Airman beats brain tumor, grateful for Warrior Games

  • Published
  • By Shannon Collins
  • DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Craig Zaleski didn’t earn a medal in the 2015 Department of Defense Warrior Games here this week, but he said the adaptive sports competition was an emotional and rewarding experience.

He competed in shot put and discus June 23, shot the recurve bow June 22 and rode the upright bicycle June 21.

Zaleski went to his first camp in January, where he was selected as an alternate before making the Air Force team.

“Just making the team was a tremendous feeling,” he said. “I do hope to medal one day, but adaptive sports, they help with recovery. Instead of calling myself a professional TV watcher, I can call myself a cyclist or an archer.

“Every morning I wake up here, I get emotional and fired up to be around other … athletes and to feel proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished in my recovery so far,” he said. “I’ve made friends for life here.”

Military service

Zaleski deployed several times in his 21 years as an aerospace group equipment technician. He said his hardest deployment came in 1996, to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

On June 25, 1996, terrorists detonated a truck bomb containing 3,000 to 8,000 pounds of TNT at Khobar Towers, which housed U.S. and allied forces supporting the coalition air operation over Iraq, Operation Southern Watch. Nineteen airmen died, and about 500 troops were wounded.

“It struck the corner of the building, and I was in the middle,” he said. “I saw the aftermath. I saw this mushroom cloud of smoke. I thought we were going to get attacked again.”


Years later, Zaleski was stationed with his family at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa when he began experiencing pressure in his sinuses. He then failed the Air Force physical fitness test for the first time in his career.

He went to the doctor for sinus medication, started training for the makeup PT test and took leave to spend time with his family. He had a seizure while on leave. At the hospital, his wife insisted the doctor perform an MRI, and as they were driving home, the doctor called them and told them they would be leaving within three days for Hawaii, because Zaleski had a brain tumor.

“It was pretty traumatic, because the kids barely had a chance to say goodbye to their friends, and we couldn’t pack up our household goods,” he said. “Plus, I had a brain tumor the size of my fist.”

He spent 200 days in the hospital. Portions of the tumor had to be left in place, because it went around his optic nerve, he said. He lost his senses of smell and taste, but he has since regained 50 percent of his sense of taste. The trauma of a tumor and recovery also took its toll in other areas of his life, and after 14 years of marriage, the Zaleskis separated.

Positive outlook

Zaleski said he’s happy they found the tumor in time, and he keeps a positive outlook.

“I’m still recovering, and I want to be a good role model for my kids,” he said. “I could’ve easily turned to drinking or other bad habits, but I didn’t. It’s not worth it.”

Adaptive sports

Adaptive sports have helped him maintain his athleticism, Zaleski said. He was a high school athlete and played intramural softball in the Air Force.

“I could be at work, but instead, I’m out riding a cycle or shooting archery; there’s no comparison,” he said. “It’s very relaxing. I’m getting a new recurve bow within the next month or so, and I’m going to start competing a little bit more.”