Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace was sick for three days before August drill.
It wasn’t a "go-the-hospital" kind of sick, but he couldn’t keep his food down.
His stomach always churns in the days leading up to a presentation.
As he woke up in a hotel room in southern California and prepared to address an audience of several hundred ABU-clad Airmen for only the fourth time in his career, he had to battle those all-too-familiar nerves once again.
Wallace, who serves as public affairs chief at the 89th Airlift Wing, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, was the keynote speaker during the 163d Attack Wing’s enlisted all-call Aug. 6, 2016, at the Regional Training Site at March Air Reserve Base.
He is one of a handful of Ambassadors for the federally-funded and Congressionally-mandated Air Force Wounded Warrior program, which provides personalized care, services and advocacy to seriously or very seriously wounded, ill or injured service members and their caregivers and families.
A disclaimer precluding his presentation – dubbed “To Hell and Back” – gave warning as to the graphic nature of Wallace’s stories, and gave Airmen a chance to leave.
No one walked out.
For nearly an hour Wallace recounted moments of his battle-ridden deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 as a member of a media combat team assigned to Regional Command West.
He began by playing audio captured during a rocket-propelled grenade attack his team withstood in the Bala Murghab District of Badghis Province, Afghanistan. The clips, captured by a helmet cam he had mounted, and a small digital camera another team member was carrying, offered insight to the sudden chaos an Airman can encounter in the battlespace.
Small arms fire coming in, rounds flying out, explosions close and far, expletives all around.
“Medic!” a panicked voice screams.
“I’m hit,” another yells out.
“Medic!” the voice screams out again.
“I’m hit in the neck, but no big deal,” Wallace’s voice says in the background.
“We need f*$king CAS!” another voice yells out above the sound of machine gun fire in a desperate cry for close air support.
The team suffered five wounded that day, including a military working dog that was medically retired afterward.
Wallace took shrapnel to the neck, blew out his hearing, and suffered a traumatic brain injury from the RPG blast.
But that was just one day, Wallace said during the presentation. He suffered another TBI when an improvised explosive device struck his convoy, and found himself in countless other firefights.
He worked to overcome the physical injuries he sustained. For two months his speech was garbled, but rehabilitation helped him overcome that. He wears hearing aids since the RPG blew out his eardrums.
He incessantly records audio notes on his phone in order to remember conversations or keep track of requests from his supervisors.
He has memory problems, but there are memories he can’t forget.
Throughout the deployment as Wallace and his team moved throughout Afghan villages, they sometimes saw the kind of things one could only find in a horror film: a young boy chained to a table and kept close for casual rape by adult men, and a girl beaten so badly her skin came off.
Wallace’s raw retelling of his deployment resonated with 163rd Airmen throughout drill weekend.
“That was the first time I’ve ever heard anything so raw like that,” said Staff Sgt. Esquivel, 163d Force Support Squadron.
The stories of what Wallace saw left Senior Airman Jerry Vilchez of the 163d Civil Engineering Squadron shaken. “There was so much detail to his stories,” said Vilchez. “You can’t make this stuff up, not even in a movie script.”
Wallace shared with the audience his personal journey after coming home from the deployment.
He struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and soon after sewing on Master Sgt., he tried to take his own life, but decided at the last minute not to. Nobody knew about the attempt but him.
Not long after his abandoned suicide attempt, Wallace physically assaulted someone. It was regarded as a final disparate cry for help. His commanders forced him to get help instead of logging it as a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“I think out of all the stories, when he talked about his suicide attempt it was the thing that hit me most,” Vilchez said. “For four or five hours after he spoke to us, all I could think about was what he told us in that room.”
As part of Wallace’s treatment, he had to talk about his experiences in Afghanistan and listen painfully as recordings were played back. He compared the experience to torture, but said it helped him get to where he is now, able to share his story with others.
“I don’t feel like I can contribute in a lot of ways to the joint fight anymore, but I feel like I’m contributing (by speaking),” Wallace said. “As hard as it is on me emotionally and physically, I feel like I get a level of gratification from it that makes it worthwhile.”
He hopes that if people need help, they will seek it out.
“My biggest takeaway is if someone in that room, whether they’re still suffering from abuse they had as a child, a sexual assault, or something that happens on a deployment, that they remember what some crazy old Senior Master Sgt. told them, and decide they don’t want to be like me and they go get help,” Wallace said.
The message got through, according to Vilchez.
“Hearing what he went through and his experience with PTSD will help so many other people who are suffering from that same thing who can’t express their emotions or don’t know how to ask for help,” Vilchez said.
“What he’s doing is amazing. And I’m glad he’s here, and that he spoke to me and everybody else.”