WASHINGTON, D.C. — (This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
Coming back from deployment, Airmen face the home-station work environment, reintegrating with family and settling back into day-to-day life.
What happens when an Airman is diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and mild Traumatic Brain Injury upon return?
For one Airman, his path to recovery has been slow, but he has overcome the challenges placed before him.
“I gave myself permission to let my traumatic brain injury and PTSD be there,” said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling senior enlisted leader. “Then, I gave myself permission to reset everything and not be embarrassed by it.”
Simonsen’s last deployment was as a Public Affairs officer with a provincial reconstructive team, in both Nuristan and Kandahar Provinces, Afghanistan. He completed 66 outside-the-wire missions with five attacks on their team. Due to the attacks, he was hospitalized for back and hip injuries and multiple head injuries.
Upon return, he said he felt depressed, anxious and he had difficulty being in crowds.
“The toughest thing, is feeling you cannot be as productive as you used to be,” Simonsen said. “Concentration was more difficult; writing e-mails was more difficult; composing my thoughts and expressing myself was more difficult.”
A big piece of the recovery process for Simonsen has been his service dog.
“Yoko is a wonderful addition to my life,” said the wounded warrior. “I say she’s a resiliency tool of the first order. My recovery was really, really slow — it still is. I’m broken physically, emotionally and mentally — recovering is a long process.”
While at the Traumatic Brain Injury clinic, Simonsen was seen interacting positively with the facility dog and it was suggested that he look into getting a service dog for himself.
“Once they placed her [Yoko] with me, the change was almost immediate,” Simonsen said. “I’m not the old Rich Simonsen — I never will be. But, I’m a lot closer, because of her. She’s an unobtrusive companion; she provides a calming influence. She’s a good wingman for me.”
Yoko also enables him to be in crowds and speak in public, like when he speaks to Airmen at Right Start briefings or Airmen Professional Enhancement Courses. Although Yoko is noticeable, she doesn’t detract from the chief’s message.
“A lot of his focus was on ways to deal with people,” said U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Ceremonial Guardsman Airman 1st Class Nicholas Priest at an APE Course. “I thought he had a lot of valuable information on how to deal with what we may have issues with. If you have a positive work environment, it helps people work a lot harder. Look out for people, especially where sexual assault prevention and suicide awareness are concerned. We’re one force, so we need to work as a team.”
Although Simonsen said he has a tendency to isolate himself and has a hard time dealing with the physical pain from his injuries, he tries not to focus solely on the negative.
“The biggest difference, on a positive side, is that I take a little more time to think about things before I respond,” the senior enlisted leader said. “That gives me a little more contemplative way of being.”
Aside from the resources of mental health and the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, Simonsen said his family and church have been a huge source of support for him.
“My wife has followed me around the world for going on 25 years,” he said. “She loves me no matter what. However, she knew I was suffering when I came home. She pushed me to get help. Everyone has a support system that should be tapped into. We need to use them in our recovery, but we also have to remember they’re there working hard and taking a lot of the stress.”
For those who may be suffering silently with PTSD, Simonsen offers this piece of advice.
“Coming forward shows courage and strength and is in line with our core values. You can go get help and still succeed in your career.”
Though there are many programs out there for wounded warriors, November helps shed light on issues facing wounded veterans as it is Wounded Warrior Month.