JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --
“We all experience traumas in our lives. Life is stressful by itself—and there are members in uniform and their families dealing with additional stressors that the civilian population might not understand.” Retired Master Sgt. Adam Boccher finishes this thought, “I would tell people, it’s normal to seek help when you experience a traumatic event. Reach out for the right tools to work through that traumatic experience and to professionals that can help guide you.”
When returning home from deployment in December 2006, Boccher knew emotionally and mentally that he was not the same person.
In 2006, Boccher, a Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) was assigned to a Combined Joint Task Force in Afghanistan. Boccher was preparing a highly mobile multi-wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) one evening to go out for a mission. He stood on top of the vehicle mounting a machine gun when the sky lit up. Mortars and rockets whizzed through the air as the shelling began. The first couple of rounds were very close. Boccher knew he was in harm’s way. As he leaped from the Humvee to take cover, his foot got caught in the side of a turret, and he lost control, landing on his hands and head. With adrenaline pumping, Boccher ran to the bunker for safety, not realizing the lasting impact that the fall would have on him.
Days after returning home, symptoms due to the fall emerged. Sleeping became nearly impossible, with escalating violent verbal outbursts and uncontrolled movements. Boccher became uncomfortable visiting crowded places, such as grocery stores or restaurants, without a strict schedule for the day. Bright lights and loud noises also became unbearable and would cause severe headaches. Even the simplest change to a routine or plan became a trigger of frustration and paranoia.
Boccher knew that something was wrong, but he believed that seeking treatment for his invisible wounds would permanently impact his career, so he withheld information about his head injury and symptoms from his doctors. Without a proper diagnosis, support, or treatment, Boccher didn’t have the right tools or coping methods. He instead threw himself into his work, deployments, a strict exercise regime, and at times, also turned to alcohol.
By 2008, Boccher settled into a new assignment at an AFOSI office in Colorado. Boccher was responsible for conducting felony-level criminal, fraud, and counterintelligence investigations on behalf of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. To this day, Boccher carries memories of the traumatizing cases with him. One such investigation, which involved the death of an infant, affected him in a more personal and emotional way than the other cases.
“I will remember each minute of that four-hour autopsy for the rest of my life,” he reflects. After the investigation involving the infant, Boccher’s symptoms became unmanageable. He increasingly isolated himself from the positive pillars in his life: family, fitness, friends, and faith. He became irritable, picked fights, was late to work, and didn’t recognize himself anymore.
During subsequent deployments, from 2009 to 2015, Boccher was taking risks during direct fire attacks that he now reflects on as dangerous, suicidal, and a blatant disregard for his own life. Boccher had become profoundly depressed and had lost his will to live.
In 2015, after returning home from deployment, Boccher faced several major life events, including moving for a new assignment as a superintendent and the birth of his son. “This was supposed to be a happy and exciting time, but my whole life felt like it was falling apart. I wanted to be the best father, husband, and superintendent possible, but I was still facing my own invisible wounds,” he recalls.
Without the right tools or professional medical guidance to help him cope with his symptoms, emotional trauma, and life stressors, he began to rely on alcohol to numb his symptoms and emotional turmoil. This dependence increased until one day in March 2017, when police found Boccher intoxicated and asleep behind the wheel of his car, leading to an arrest that permanently altered his career.
Beginning the Recovery Journey
Boccher immediately went to a 30-day in-patient alcohol treatment facility in Texas, a location where many of the people he investigated ended up. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience. “It changed my whole outlook on life. I didn’t make the right choices.”
Following his in-patient alcohol treatment, Boccher finally sought treatment for his invisible wounds. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2018, nearly a decade after the initial trauma. His recovery path included several treatments: medication, out-patient psychotherapy, and a specialized TBI and neuropsychiatric program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Although it wasn’t easy for Boccher to trust doctors, re-live physical and emotional traumas, and try different treatments, he now had the right tools and support system to help him learn how to move forward and deal with life and stress in healthy ways.
Although Boccher still experiences TBI and PTSD symptoms, he now has coping methods and positive ways to help him live a better life. He uses daily meditation, psychotherapy, mindfulness practices, physical fitness, and a robust support system to stay mentally fit and resilient.
“Knowing what I know now, I would’ve been more open to treatment a lot sooner,” he shares. “It’s like someone who breaks a wrist and actively avoids going to the doctor. It’s the same thing when dealing with something traumatizing. I actively prevented recovery and I could’ve prevented extra damage to my personal life and career.”
Boccher credits much of the success of his recovery journey to his wife, who is a constant pillar of strength for him, AFOSI senior leaders, and the Air Force Wounded Warriors (AFW2) program. AFW2 provides non-medical care and is an advocate network for Airmen and their families in need of support. This support system saved Boccher’s life, gave him hope and strength, and allowed him to continue to work, maintain his clearance, and then retire with dignity. Boccher became an Ambassador for the AFW2 Ambassador Program and has now reached over 2,400 people virtually and in-person with his story.
Advice to Airmen
By telling his story, Boccher hopes to inspire other Airmen to come forward and seek help early. He encourages all Airmen, leaders, and caregivers to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of invisible wounds and to encourage each other to seek help.
“To all my brothers and sisters in the Air Force who might be hurting, I want you to know it will be ok! Know that suicide is not the answer, and that you can move forward after your traumas. There is an entire Air Force family who cares about you and wants you to be happy and safe. Speak up and ask for help if you need it. We are here to support you through whatever your journey may bring.”
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 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.