Wounded warrior recalls dark days, bright recovery

  • Published
  • By Malcolm McClendon
  • Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Public Affairs

“I remember standing in front of formation; it was 0530 and I was leading PT, just like every other day. I yelled out the command for the overhead arm clap, ‘IN CADENCE,’ and then at that moment, I realized something was seriously wrong.”

It was June 2000, and Bernard Lawson was a platoon sergeant for an Army chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear technical escort team responsible for the accountability, security, storage, transportation and destruction of chemical weapons at Johnston Atoll, a military chemical weapons storage and demilitarization site.

The night before, an alarm went off at one of the bunkers where old World War II VX nerve agent munitions were stored. These were the types of calls Lawson and his team responded to many times before, so they got out of bed and headed to the briefing room before dressing out in protective gear and heading to the site.

“It’s a long process before you enter the bunker,” Lawson said. “They draw your blood, conduct a urine specific Gravity Test to check if you’re hydrated and a whole bunch of other medical screening, and finally you go to the dress-out room.”

Once suited up, the three-man entry team proceeded to make its way into the bunker.

“As soon as we entered, I immediately felt like throwing up and began to get a pounding headache; I did not feel well at all,” Lawson said. “One of the protocols if we don’t feel something is right is to stop the mission, so I did. I tapped the person to my right and left, to give the signal, and we immediately exited as the doors slammed shut behind us.”

The team went through a thorough decontamination process and by the time it was all over, Lawson said he felt fine and was released to his quarters.

“It wasn’t until the next morning at PT when I noticed something was not right, Lawson said. “I physically could not raise my right arm. I can’t describe the feeling. As humans, we don’t have to tell our body to raise our arms or move our fingers, it’s something that automatically happens.”

He handed over the platoon to the next in charge and headed to the emergency room. The medical team there began checking vitals and drawing blood, but the facilities were limited on the remote Northern Pacific atoll, so the call was made to medevac Lawson more than 800 miles away to Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.  

“It all happened so quickly,” Lawson said. “Within hours a plane landed on Johnston and there I was, on my way to Hawaii; and all I kept thinking was that I wanted to get back to my unit and continue the mission.”

At Tripler Medical Center, Lawson was assigned to a neurologist for further testing and treatment. The neurologist concluded Lawson was suffering from major nerve damage and referred him to a doctor he felt could help him further at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

He said he’d never been to San Antonio, and all he could think about was that he wanted to go back to his unit at Johnston Atoll.

In the following weeks, Lawson transferred to BAMC and underwent further treatment and testing, but the diagnosis was not any better. The doctors told him there should’ve been some difference in response to therapy by now that would show the nerve repairing itself. Doctors then tried muscle transfer surgery in hopes that the new muscle might restore movement, but after a year of intense physical therapy following the surgeries, there was little to no improvement.

“I remember sitting in a room full of doctors staring down at their notes,” Lawson said. “After their diagnosis, the lead doctor looked at me and said, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re going to be in the Army anymore due to your condition.’ I almost broke down and cried at that moment.

“I wasn’t handicapped! I was young, physically fit, a leader of soldiers, and now they’re telling me I’m not fit enough to be in the Army?”

In the months to come, Lawson struggled with depression and hit rock bottom as he came to terms with this new reality. It was here that a small act of kindness had a huge impact on the rest of his life.

“I remember sitting there, staring out the window and I just broke down and cried,” Lawson said. “Then from behind me appeared a man (that) said, ‘Thank you for your service; it’s people like you that keep us safe,’ then he handed me a hat with ‘Wounded Warrior’ on the front.”

The stranger told him to keep the hat and wear it to remember all the people who appreciated what he did. Lawson said it was from that simple moment he drew the strength he needed to get past his time at BAMC and face whatever life threw at him next.

A short time after that encounter, the sergeant major of BAMC at the time met with Lawson and offered him a job while he waited for the medical board to conclude and out-processing to begin.

“The sergeant major heard of my previous experience as a CBRN technical escort soldier, so he offered me the position of (noncommissioned officer in charge) of security plans and operations,” Lawson said. “What it meant was that he wanted me to help the medical center set up a patient (decontamination) program. Well, I eagerly accepted since this was right up my alley. This is what I was trained to do and best of all it gave me a purpose.”

Lawson set up the first patient decontamination team at BAMC, helped establish a response plan for code orange hazardous material spills, converted the ambulance garage into a decontamination facility and trained more than 400 medical personnel throughout the center to respond to any kind of hazardous material emergency or contaminated patient arrivals at the hospital.

Still awaiting his medical board, Lawson then became an instructor at the Army Medical Department teaching medical officer candidates.

“It was great, I loved that I had a hand in shaping these future doctors and nurses on courses I helped create,” Lawson said. “Leadership took notice and began looking at how to keep me on board after my medical discharge.”

Their plan was to convert Lawson’s enlisted job into a civil service position, so he could continue teaching as a civilian at AMEDD. Knowing processes like that take time and might not exactly coincide with discharge orders, a familiar face came to offer some guidance.

“Once again the sergeant major comes into my life and asks, ‘Do you have a resume?’” Lawson said. “I didn’t, and was sure I didn’t need one, since I was going to work at AMEDD. However, the sergeants major being who they are ‘motivated’ me to prepare one and apply for a job with the Air Force.

“He said, ‘They’re looking for a CBRN specialist over at Lackland (AFB), and Bernard, I read through this thing, and you’re a number one candidate for it.’”

Lawson prepared his resume and sent it off. Two weeks later he received a call for an interview and was subsequently hired as the emergency management CBRN assessor for the Air Force Vulnerability Assessment Team that operates out of the Air Force Security Forces Center.

“It all worked out for me, like someone was watching over me,” Lawson said. “I was medically boarded out and a few months later I began working for the Air Force, doing the type of stuff I loved.”

From 2004 to 2018, Lawson worked with the team as a contractor and then was hired as a permanent civil service employee, becoming the subject matter expert for emergency management. His duties included assessing more than 20 program areas, such as all hazard threats, emergency response to critical assets, fire emergency services, explosive ordnance disposal, and exercise and training programs.

In those same years after his discharge, he also took the time to work on his physical recovery.

“I took up firearm sports, because it forced me to move my right arm and hold it steady to aim,” Lawson said. “Then I became a certified firearms instructor, not only to help others learn to shoot and enjoy the sport, but to make me use my facial muscles to help with my speech therapy.”

Lawson said through hard work, movement in his right arm has improved and he can speak more clearly now, but he’ll never forget how difficult the road was and those who helped him through it; and pays it forward every chance he gets.

“I sometimes go to the (Veterans Affairs) for check-ups and if I walk by another service member that looks like they’re having a rough day, I stop to say hi and talk for awhile,” he said. “If my time can make a fraction of a difference, as someone else’s time had on me, then I’ve done something good.”

Lawson is now the emergency manager for the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, leading the effort to develop emergency management plans and procedures to ensure all of its employees have the right training to minimize casualties and damage in the event of a natural or manmade disaster at the workplace.

He said the work he’s done for the Air Force for the past 16 years has taken him full circle to his time at the far away atoll in the Northern Pacific Ocean.

“I met a lot of people on this journey, good people who took care of me and helped me, not only during the rough times right after my injuries, but to this day I draw strength from their actions,” Lawson said. “I still have that Wounded Warrior cap and wear it to remember the adversities I overcame when I’m faced with new challenges.

“And even though I never made it back to my soldiers at Johnston, I find comfort that I’m here, now, at AFIMSC with an awesome group of people taking care of my Airmen.”