn't anticipate I would have before. I wasn't ever going to be that 100 percent that I was before. I had to make this new 100 percent, and it was really weird."

He found the Air Force Wounded Warrior Adaptive Sports Program helpful in both his physical and emotional recovery.

"The one thing I love the most about adaptive sports is it doesn't matter what's wrong with you, what type of limitations you think you might have, we are going to find a way around it and we're going to get you to your goal," he said.

He explained that talking to people who have similar injuries, experiences and goals has helped him to get better faster. Aguilera said even if people in the program haven't had the same experiences, or have had ones worse than his, they can all find ground.

"That's what I needed," he said. "That's when the healing starts."
Before participating in adaptive sports, Aguilera's future seemed dark and hopeless. Now, he competes on the Air Force's wheelchair basketball team and individual track and field sports.

"I couldn't play basketball; I couldn't do all these things and it was really depressing," he said. "I found myself in a downward spiral and I needed to change. Now, I feel tremendous. I can see the sun; I can see the sky; I can see the people around me and I can be happy about that. There's not too much anxiety now. There's not a lot of anger and hatred. I can move past it. It's nice -- I got my life back."

His love for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program is something he wishes other wounded veterans and service members could experience for themselves.

"Unfortunately, a lot of my close brothers and sisters who have been injured in combat, they don't come into this program," Aguilera said. "They don't like it; they think it's dumb. They don't see it for what it is. I would wish more of my combat-related brothers would have enough courage to come in and participate in this."

He said he owes a lot to the program and the trainers, coordinators and program managers within the program.

"This program is taking people who are going into dark places in their heads because of what they've gone through and making them better," he said. "(In adaptive sports), we won't stop until we find a way to get you going where you want to go."