A Purple Heart and Mind: Retired Lt. Col. Jordan Lindeke’s Story on Treatment, Friendship, and Self-Acceptance of Invisible Wounds

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  • Invisible Wounds Initiative

It was initially a time for celebration for Jordan Lindeke. It was December 5, 2010, and in two days she would turn 27 years old at the foot of the mountains of Afghanistan’s eastern Paktia province. What began as a day filled with stories, jokes, and good company to rejoice another year of life, descended into a day devastated by death that left wounds of war—both visible and invisible.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (ret) Jordan Lindeke began her career in 2005. She had seen several of her friends deploy to the Middle East in the wake of 9/11 as the United States commenced the War on Terror. She wanted to serve her country and initially signed up for three years, but found herself committed to the Air Force, its Airmen, and its mission for much longer.

Lindeke deployed to a range of dusty mountains on the far side of the world after serving in several locations, both domestic and abroad, for the first five years of her career.

In July of 2010, then Captain Lindeke was deployed to Forward Operating Base Lightning in Afghanistan, a U.S. base attached to the larger Afghan National Army’s Camp Thunder just outside the city of Gardez. Lindeke saw the visible horrors of war firsthand as a part of the Medical Embedded Training Team.

“I remember seeing a guy in the medical tent and he was standing there with shrapnel wounds all over his body,” Lindeke recalled. “I remember them carrying a man’s severed leg. To me, I was seeing true physical wounds and devastation.”

That December, Lindeke wanted to do something special for her upcoming birthday by cooking a meal of kabobs and naan for her friends. Every Thursday and Friday a local bazaar would encamp between the U.S. and ANA bases with local shopkeepers to sell goods like clothing, jewelry or food. Lindeke needed a battle buddy to go to the bazaar and persuaded her friend, Mac, to accompany her as a birthday favor. The two enjoyed the market but wanted to get certain items from different stores. They decided to split up so each could get what they wanted and return to their post in time at 2 p.m.

Lindeke began to engage with one of the vendors when an explosion hurtled her to the ground and knocked her unconscious. When she regained consciousness, the air was polluted with dust; the only sound she heard was an ear-piercing ringing and the man she had been speaking with just moments before was no longer there.

“We had just gone out for a fun day, a change of pace, and yet, it changed everything,” Lindeke said.

A Taliban sleeper agent wearing ANA attire and posing as an army recruit carried out the attack which left six dead and 18 wounded. In the moments following the explosion, Lindeke’s medical training kicked into gear as she got to her feet to save those she could. Though she searched for him in the bazaar, her battle-buddy Mac was nowhere to be found.

As more people came to treat the wounded, Lindeke’s commander ordered her to call in the medical evacuation team. She refused treatment for herself as she thought others’ injuries were more severe than hers, but was checked for shock and physical injuries.

Though no physical injuries such as shrapnel wounds were found, her invisible wounds would soon be detected.

“My mind was reeling trying to figure out what had happened and to put things together,” she remembered. “There were no signs [of physical wounds] though, and I was able to carry on with what I was doing.”

She eventually made her way to the medical tent. She found Mac surrounded by medics administering bags of blood and fluids as they shouted for him to “Stay with us!”

The medical team conducted traumatic brain injury (TBI) tests on Lindeke. Her results led to her being immediately sent to Bagram Air Base, where military doctors confirmed she was experiencing internal brain hemorrhaging.

Lindeke was presented with a Purple Heart decoration the day after the attack, which she felt was unearned. As a medic, Lindeke saw the visible, physical wounds of war daily and felt her invisible wounds did not meet the Purple Heart standards.

“I tried to give it back. I didn’t deserve it. Give it back to the Air Force,” said Lindeke.

Lindeke reunited with Mac, who was severely injured from the attack and had already endured two surgeries.

“He was not in good shape,” Lindeke said. “I felt so guilty because I was the one who wanted to go out that day. I was the reason he got hurt. Those first couple of weeks were not about my injuries, it was always about making sure he was okay.”

Lindeke left Afghanistan for Germany that week to get an MRI, which showed that she had an Intraparenchymal Hemorrhage, which is a moderate TBI. Lindeke then began her journey to return stateside. Regardless of her refusal of the Purple Heart and her denial of the severity of her own injuries, Lindeke brought home both the Purple Heart and her invisible wounds.

She proceeded to attend rehabilitation therapy in January 2011 at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. It was there that she was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lindeke began to see the impact of her invisible wounds on her life as her relationships began to suffer while stationed at Robbins AFB in 2011.

“I loved my friends, but I was also a lot to handle. I was really quick to anger. I call it going zero to nuclear,” Lindeke said. “I needed to figure out how to deal with that because I was losing friendships and I didn’t even care because of what I’d seen.”

She credits therapy for her recovery.

“I started therapy pretty quickly when I got back,” she said. “I think was a huge benefit because what other person my age is going through something like this?”

She was also having severe migraines and scheduled brain surgery to help relieve the pain after a consultation with a doctor. The procedure made her realize the difference between invisible wounds and physical wounds. For her, they were one and the same. For others, it was difficult to see and understand.

Lindeke realized that she had to accept her injuries, because if she could not accept them no one else would.

“Throughout my injury, I kept apologizing to people. They would figure out I have a Purple Heart and immediately check your limbs. It’s almost like people need to see [the wound] to validate it,” Lindeke said. “I eventually got a Purple Heart on my vehicle license plate because I needed to own that I had an injury, otherwise I would pretend that I didn’t and that everything was fine.”

Lindeke reflected the life-changing part of her recovery was accepting that her injury is lifelong, and she is thankful for the support system she has gained.

“When I found really good therapists, it felt like I was sitting down and talking to a friend. They were so integral to my recovery,” she said.
She also credits the Air Force Wounded Warrior program for being a constant presence of support since she sustained her invisible wounds in 2010.

“To meet people through AFW2 with similar injuries and experiences was fantastic because it made you realize your odd behavior was actually normal; it was a good outlet for me to speak because if I held on to it, it would eat at my soul. I wasn’t Maj. Lindeke with AFW2, I just got to be Jordan.”

Her openness with speaking about her invisible wounds also helped destigmatize mental health with her fellow Airmen.

“One of my Airmen had been sexually assaulted earlier in her career. When I went to mental health, it gave her the strength to get therapy, [which made me feel like] I had a better connection with [my Airmen] because of the things I’ve been through,” Lindeke said.

Her advice to other Airmen is to support one another.

“Everybody in the Air Force has value,” Lindeke stated. “Take time to figure out what motivates them, what their struggles are, and find that connection. Each person adds to the Air Force story — the story is all about moving forward, changing and developing.”

For those with invisible wounds, Lindeke advises to build a support system.

“Find somebody, whoever that is. Someone who can bring you back on those days where your injury is so overwhelming that you have difficulty finding the words to speak,” Lindeke said. “I found people who accepted me because they realized that is part of who I am now. They accept it easier than I do, but that is what you need… somebody who will accept the things about you that you don’t want to accept about yourself.”

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 is 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.MissionReadyForce.com.