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Invisible wounds are not a show-stopper

  • Published
  • By Shawn Sprayberry
  • Air Force Wounded Warrior Program

[Editor's Note: Tech. Sgt. Roann Leatz was selected to represent Team Air Force at the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Tampa,Fla., June 21st through June 30th. The following is a story highlighting her resiliency as she learns to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. We revisit her story to give the reader insight into how adaptive sports can aid in recovery and foster growth in long-term resiliency.]

The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2) gains a little over 100 new wounded warriors every month, with many of them struggling with invisible wounds. Over 50% of the wounded warriors enrolled in AFW2 have been diagnosed with some form of mental health issue. The largest number of those suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs happens, to people who witness life-threatening events. Tech Sgt. Roann Leatz, an EC-130J loadmaster with the 193rd Special Operations Squadron of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, has had her fair share of life-threatening events during the course of her 15 years on active duty with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

“I’ve heard bullets whiz by my head during loading operations,” she said. “Combine that with the high speed environment of working as a loadmaster in AFSOC and it makes for a highly stressful environment. Plus, I’m a female which meant I worked extra hard to ‘prove’ myself. All the stress compounded over the years.”

Things became more difficult when she joined the Air National Guard at the end of her active duty enlistment.

“I had a bit of a problem with the transition as they do things a little different than I was used to. I had a lot of active duty baggage and found it hard to integrate, and still struggle with it sometimes.”

Despite her struggles she plugged away, trying to maintain the flexibility she developed on active duty.

All that came crashing down in 2015. She was part of an infiltration/exfiltration exercise with a group of loadmasters. They were simulating night landings with a HUMVEE, a situation she had a significant amount of experience with. At one point critical point in the exercise she heard one of her team members scream.

“I’ve never heard a man scream like that before in my life,” she said. “I tried to get the attention of the crew but ended up jumping out of the vehicle so I could stop the exercise.”

When she looked up she saw her teammate come rolling down and out of the cargo door area of the aircraft. His body had been trapped by the movement of the door, crushing it. Luckily the door stopped moving soon enough to keep from killing him.

“His helmet was crushed in on one side but he was alive. I didn’t find out until later that his whole body had been crushed.”

Her anger and frustration grew after the accident, until she finally decided to do something about it.

“About a year later I self-referred to mental health. I knew I was having lots of problems and needed to get things under control. I wasn’t sleeping. I was always angry. I knew if I didn’t get help I was going to be heading down a path worse than the one I was on at the time.”

Following her line-of-duty determination in 2017, with support from the Special Operations Group commander in Pennsylvania, she was enrolled in AFW2 where she began active case management as she navigated the medical process.

The enrollment in AFW2 brought her a new opportunity: Warrior CARE Events. The CARE events are built around a holistic approach to restorative care that touches on all aspects of the support elements of AFW2, including Caregiver Support, Adaptive Sports and Resiliency Programs, Recovering Airman Mentorship training, and Empowerment in Transition education.

“I started out with adaptive sports since I’ve always been active. I had to be while in AFSOC and really wanted to get a sense of that again.”

She dove right in to adaptive sports, taking to sitting volleyball and wheelchair rugby, both very aggressive sports that gave her a chance to find out what she can do with the limitations she may have. At night she would attend the resiliency programs, taking time to paint pictures or work through her skills with improvisational comedy.

“I was having fun but was still struggling. During sitting volleyball I got frustrated and found myself fixating on all of those things I had dealt with over the years. But, I found that everyone was struggling in one way or the other. We were all working together to overcome those struggles.”

Roann is the first Guardsman from her unit to attend an event with AFW2 and feels it’s a sign the doors may be opening for other members who may be struggling.

“I really want to emphasize that, even though I still struggle, I look forward to these events. I get to be around my brothers and sisters, all of whom are dealing with their own issues. It brings me a bit of happiness to know that I can contribute to healing for a new person attending one of the CARE events.”

AFW2 selected Roann to be part of the High Performance Program, a newly instituted adaptive sports program monitoring those athletes enrolled in the program who show interest in further competition and involvement.

“It’s weird, I’ve only been to three events with AFW2 now and am so much farther along in my healing process than I was when I started. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a ways to go but I feel that these events and the involvement of AFW2 have really opened up my eyes to the possibilities.”

You can learn more about the AFW2 Warrior CARE Events at https://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil/Events/Warrior-Care-Events/. Follow us on www.facebook.com/airforcewoundedwarrior and www.twitter.com/afw2 to stay up-to-date on what is happening in AFW2.