Warrior Games Special: Finding the will to carry on

  • Published
  • By Alexx Pons
  • Air Force Wounded Warrior Program
Cory Sandoval retired as a staff sergeant after serving more than six years in the Air Force as a battlefield weather forecaster; a career which was unfortunately cut short by an unforeseen life event.  

“I am a people person and a family man; family will always be the most important thing in this world to me,” he said. “I was picked on a lot as a child; when I decided to join the Air Force in 2009, I had no idea it would be the best decision I ever made.”

Sandoval struggled in school, failing several classes and ultimately losing his scholarship. A military career offered one final beacon of hope for this (then) young man who had given up all hope of a successful future. 

“And the Air Force gave me so many wonderful things; probably best among them was friends, family and a sense of belonging,” Sandoval said. “Many of the best people I have met in my entire life have been through the Air Force. Being a civilian again, I miss that camaraderie… that brotherhood.” 

The passionate veteran spoke longingly of his former military career; of the job he loved doing and of the wingmen he was honored to serve alongside. 

“It might not have been perfect, nothing ever is, but I lived for what I was doing – the mission and the people made it worth it,” he said. 

Sandoval arrived here at Ft. Carson in 2012, after having tried to make it work with his technical training sweetheart. It was here that he would meet his wife, and eventually be blessed with the announcement of his second child. 

“I will not ever forget that trip to the hospital after my wife told me her water had broken; we made it there, just not the way we planned,” Sandoval said. 

All he remembers in his haste to get his wife to the hospital is approaching an all too familiar intersection. 

“When I started to come to, I remember a sort of white blur and feeling disoriented… maybe a ringing,” he said. “Then someone was knocking on my window and as more of my senses came back I looked to my right and saw my wife hunched over in pain. Then I remember her reaching behind me where my step daughter had been seated… I will never forget how she screamed her name, begging and praying for everything to be okay.” 

The family had taken a direct hit to the driver’s side of their vehicle as they traveled to a nearby hospital. Sandoval had been pinned by the collision and was unable to assist his family during their moment of crisis. 

“I was forced to sit there, frozen, and watched and listened as my wife suffered and screamed for our daughter; her tiny face covered in blood, her body motionless and both of us unable to come to her aid,” he said. 

The family survived their traumatic ordeal, but not without complication or injury. His step daughter suffered a severe brain injury; his wife a shattered pelvis as well as a brain injury; as for Sandoval, he sustained a shattered pelvis, a broken hand, glass embedded in one eye, a broken sternum, several broken ribs, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. 

“Additionally, my wife and I would later develop post-traumatic stress and depression,” he said. “Fortunately, my newborn son had done the best of all of us, suffering only a skull fracture and being able to go home after two weeks in the hospital.” 

Sandoval spent more than a month hospitalized before he was able to rejoin his family at home. He would go on to spend six months in a wheelchair, several more in a walker and a few weeks assisted by a cane while he re-learned to walk.

“When I thought things were moving upward, everything seemed to fall apart again,” he said. 

As many who suffer significant trauma can attest to, personal relationships take a significant blow when mental trauma like PTSD and depression grab hold. Sandoval claims his marriage became hostile following the accident, and eventually led to his divorce. After 10 months of being unable to work, Sandoval returned to a unit that did not know how to reintegrate him. 

“I could barely walk, I was non-deployable… I was just as useless in my job as I felt I had been for my family,” he said. “And no one really understood what I was going through; I felt alone and lost.” 

The noncommissioned officer spiraled into suicidal ideations and feelings of worthlessness. 

“The people I loved most in this world became my most painful memory triggers because every time I looked at them, all I remembered is how I hurt them… I was the one driving… I was the one who made that mistake and put them at risk,” Sandoval said. 

As circumstances continued to trend negatively for Sandoval, leadership urged him to get involved with and accept assistance from the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. 

“They had enrolled me in the program as soon as the accident happened; I was the first person my leadership had needed to help in that way, whereas AFW2 had been dealing with wounded warriors for a long time,” he said. “I was paired with a recovery care coordinator who got me to attend a C.A.R.E event and get some of the help I desperately needed.” 

For the many who do not know about what the AFW2 program offers, it is about providing personalized support to seriously wounded, ill or injured Airmen, their caregivers and their families. The RCCs Sandoval mentioned serve 42 locations across specific regions to help identify needs, establish goals, coordinate medical and non-medical services, and advocate for these service members. 

“When I finally decided to attend one of their events, I hit a turning point in my recovery,” Sandoval said. “It was the first time I was surrounded by other people, other Airmen, who understood something like what I was going through and struggling with. They might not have gone through the exact same thing, but they faced similar struggles which helped me in my healing process. 

“It was at the event that I was also introduced to adaptive sports; what an amazing feeling to learn that I was not just capable of competing, but that I was actually good at these sports,” he said. 

As a testament to his recovery and to the power of the program, Sandoval would go on to represent Team Air Force and compete during the 2016 Warrior Games. 

“AFW2 showed me I was not alone; my leadership might not have known what to do with me, but this program did,” he said. “In all honesty, if it were not for this program, I probably would not be here today. I hated my life, but being at these C.A.R.E. events, surrounded by this family and competing in these sports gave me the will to live. 

“This program offers so much to; they do so much for so many people,” he said. “If you or someone you know ever finds themselves in a similar situation where they become wounded, ill or injured (and not just combat-related), this program can help save their life and I say that from first-hand experience.” 

Anyone can refer an active-duty Airman into the AFW2 program; download the worksheet by clicking the button below and submit the finalized form via email.


Refer an Airman Worksheet

AFW2 Program Mailing Address

  • ATTN: AFW2
  • 550 C St. West, Ste. 37
  • JBSA Randolph TX
  • 78150-4739