CHICAGO — Thousands gathered to witness an extraordinary display of resilience and strength by the nation’s wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing all branches of the military during the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Chicago.
The lives of two Air Force master sergeants became forever intertwined, as if guided by fate, leading them toward a chance to serve as teammates and represent Team Air Force at this year’s games.
Growing up in the Lone Star state, roughly 1.3 miles separated Master Sgts. Linn Knight and Kenneth Guinn, both explosive ordnance disposal troops currently stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, perhaps not the starkest similarity, but the beginning of many.
The pair, who would not officially meet until 2010, joined the Air Force in 2004 – Guinn in June and Knight in July. After attending separate technical training courses, Knight, a former lab technician who later cross-trained into the EOD career field in 2009, and Guinn both received orders to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, as their first duty station, living in dorms roughly 100 meters apart.
Recognized as superior performers, the two Airmen earned senior airman below-the-zone during the same cycle. With that promotion motivating the two, each earned promotion to staff sergeant their first attempt the same year, with line numbers separated only by several hundred.
Today, their friendship and wingmanship is obvious, but their story of these chance coincidences collided in 2010 when the duo was tasked to deploy as part of a team supporting the United States Marine Corps in Afghanistan. Still strangers to one another at that time, Knight and Guinn experienced a moment most Americans can only understand by watching a Hollywood production.
Knight and Guinn found themselves targets of a command detonated improvised explosive device while traveling in two separate convoys, each within an hour of each another, separated by approximately one kilometer.
“Most of what I remember is sitting there as the team leader and feeling the pain in my ears from the blast pressure,” Guinn said. “As the dust settled, the taste was more memorable than the smell. A metallic, charred taste filled my mouth, and all I kept thinking was ‘this is only my first week here.’”
As the driver of a different vehicle several streets over, Knight recalls the blast best by the memory of her hands being forced off the steering wheel in slow motion.
“I remember looking out at empty streets, which is never a good sign,” she said. “Then, I remember time slowing following the explosion and my helmet getting slammed into the ceiling of the vehicle overhead light”.
Both members’ names were placed on a casualty report due to traumatic brain injuries, officially enrolling them in the Air Force Wounded Warrior program – on the same day.
“The TBI greatly altered my memory,” Knight said. “My short-term recall is nearly non-existent. I can tell you what I wore for my birthday when I turned four, but I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I had for dinner last night.”
Despite the program making multiple attempts to make contact with the two Airmen, both initially dismissed AFW2’s invitation to get enrolled and begin their own healing processes.
“I felt that there were so many other people out there who genuinely needed the programs help – people who were physically or seriously wounded,” Guinn said. “Why should I take up a slot and take away someone else’s help?”
For Knight, it was the perception that some military communities placed upon perceived weakness that prevented her from seeking assistance sooner.
“That fear-based perception is only amplified for a woman … I didn’t want to be perceived as a weak woman,” she said. “We are a very male-dominant career field. As a woman, whether you like it or not, people will notice you in both good and bad scenarios. In our career field, once a weakness is perceived, it’s usually over, and I didn’t want to be that person. I was willing to suffer in silence in order to put the mission first.
“Instead, I developed unhealthy ways of coping. I drank too much, overworked myself and instead of dealing with my issues, I ignored them – that just seemed easier.”
Each of them was suffering in silence, afraid to seek the help they needed in fear of losing their clearances and future deployments. Unfortunately, both Guinn and Knight reported they had sub-standard experiences with medical staff that only set them further back on their road to recovery.
“I have had encounters with mental health providers who blatantly denied that anything I had experienced actually happened,” Guinn said. “I was essentially being called a liar, and was having my personal issues invalidated by the people who were supposed to help me cope with them.”
Knight echoed similar circumstances with medical providers.
“The worst memory I have about going to a mental health provider was that the counselor had a tube of lipstick instead of a pen in her pocket,” Knight said. “While she shook her head ‘no,’ she asked me if I thought I needed to come back following my appointment. It was so clear to me where her priorities were and that I wasn’t one of them.”
After several negative experiences, Guinn lucked into a slightly different medical approach while deployed to Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates in 2013.
“I was introduced to a more holistic-based therapy; guided imagery, diaphragmatic breathing, and yoga,” he said. “The captain I was working with at the time told me she thought she could help me, despite my previous medical care perceptions, and I gave it a chance. While I was initially skeptical, the therapy worked almost instantly, and I felt peace for the first time in years.”
While Guinn was finally taking small, positive steps toward his own journey toward recovery, Knight was experiencing a defining chapter in her life while stationed overseas in Korea.
“My avoidance of my original post-traumatic stress disorder and TBI turned to distraction,” Knight said. “During an unintentional self-exam, I felt a mass underneath my right breast; anything else was completely overshadowed.”
The lump Knight felt turned out to be stage-three breast cancer, but it took persistence to get her initial concerns addressed seriously by local providers.
“I had to beg my medical team to be sent for a biopsy,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t fine, but the providers just kept telling me I was too young to have cancer. As it turned out, I did.”
After chemotherapy, radiation and several operations to overcome cancer, Knight felt it was time to give AFW2 a chance.
“When I went to my first camps, I told myself [and others] I was there because I had struggled with breast cancer,” she said. “But because I had cancer, I was afforded the chance to revisit the program and finally take care of some of those old demons buried within myself. All of the care I received from the program was helping me deal more productively and in a healthier way with some of the issues, I faced earlier in my career.
“I remember being introduced to music therapy and being initially hesitant. I thought ‘why am I going to sit here, sing and ring a bell … how will that help me?’ But after a while, I rang the bell and gave into the therapy, and I cannot explain why it worked, but we were all just sitting in a circle singing together, and it felt nice – I could feel something in me changing.”
Knight was approached by a local public affairs team and asked to share her story in a video that was eventually shared across Air Force social media channels. Having lost touch with her since their deployment, that video made its way to Guinn who was alarmed to find yet another similarity between them – several small masses under the right side of his chest.
“I reached out to her for the first time in years, and we talked at length about her struggles, and I shared what I had discovered in myself,” he said. “At her urging, I had an ultrasound and was told that the chances it was cancer were slim, but when I got the call to come in the next day for immediate surgery, I was still nervous.”
Guinn underwent a preventive mass removal only to find out that the lump he felt was benign, leading him to the point in his life where he too felt he was ready to give the AFW2 program another shot.
More parallels for Guinn and Knight came after both received orders to Tyndall. The similarity momentum was back in full swing. The pair made master sergeant the same year during each of their first senior NCO boards.
With both willing to participate in the AFW2 program, Knight, who had been previously selected as a part of the Warrior Games team in 2015, recommended Guinn for a spot.
“After a severe knee injury followed by two reconstructive surgeries in 2012, I was told by my orthopedic surgeon that there was a significant possibility I would never run again,” Guinn said. “But once I was invited into the program and began training again, it motivated me to get back in shape when I needed it most. I had spent the better part of several years on the couch feeling sorry for myself. The program reminded me that I could be myself again, even though I had spent way too long hating myself for not being able to do the things I once loved doing.”
“Walking away from the [Air Force] trials after earning gold in each of my events was a huge accomplishment for me. While I was still in pain and not fully back to my old self, I had finally found an outlet to use as a starting point – adaptive sports.”
AFW2 prides itself on providing an uplifting, rewarding and inspirational experience for the athletes and their families, but what they do as well as provide lasting connections for everyone involved.
Having a profound belief that being part of AFW2 significantly changed their lives, the pair learned that their invisible wounds wouldn’t hinder their career, but instead, allow them to become part of a family that understands what they are going through, and has provided them with tools to get back to normal.
Just as fate might have had a hand in their meeting, the program gave the two a chance to not only deal with issues long buried; it showed them how to thrive and proved you don’t need to suffer alone. The commonalities between the lives of these two warriors are uncanny and extensive; from growing up in the same city and joining the Air Force in the same year, to a traumatic run in with an IED on the same day and similar career assignments and progression, Guinn and Knight have forged a friendship built upon on a life of shared experiences.
“In theory, Kenny and I should have met years ago,” Knight said. “But it seems that our paths crossed when we needed them to most. We shared the belief that we could handle what we had faced on our own, and when we couldn’t, our AFW2 family showed us that it was OK. Sometimes, meeting the right person or finding the right program can completely change your circumstances – and AFW2 changed everything for us.”