By Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons, Air Force Personnel Center Public Affairs
/ Published September 28, 2017
TORONTO, Canada (AFNS) -- In 2015, when a Naperville, Illinois girl met a small-town boy from Eagle River, Alaska, neither knew immediately how their relationship would evolve beyond teammates; however, the now engaged pair of retired Air Force athletes would still say “teammates” will always be a word that first comes to mind when describing their connection.
“It is just funny how life puts you in circumstances beyond your control, and the feelings that come along with certain hardships … our meeting would not have happened if I had completely closed myself off from the adaptive sports program,” said Kyle Burnett, a former knowledge operations master sergeant.
Burnett had a number of reservations regarding participating in any of the Air Force Wounded Warrior programs following her personal injuries which ultimately lead to her medical retirement from active duty.
“Back in 2009, I was stationed in Basra (Iraq), and while I was speaking with a group of fellow soldiers, a rocket landed about 10 feet away from us through which I sustained a permanent traumatic brain injury,” Burnett said. “I was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was medically retired out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Alaska) in 2013, having served seven deployments since joining the Air Force in 1998. And I think it was ultimately the way I personally felt about how my career ended that caused me to withdraw from anything military related again, but my recovery care coordinator really did an incredible service for me in motivating and inspiring me to give the program one chance – in the end it has made all the difference.”
Her first camp was held in Hawaii and provided a unique opportunity for the struggling veteran to make meaningful connections with other wounded, ill and injured service members all walking similar paths toward recovery.
“It was amazing to be surrounded by so many other people for the first time who knew, in their own way, what I had been through and was still struggling with,” Burnett said. “The athletic aspect was such an afterthought for me as well … I was focusing on learning how to socialize again, and how to build substantial and meaningful connections again. I had gone through an incredibly dark period of my life where I had isolated myself and was closed off from other people … this gave me an outlet to build myself up again.”
While focusing on rebuilding herself and her confidence, Burnett first competed in Warrior Games during the 2014 iteration in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and took home silver in discus. She built off her victories that year and came back to claim the title of “Ultimate Champion” during the 2015 Warrior Games held in Quantico, Virginia.
“I was going to throw in the towel and call it quits after that win in 2015, but I ended up participating in a softball league sponsored by (Air Force Wounded Warrior) in Alaska in September of 2015 … that is where I met Reese,” Burnett said.
Reese Hines, a former explosive ordnance disposal master sergeant, dedicated 13 years to the Air Force before succumbing to personal injury.
“While I was deployed to Afghanistan taking apart one improvised explosive device, I was called to deactivate another … I did not have a robot or my bomb suit, and my team was dismounted,” Hines said. “I was trying to deactivate the pressure plate when it was remotely detonated, and roughly 20 pounds of explosives activated less than 2 feet away from me.”
Hines suffered damage to both eyes. His right eye had to be surgically removed due to extensive, irreversible injury. Additionally, his right hand was nearly severed and had to be pieced back together, though he did lose his right index finger.
“My right wrist was fused in the blast, and some of my knuckles as well to the right hand and thumb,” he said. “I had a brain bleed, a traumatic brain injury, a broken jaw, ruptured eardrums, a bolt in my skull, nerve damage in my leg, soft-tissue damage to both arms, and was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The former EOD troop has undergone nearly 30 to 40 surgeries post-injury.
“So, we are at this league and we end up forming a bond immediately through our shared love of baseball,” Burnett said. “Reese and I both played in high school, and it just gave us something in common right off the bat – no pun intended.”
Because the couple has TBIs and PTSD, as well as a shared love of baseball and softball, they hit it off when they met, they said.
What Hines struggled with in determining whether to compete as an athlete was the perception of how adaptive sports might give him an unfair advantage because of the necessary adaptations required in his case.
“I am an extremely competitive person, Kyle and I both are, and I just did not want to feel like I was competing on a lower level,” Hines said. “What I have come to learn is that these adaptive sports do not make what we are doing or competition any easier. You are still being tested and challenged, and we are up against some incredible athletes who want to win as badly as we do – there is a fierceness that is indescribable until you are in that position with your sights set on gold.”
Hines, like Burnett, went on to compete in Warrior Games, and also claimed the title of “Ultimate Champion” in 2016. To earn the title, athletes competed in their respective disability classifications in five sporting events. Each service branch is allotted two slots, one for a man and one for a woman. Service branches also earn team points based on the designated competitors’ results in their events. The Ultimate Champion is the athlete who earns the most points in the five events.
“I was completely caught off-guard when I won that title and followed in Kyle’s footsteps,” Hines said.
The pair has now arrived for the first time here for the 2017 Invictus Games, where more than 550 wounded, ill or injured military service members from 17 nations will compete in 12 unique sporting events through Sept. 30, 2017. Each has earned their spot on the U.S. team and are ready to face the competition.
“We are up against some superior athletes here in this international forum, but we could not be more honored to represent the United States in these games,” Hines said. “I think what is great for Kyle and I is that we have a sort of dual support system during this competition. On our worst days or when we are feeling down and out, we still have each other to lean on, to motivate and push the other to keep going harder – we give each other an extra edge.”
The overarching goal of adaptive and rehabilitative sports is to provide opportunities for recovering service members to develop independence, confidence and fitness through sports - empowering wounded warriors to focus on their abilities and teaching positive coping techniques.
“Competition aside, being a support network, especially here on a global scale, to these other athletes is arguably the most important aspect of these games,” Burnett said. “We are constantly building connections with other competitors who may not have the same resources or connections that we do, and we can offer those to one another knowing it is all about helping people regain the most normalcy in their lives post-injury.”
To learn more about Air Force Wounded Warrior or other personnel-related programs, visit the Air Force’s Personnel Center website.
(Editor’s note: Burnett is slated to compete in archery, cycling, and track and field; Hines in track and field, and swimming during this year’s Invictus Games. The two are set to wed in 2018.)