Imagine returning home from a deployment without any incidents, but then competing in a sports game and losing an essential body part.
Staff Sgt. Delbert Coburn, 56th Civil Engineer Squadron electrical systems journeyman, lost his left eye while playing in a softball game in Goodyear four days after returning from his second deployment in October 2010.
“During the play, a fielder tried to throw me out as I slid head first into second base,” Coburn said. “But, there was no one to catch the ball and it hit me in the left eye. I never lost consciousness. I laid there thinking I just got back, and I’m already going to have a black eye.”
After Coburn turned over and regained focus in his right eye, he could see his left eye hanging from its socket. He began to have trouble breathing as he went into shock. The paramedics arrived and administered aid.
Coburn was rushed to Barrows Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix via helicopter, where he had immediate surgery to put his eye back in to try and save it. He had been hit so hard, his eye had exploded. A doctor came in five days later and told Coburn his eye was too ruptured to save and he would never see out of it again. The doctor explained the eye needed to be removed. If left it, it would infect the good eye and Coburn would become totally blind.
“For me, that was a no-brainer,” Coburn said. “I had another surgery to have it taken out.”
Coburn met with two medical boards in December 2010 to prove he could still be an effective member of the U.S. Air Force and perform his job safely and effectively as an electrician. He was deemed worldwide qualified one month after meeting with the medical boards.
“That was the best news I had in months,” he said. “It was important for me because I couldn’t see my career ending like that, and I wanted to make sure I could continue to provide for my children.”
Coburn needed to adapt to performing work duties and extracurricular activities with only one eye.
“Work has changed a lot because I don’t have depth perception and have to focus even more on completing tasks safely,” he said. “I had to relearn how to do everything for sports. In softball, I had to relearn how to hit the ball, how to correctly time the ball while at bat and how to judge the ball when fielding so I could catch it.”
Coburn received a joint expeditionary tasking to deploy with the Army to Afghanistan one year after being cleared to stay in the Air Force.
“Being in Afghanistan was nerve racking because I was always outside the wire,” Coburn said. “Wherever I went I had to take a helicopter to small forward operating bases.”
At one point during the deployment, Coburn needed to go to a training site. To get there, he had to do a patrol walk through a town with an Army unit.
At the time, some of the Afghan troops were turning on the U.S. military, he said.
“I was very nervous being in that area because I couldn’t see out of my left eye,” Coburn said. “I had to rely on my wingman to cover his area. Luckily nothing bad happened.”
Coburn received an Army commendation medal at the end of his tour.
Tech. Sgt. Ricardo Vera, 56th CES electrical section NCO-in-charge, said Coburn was eager to start working and show he could still do what was needed to get the job done.
“It’s inspiring to see how resilient he was to bounce back from an injury like that and continue to successfully complete his job and serve his country,” he said.
Losing his left eye hasn’t kept Coburn from losing sight of his goals as an Airman. He applied to become a military training instructor in January 2013 and was accepted a month later.
“I’ve always wanted to become a training instructor after going through basic, but didn’t want to leave my family at the time,” he said. “I went through Airman Leadership School in February 2008. My instructor superintendant was a former training instructor, and he talked to us about looking at that as an avenue.
“Being an instructor will help me appreciate being an Airman more, and I hope I instill in the recruits what I’ve learned as I train them to become Airmen,” Coburn said.