JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --
Capt. Casey Ross thought she left her past behind her when she joined the Montana Air National Guard in 2007, until she noticed something was off after returning from Flight School. Ross knows now that part of the training triggered her, exposing invisible wounds from childhood trauma—18 years of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse at home.
“I remember coming home after training, picking up my kids, and feeling nothing,” says Ross. She felt void and emotionally shut-off. Even her then 6-year-old daughter became a trigger, reminding Ross of the physical abuse she faced around the same age.
With no tools to manage her symptoms, work was no better. She couldn’t be present, and even small triggers like raised voices upset her. What’s more, Ross realized she couldn’t focus while flying. She was devastated, “At that time, I would’ve chosen flight status rather than my life, but it wasn’t just about me.” Unwilling to risk the lives of her crew, Ross scheduled an appointment with the Director of Psychological Health (DPH), and in parallel, talked to her commander about her symptoms, voluntarily requesting to be removed from flying status.
The DPH diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to childhood trauma and initiated the official process to medically place her in a Duties Not Including Flying status while Ross underwent treatment. Ross attended a local intensive out-patient treatment and then transitioned to a specialized provider to help her address the severe childhood trauma.
What Ross didn’t realize is how much courage and strength it would take to step up and begin her recovery journey, especially as she hid the details of her invisible wounds from family and wingmen for fear of being perceived as broken and weak. One day, triggered at work and overcome with the emotional toll of living with her invisible wounds, she found herself in the parking lot, sobbing in her truck.
That’s when her squadron commander knocked on the car window.
Before she knew it, she was sitting with her commanders sharing her entire life story for the first time. “I’m with my two commanders, who are telling me ‘we got your back, we’re going to be here for you,’ and I didn’t believe them.” She thought sharing her full story would end her career—she was wrong. “I saw them, warriors to the core, be empathetic and not push me away,” says Ross. “They fought to get me back in the airplane.”
Receiving support from her commanders was a turning point for Ross. They renewed her commitment to continue the PTSD treatment and supported her throughout the recovery journey. When Ross gave up hope that treatment would work and contemplated suicide, Dahlin brought in reinforcements. Soon, other commanders started checking in on Ross and sharing their own invisible wounds stories. “The more I realized I wasn’t alone, the more I realized I could be helped, and the easier it got to get up each day,” says Ross.
After completing treatment, and with the support of her health providers and leaders who formally recommended her flying status be reinstated, Ross started flying again. “Just like you have to work out to stay in shape, you have to maintain your mental health too,” says Ross. She now continues to rely on counseling and uses strategies learned in treatment, like working out, journaling, and bible study, to look after her mental health. “Get help early,” Ross reminds Airmen. “My commanders were my lifeline. Find your lifeline early before your symptoms become so big they impact your career.”
Editor Note: Invisible wounds are as real and severe as physical wounds. If left untreated invisible wounds can have negative impacts on an Airman’s personal and professional life. It’s important for Airmen to recognize signs and symptoms of invisible wounds in themselves and in their peers, to ensure a mentally strong, resilient, and lethal Total Force. The Air Force is committed to supporting Airmen living with invisible wounds by providing a wide range of resources to support their recovery journey. To share your own stories of invisible wounds and/or learn about available resources visit www.ReadyAirmen.com.