Wounded warriors share message of resilience in Florida

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
  • Space Launch Delta 45 Public Affairs

“I did not know I got shot,” said the sergeant. “I thought a flare hit my legs.”

He was on his second deployment in Afghanistan in July 2011 serving on a combat search and rescue team. His mission was to recover wounded service members.

“Going out and getting shot at” was routine, he said, as his unit averaged eight missions a day.

On the day a bullet tore through his legs inside an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. August O’Niell, 414th Combat Training Squadron Detachment 1 flight chief in charge of ground operations at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, said his world changed.

“I leaned over and the pain hit me,” he said. “I grabbed my tourniquet and our combat rescue officer put tourniquets on both of my legs.”

O’Niell, now an Air Force Wounded Warrior ambassador, was serving as the lead medic for that mission, coordinating care for U.S. Marines. He is one of four AFW2 ambassadors who shared their experiences during several presentations at Patrick Space Force Base and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, July 28-30.

“The call over the radio was ‘Troops in contact, one Marine hit in the chest, critically injured,’” O’Niell said. “Halfway out we heard about a second patient. About two minutes out, we learned of a third.”

Shortly thereafter, small arms fire hit the Pave Hawk and one round ricocheted off the aircraft and went through both of O’Niell’s legs, altering his life forever. The mission was aborted and O’Niell was transported to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, where doctors managed to salvage his left and right limbs.

O’Niell was then evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and later found himself undergoing care at San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas, where he hoped doctors could return his left leg to full capability.

“In San Antonio, my life became a series of surgeries and therapy every day for about three and a half years,” O’Niell said. “I was in pain constantly and went from a wheelchair, to crutches, to a cane and back to crutches.”

The bullet shattered the lower half of O’Niell’s left femur and all of his ligaments and tendons had to be replaced which required multiple operations.

There was just so much damage, he said.

Twenty surgeries later, O’Niell was told subsequent operations would only enable his left knee to bend 15 degrees due to the amount of scar tissue that had built up inside. He made the difficult decision to have his left leg amputated above the knee. He credits the AFW2 program with helping him recover.

“The Air Force Wounded Warrior program provided the support I needed,” he said. “They were also a big help as I went through the medical evaluation board process.”

A medical evaluation board is a process designed to determine whether a service member’s long-term medical condition enables him or her to continue to meet medical retention standards, in accordance with military service regulations. In some cases, it could lead to separation from military service or medical retirement.

Established in 2005, the AFW2 program provides care and assistance for wounded, ill or injured Airmen and Guardians from the time of their injuries until they transition back to military duty or civilian life.

The program consists of case management and support services.

“We work hand in hand with medical and administrative professionals to ensure our wounded warriors have all they need,” said Melissa Wiest, AFW2 program outreach and ambassador coordinator. “Our team has 42 recovery care coordinators across the Air Force to help manage cases and we currently have about 3,500 active cases right now.”

Support services could be assisting warriors with financial programs, helping them through the MEB process or ensuring they have access to the benefits they qualify for, she added.

O’Niell wanted to continue serving as a pararescueman and said the AFW2 program connected him with the resources he needed so he could make a strong case to the medical board.

“My first MEB came back and I was informed they were going to permanently retire me and I said, ‘No,’ and requested a formal board,” O’Niell said. “I went and did the Bataan Memorial Death March, filmed myself performing rope climbs, wall jumps, patient carries and drags; anything I thought that they could say, ‘You can’t do this movement, you can’t be a (pararescueman) anymore.’ I can and here it is on video.”

O’Niell performed all those physical feats on the prosthetic leg he has used since November 2014.

A week after his formal MEB, O’Niell became the first Air Force pararescueman to be fully returned to active-duty service without limitations.

He encouraged Airmen and Guardians to share AFW2 program services with others.

“I am doing the job I want to do and that would not have been possible if I did not have people supporting me like AFW2,” he said. “Take what you learn today back to your units. You’re only as good as your weakest member, and if you are letting someone in your unit isolate themselves, and you’re not making sure they have the resources they need, you are doing an injustice to that Airman and your mission. Talk to them. Tell them about the AFW2 program.”

More than 12,000 Airmen and nine Guardians have enrolled in the AFW2 program with 85% of them suffering from invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder or life threatening conditions like cancer.

Maj. Marie Perkins, 633rd Medical Support Squadron chief information officer and information systems flight commander at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in October 2018.

“I discovered a lump on my left breast that felt like a No. 2 eraser,” she said. “I went to my doctor and went through a mammogram, an ultrasound and I chose to do a biopsy. A week later, the results came back. I had stage 2A breast cancer and it was aggressive.”

At the time of her diagnosis, Perkins was 32, the mother of an 18-month old girl and was looking forward to completing a medical fellowship program.

“My world came to a complete stop,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me and my career. I love being in the Air Force and I love serving my country.”

Over the next 14 months, Perkins completed eight rounds of intravenous chemotherapy, underwent four surgeries and several months of radiation therapy. Shortly after, hoping she could return to duty, she learned cancerous cells were still present in her body and she would have to complete six more months of chemotherapy.

“I wanted to get back to work and do what I love,” she said. “But I was at my lowest point, even though I felt like I could regain my health, I had been out of work for 14 months, and I felt like I was watching my career fizzle away.”

She contacted her supervisor and informed him she would do anything possible to contribute to the mission.

“I told him I would work half days, work from home, do whatever it took,” Perkins said.

Her supervisor responded with something Perkins was not expecting over lunch at Panera Bread.

“‘There was a colonel who was out of work for two years due to a cancer battle,’” her supervisor said. “‘Your career will not stop. Cancer will not define you. You will come back and reach the heights you want to. We are here to support you 100%. Your job is to go through this treatment and get better.’”

Those words had a significant impact on Perkins.

“I almost broke down in tears because that meant so much to me,” she said. “For my supervisor to tell me that I would be OK and to know my leadership team supported me was relieving. I knew I could focus on my health and my career was going to be fine”

Perkins returned to full active-duty service in June 2020, cancer free and she credits the AFW2 program with helping her along the way.

“They gave me all the tools and information I needed to manage the MEB process and keep my leadership informed so I could get back to doing what I love,” she said. “The program’s caregiver support coordinator also visited my home on three occasions to ensure my husband and I had all we needed.”

The AFW2 program is the only one in the Department of Defense that offers support services to caregivers of wounded service members.

“We are wounded warrior advocates,” Wiest said. “Caregivers could be a mom, dad, spouse, sister or brother, anyone who is helping a wounded warrior in their recovery. It is important they get the tools and resources they need.”

Those resources include assisting families with adaptive housing, music therapy, yoga and even essential oils, Wiest said.

“Helping our wounded warriors and their families is the best job in the world,” she added.

For more information about the AFW2 program, visit their website at https://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil.