Lauren Arduser was a tall, slender Russian linguist with long straight brown hair and a warm smile.
She was newly arrived at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, from Presidio of Monterey, Calif., for intelligence training; her 10th day on-site meant exploring the new area with her friends and hiking the local state park.
Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. Lauren’s ears perked up at the steady rhythmic sound of medical equipment.
She was in the hospital. She realized she could not move anything from her neck downward. Frustrating tears rolled down her face when no one explained, and she could not ask: what happened and why was she there?
Eventually, the 311th Training Squadron student was told she was in a severe car accident that left all four limbs paralyzed and her neck broken. Her language skills and cognitive ability were unaffected.
Unable to breathe independently, she had been in a medically induced coma for the past few weeks, not expected to survive.
Her last memory was 11 days prior when she finished a hike with her friends and climbed into the passenger seat, instinctively buckling her seatbelt.
Like experiencing an Alice-in-Wonderland moment, the Airman 1st Class could not fathom why her mom and other family members looked down at her so perplexed and “strangely,” she described.
Lauren’s body smashed into the ground as the vehicle flipped an undetermined number of times. She suffered an interrupted spinal cord injury, meaning her crushed C6 and broken C7 vertebrae required life-saving surgery.
By a mere coincidence, the exact surgeon her injury required happened to be in town during his once-a-month rotating medical schedule. San Angelo is an outlying city, nearly four hours from the next major city, and has no local spinal cord surgeons. Thankfully, her surgery was a success. She now has a steel plate cadaver encasing her crushed C6, a bar in the front of her neck from her C3 to T1, and a second bar in the back of her neck from C3 to T2.
Lauren was treated at the intensive care unit in San Angelo. After recovering from a collapsed lung, Lauren was transported to a hospital in San Antonio, where she learned to breathe independently.
After maximizing their medical capabilities at the San Antonio hospital, Lauren now rehabs three hours a day, five days a week at the St. Louis VA Healthcare System-Jefferson Barracks, in Missouri, where she continues to exceed all expectations daily.
“I realized the only person who could stop me was me,” said Lauren. “Anytime I had those bad days where I cried, sobbed, and felt like I was the smallest person, my leg would move the next day.”
Her resilience, which she jokingly calls stubbornness, powers her to assess, adjust and overcome daily physical and psychological challenges of her new environment.
“I would tell myself, ‘if I can move my toes, I can move my whole foot,’” said Lauren. “I would allow myself to have those sad days, and then be incredibly stubborn the next day. This is a mind game, I can do it. I can move my entire body if I tell myself I can.”
You will never walk again, you will never be able to move your hands again, you’re always going to be in a wheelchair, they said. But in her less-than-three-month recovery, she has already walked.
“I am too stubborn to be pushed down,” she said. “I am resilient and have so much more to offer. I’m here to show people that mind over matter does work.”
Before arriving at Goodfellow, Lauren was trained for Airpower over an entire year, developing Russian language skills at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, POM. Based on national defense needs, DLIFLC actively trains over 65 languages to advance the Department of Defense.
Along with 14 other classmates, Lauren put her mind over matter and submitted her final language exam, qualifying her to be a Russian linguist for the United States Air Force, even when they told her she could not. It was February 24, the same day Russia invaded Ukraine.
Lauren’s training demonstrates how advanced and forward-thinking the force development structure is. And her resilience revealed itself when she and one other classmate were the only two to pass the exam.
From an early age, Lauren expressed her passion for culture and diversity. “Our differences make us stronger,” she said. After leaving her small hometown in Missouri, her heart felt unfulfilled by culinary school. She felt she had nothing left, but with encouragement from her aunt, she enlisted in the Air Force. She later discovered her late great-grandfather also had a secret military life uncovered in declassified military documents last year.
Like putting on glasses, her vision in life became clear, and her heart became whole. She saw the Air Force was the right choice for her, and she refuses to let that go.
“My biggest goal is going back to active duty and doing my job,” said Lauren, her brown eyes flared, fierce and passionate. “I’ve worked so hard for this, and I’m not giving up now.”
While Lauren is mission-focused, her 17th Training Wing leadership is focused on her, embodying the mission first, people always, mentality.
“Every single person I have in my corner now is military,” said Lauren, referring to emotional support she’s received outside of her physical care. “I love having this team behind me. You can tell they care not only for me, but for my family and are willing to take care of me in any way they can. I’m so grateful.”
Her strong, confident voice is incomparable to the near faint whispers her voice muttered when she was initially admitted into the hospital. Even in the darkest of times, Lauren finds ways to laugh and joke, like when she playfully banters with a fellow spinal cord-injured service member, an Army Major named John. John hit a milestone, transitioning from a powered wheelchair to a manual wheelchair. Lauren was there, secretly cheering on his accomplishment because it was a significant accomplishment only spinal cord injury survivors could genuinely understand. The military bond holds firm, a united joint force — down range, or in recovery.
Like John, Lauren also hit a milestone by independently putting on her military uniform. On her first try since her accident, it took her more than two hours. Nevertheless, with a ‘put-me-in-coach’ mentality she continuously advocates to get back to the mission. The first step is putting her uniform on, which now takes her less than 35 minutes.
“Never say what an individual with desire ‘can’t’ do,” said Lt. Col. E.J. Mason, 316th Training Squadron commander, who held administrative responsibility for Lauren at the time of her accident. “Because if you told me Lauren would be talking, putting her uniform on, and walking with assistance, after I first saw her in the hospital, I would not have thought it was possible. And I was wrong.”
“This is about personal resilience,” said Mason. “Every day, she says, ‘Hey, I want to come back and be better. I want to reach those next steps. I want to be a linguist.’ When all the odds were against her.”
“That is a lesson to me,” said Mason. “There’s nothing an individual with desire can’t do.”
In her downtime, Lauren continues to capitalize her Russian skills. By her request, unclassified course materials have also been provided to her, so she can continuously improve herself for the mission she eagerly wants to return to.
“I am the one percent that recovers,” said Lauren. “All of this is temporary, and I will get back to doing the mission I’m so proud of.”