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Master Sgt. Jessica Clayton: An invisible wounds story of multiple traumas, continuous recovery, and resilience

Master Sgt. Jessica Clayton and her family. (Courtesy Photo)

Master Sgt. Jessica Clayton and her family. (Courtesy Photo)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --

No matter where you’re from or your AFSC, everyone is at risk of developing an invisible wound. Any exposure to a traumatic event can be a trigger and every person responds to trauma differently. For some, a blow to the head, a serious accident, or a painful event could be enough, while for others it may take years of repeated combat exposure or emotional trauma to show any signs of an invisible wound. For Master Sgt. Jessica Clayton it was a mix: the death of a fellow Wingman and co-worker, frequent and repeated reminders of his death, and a prolonged physical and emotional recovery after an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury all contributed to her invisible wounds; anxiety, depression, and Acute Stress Disorder.

In 2009, then Staff Sgt. Clayton, a civil engineer with the 28th Civil Engineering Squadron at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, was deployed for the second time. This deployment was for a joint effort with the Army to the 38th Human Resources Company, Joint Personnel Reception Center, Kandahar, Afghanistan. While deployed, she worked at the air terminal performing accountability for U.S. movement in and out of Kandahar, including seeing the coffins of Airmen, Soldiers, and other Service Members who had died in the line of duty.

Clayton recalls, “While on duty it was totally “normal” for me to see fallen heroes coming through. Every time there was a fallen service member, they parked a truck right outside my work area. Each fallen hero ceremony called for a C-17 or C-130 aircraft to be parked diagonally on the ramp outside my work area. Then, after the ceremony, the plane turned around, and I knew the heroes were heading home. Sadly, it happened all the time.”

One day, her worst nightmare came true; a friend and fellow Wingman from her home squadron was the fallen hero transferring through the terminal. All at once, Clayton was overwhelmed and saddened to learn that her friend was killed in the line of duty. She watched his dignified transfer with a heavy heart. This overwhelming experience took a toll on her.

“I had a really hard time watching his dignified transfer. I also remember his deployed squad, some of whom I knew, begging me to accompany him back home,” recalls Clayton. “Standing there watching my friend leave brought on my downfall, and after that day every diagonally parked plane and every ceremony brought back a flood of memories.” That day stayed with Clayton and developed into a deep and personal invisible wound. Every fallen hero who came through the terminal was a reminder of her friend, and each ceremony was a painful recount of watching him head home for the last time. Her invisible wound couldn’t heal. 

“I saw so many heroes pass through the ramp. And yet, I still had a long deployment left, full of mortar attacks, threats of suicide bombers and snipers. It took its toll,” Clayton recounts. It was difficult for her to cope with the regular attacks on base and repeated reminders of her friend’s death.

In January 2010 Clayton returned home and reunited with her family and friends. However, after being home for a few weeks she could tell something wasn’t right. Every Saturday her town tested tornado siren warnings, which were the exact same sounds as the sirens that signaled a base attack. “Sirens of any kind would rattle me, but the weekly tornado testing would make me roll out of bed, search for my battle rattle and weapon, and start to panic in fear that a suicide bomber was successful.”

After a few weeks of reacting to the sirens, Clayton also noticed she was averse to being in large crowds and began avoiding social situations. One incident that specifically sticks out for her, occurred only a month after she arrived home. “I was at an ice skating rink, and there were kids having fun, banging into the walls of the rink because they couldn’t stop,” Clayton remembers. “The noise of the kids hitting the rink walls was a trigger, making me feel like I was back in Afghanistan. I broke down and had to leave.”

A few weeks later, Clayton reached out to her local Mental Health Clinic for an appointment. She was diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder and attended regular therapy sessions where she talked about her experiences and her transition back to life in the U.S.

“It took about five months of therapy for me to reacquaint myself with my normal life,” said Clayton. After a while, her life normalized again—her sense of humor came back, she was enjoying work, and she was choosing to spend time with friends and family.

Looking back now, Clayton realizes the therapy saved her. “When I was going through therapy, I couldn’t initially see the benefits, and I didn’t understand how it was helping. But by the end of my sessions, and especially looking back now, it was definitely the best thing I could’ve done for myself.”

Then in September 2018, Clayton experienced another traumatic event. She severely injured her knee, resulting in complete ACL reconstruction surgery and a prolonged emotional and physical recovery, limiting her mobility. As a result, she couldn’t exercise and often missed out on family activities. The injury and many months of rehabilitation impacted Clayton, who fell into a deeply depressive state and began having suicidal thoughts.

She had trouble connecting with her family—causing her personal life to crumble. To cope with the stress and depression she immersed herself in work—spending 80 hours per week on base. Clayton remembers a moment when her mother said to her, “I want my Jess back,” which was the final account that prompted her to seek help. That comment made her realize, “If my family knows something is wrong then I need to get help.”

Clayton recalls telling her immediate supervisor, “Sir, I have to go to Mental Health. I need help.” Her leadership was supportive and encouraged her to go right away. Again, Clayton connected with a medical provider at the Mental Health Clinic and in April 2019, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Her treatment consisted of medication and regular therapy sessions. Today, she is still on medication and is leveraging therapy to continue assisting her on her road to recovery. 

Clayton was worried that being on medication would cost her the job she loved, but she’s seen no adverse effects. “I can still do my job. My treatment hasn’t impacted my career in any way.” In fact, Clayton just finished her third deployment. “As Airmen, we’re always afraid that if we need to take medication then we will have some sort of negative implications holding us back, but getting help and being mentally healthy is more important,” Clayton says.

Looking back now, she wishes she had sought treatment and asked for help sooner. “The only reason I’m in such a good place today is that I finally chose to focus on myself. For a while I told myself to tough it out, but I have people at work and at home who depend on me. I had to keep myself healthy so I could take care of them.”

As she reflects on her invisible wound experiences and her journey to recovery, Clayton provides the following advice to her Air Force family:

To my fellow Wingmen, always take time to take care of yourself, because if you don’t take care of yourself then you can’t take care of others or the mission.

For family and caregivers, invisible wounds are something that affects the entire family unit, not just one person. Do not be afraid to talk about what is going on in each other’s lives. The more you understand your Airman’s invisible wounds, the more you’ll be able to support and push them to get help.

For Air Force leaders, I encourage you to always be thankful that your Airmen trust you enough to talk to you about their invisible wounds. And no matter what the cost, let your Airmen take the time they need to get better.”

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The Invisible Wounds Initiative (IWI) mission is to improve the quality and value of support provided to Airmen with invisible wounds, to improve the perception of invisible wounds and to remove barriers of care, to ensure Airmen with invisible wounds are treated fairly, equally and in accordance with the Air Force’s commitment to Airmen and their families and to ensure continuum of care processes are executed effectively and efficiently. For more information about IWI, visit https://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil/Airmen-Veterans/Invisible-Wounds-Initiative.

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