The old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words. Since 2004, Tech. Sgt. Courtney Richardson has been telling the Air Force story through pictures as a public affairs photojournalist.
“Serving as a photographer has been a great job; I would not trade it for any other job in the Air Force,” said Richardson. “A lot of people think that our job is to show up and take pictures at events, but what they do not realize is that it is also our job to be first responders to crime scenes, such as car accidents and property defacement – even suicides.”
Richardson finds her photojournalist job rewarding overall, but the first responder aspect has led to many tough experiences throughout her tenure. Following her first deployment to Kuwait in 2009, she noticed she was having trouble coping with the traumatic scenes she witnessed as part of her job. When a fellow Airman recommended therapy, she decided to give it a try. After two sessions, Richardson felt she was not yet ready to face the emotions and memories that her therapist wanted her to process, so she stopped going to her appointments.
“No amount of training can prepare you for how to deal with the things I have witnessed,” Richardson said. “You just learn to compartmentalize and take the human aspect out of the job.”
At the time, another Airman recommended chewing gum as a way of processing what happened after a difficult experience. This coping strategy worked for a while but lost its effectiveness the day she responded to the sudden death of a close friend.
“After the incident, I went back to my office and started hyperventilating. I was confused how this could happen just 30 minutes after having lunch with him and everything seemed fine,” Richardson recounted.
Her leadership and fellow Wingmen were unaware that Richardson was having difficulty coping with the more graphic aspects of her job or the impact it was having on her mental health. Since she had not been formally diagnosed with an invisible wound, she was reluctant to share her difficulties with her leadership and peers.
In 2011, Richardson deployed to Latin America for five months on the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, where one of her roles was to photograph surgeries on and off the ship. When Richardson returned home, she began experiencing anxious feelings and flashbacks from her deployment. She avoided some of her favorite activities, like attending festivals or going shopping, because she feared bad things were going to happen. She also stopped getting personal with others for fear of eventually having to take unpleasant pictures of them.
Fearful of seeking treatment, Richardson tried to hide her symptoms from her loved ones; however, her husband noticed changes in her personality. Finally, he sat her down and told her she needed help. At first, she felt relieved because she knew that she had become more irritable and protective of their kids, but she was also angry with herself for feeling like she had failed her family and wasn’t strong enough to handle the stress on her own.
“I was nervous to seek help because I knew people were counting on me to be their rock, but ultimately I decided to talk with my boss about giving therapy another try,” Richardson said.
With her second attempt at therapy, her mental health provider at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder and anxiety. Richardson received four weeks of Prolonged Exposure Treatment, where she learned healthy coping mechanisms for managing her stress. Eventually, when family schedules became more hectic, she felt she could apply what she learned from treatment on her own without the help of a professional. Ultimately, Richardson decided to stop attending sessions and chose to try handling the stress on her own again.
During her third deployment, her symptoms came back worse than before—she was now experiencing insomnia, lack of appetite, hair loss, and constant stress. It was at this point that Richardson knew she had reached her breaking point, and upon her return home, she went back to her mental health provider.
“We recognized that my environment was no longer conducive to my mental health, and I needed to separate myself,” she admitted.
The mental health provider told her about an in-patient treatment program and that she could begin treatment there the following morning. Richardson worried that going away was a sign of weakness and that she would be letting her family and fellow Airmen down. But to her surprise they were immensely supportive of her decision to seek help.
“I called my husband to discuss, and he immediately encouraged me to do it,” recalls Richardson. “When I told my boss, he said they would cover me, and that it was more important I get better.”
For 31 days, Richardson received in-patient treatment for her invisible wounds. Her leadership came to visit her during her stay and strongly encouraged her to take the time she needed to get better before coming back to work. When her stay came to an end, staff asked if she was ready to return to work. Richardson knew she was ready to leave, but admitted she was nervous about returning to the environment that triggered her symptoms.
“At the end of my treatment, I was scared to leave what had become a safe environment for me,” Richardson said.
After treatment, Richardson told her boss that she felt it was time for her to leave Active Duty, but that she still wanted to continue her career in the Air Force Reserve. Again, he supported her decision.
“I still wanted to be a part of the military because it had been so beneficial to my life, but the best thing for me was to scale back on my Active Duty career and focus on my family and health,” she said.
Richardson recently graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications and Media Studies. She is interested in pursuing a career in public relations and working with the media. She continues to tell the Air Force story through photography as a photojournalist with the Air Force Reserve, serving with the 944th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona. Therapy helped Richardson find peace through art, journaling, and cooking, which are now her favorite hobbies. She and her husband also started attending church services and enjoy going out and doing things as a family.
When asked for advice about seeking treatment for invisible wounds for her fellow Airmen, Richardson strongly encourages them to seek help the moment they realize something is wrong.
“You may need to put jets in the sky, but if your head is not in the game, that jet could fall out of the sky just as fast as it went up,” said Richardson. “Remember that your mental health is the one thing that allows you to be yourself, so please ask for help and never give up on yourself.”
Editor’s Note: Are you or someone you know living with an invisible wound? Visit the Invisible Wounds Initiative website or the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program for more information. Ultimately, Airmen taking care of Airmen is what this is all about. Finding strength in yourselves and others, to go the extra distance, seek help, and come back stronger. The Air Force is committed to ensuring you have the resources to do so.