Wounded warrior, outreach specialist demonstrate lasting impact of connecting
By Chip Pons, Air Force Wounded Warrior Program
/ Published October 25, 2019
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) --
The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, or AFW2, is creating a cultural shift across the Air Force; one that encourages Airmen to reach out to their leadership and trust that when they do, they will be heard. Each month, the program will feature a different theme that is tied to the overall mission of the congressionally mandated and federally funded program.
The theme for the month of October is connectedness, and retired Master Sgt. Melissa Wiest, AFW2 outreach specialist, and retired Staff Sgt. Seth Pena, AFW2 ambassador, are living proof of just how important connectedness is.
Wiest and Pena’s story has evolved over the years, but the foundation of care, respect and connection is stronger than ever.
“My story starts March 1, 2013, when I was coming home from dinner on my motorcycle,” Pena said. “A drunk driver hit me head-on, which caused me to be launched from my bike and essentially stopped my heart upon impact. The impact was so severe it tore my aorta and broke many bones. I was medically evacuated from the scene and by chance, there was a heart surgeon on the helicopter who somehow managed to put a stint in my heart mid-flight.”
Pena, a former tactical air control party noncommissioned officer, credits the unbreakable bond formed between wingmen as the reason he is alive today.
“When I arrived at the hospital, my heart kept stopping and it truly felt like this was the end,” he explained. “It wasn’t until the doctors had my TACP brothers come into the room to surround me with support and encouragement that I was able to stabilize and my recovery began.”
“At the time that I was moved to my inpatient squadron, I was really depressed,” he continued. “My life had been turned upside down and I couldn’t see a way forward. This is when Melissa entered my life, and she really helped me start focusing on what my life could be compared to what I felt I had lost.”
As a leader, Wiest immediately knew the importance connection plays during recovery.
“When I first met Seth, I was still active duty and was in a leadership position within our medical unit,” Wiest explained. “I knew right away that Seth was struggling and witnessed firsthand how this Airman was being overlooked. I knew then that I had to step in.”
While their roles have shifted since they first met, both use their experience with AFW2 to brief Airmen across the Air Force. Pena, a single-leg amputee, shares his deeply personal story of resiliency and recovery while Wiest outlines the importance of connecting to the program's mission and services.
“Since then, my involvement in AFW2 has only furthered that connection Melissa and I had developed,” Pena said. “I have been able to serve as a mentor to connect with and support new warriors in the program as well as serve as an ambassador. I now join Melissa as she educates Airmen across the Air Force about the benefits of asking for help and connecting to this life-saving program.”
“Through this random life-changing event, we became a family,” he continued. “I call Melissa my sister because of how much we went through together and how she continues to advocate for me as a warrior and as a friend. AFW2 promotes a culture of caring and connectedness and without that support, I don’t know where I would be in my recovery.”
Now, Wiest can see firsthand the impact her involvement has played in Pena’s recovery. What she views as simply doing her job as a leader, others, including Pena, view it as a simple act of kindness that changed the course of someone’s life.
“I am so proud of everything that Seth has accomplished since we first met,” she said. “I’ve watched him focus on his mental and physical health and really dedicate himself to helping others within the program. He has evolved from someone angry who couldn’t see a way forward to someone who encourages others and focuses on the positives in life.”
Pena, who says his life was changed by his connection with Wiest, now uses his platform for one specific reason: connecting with Airmen who may be struggling.
“I share my story because it is one of resiliency,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to feel like what they are going through is the end. But it is incredibly important for me to convey to my fellow Airmen that whatever they are facing, they aren’t alone.”