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Healing An Invisible Wound, Regaining Normalcy
by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Chip Pons
August 17, 2017

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Since its introduction in 2010, the Warrior Games have given the nation an opportunity to glimpse into the resilient spirits of wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from all branches of the military.

For Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Chris Rust, 434th Maintenance Group quality assurance maintainer from Russiaville, Indiana, his perception of what being a wounded warrior meant nearly cost him the chance to be a part of something life-changing.

On a routine deployment in 2013, Rust began to experience severe headaches daily and upon redeployment, he experienced an event that would change the course of his life: a stroke.

U.S. Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Chris Rust, a aircraft maintenance troop from Russiaville, Indiana during the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games at McCormick Place-Lakeside Center on June 30, 2017, Chicago, Ill. Rust competed in archery, shooting and cycling in this year’s games. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)
U.S. Air Force Reserve Tech. Sgt. Chris Rust, a aircraft maintenance troop from Russiaville, Indiana during the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games at McCormick Place-Lakeside Center on June 30, 2017, Chicago, Ill. Rust competed in archery, shooting and cycling in this year’s games. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chip Pons)

“Before my stroke, I was the poster boy for fitness,” Chris said. “After, I had a lot of anger and suffered from depression while I tried to figure out why this was happening to me. We live our lives essentially making our own ‘normal’ and when that is redefined for you, you experience something new and strange. Finding acceptance with that is not an easy process.

“I first heard about the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program through an email that was sent by my recovery care coordinator,” he continued. “Initially I dismissed it because at the time I believed I was not deserving of being called a wounded warrior. I do not have physical injuries; I have what is now commonly referred to as an invisible wound. I basically thought I did not belong here.”

Chris’ wife thought differently however, took matters into her own hands and answered the email on his behalf.

“I knew that being part of this program would completely change my husband’s life,” said Mindy Rust. “At the time, he was concentrating on what he could not do when all I wanted was for him to focus on what he could still do. All he needed was a push in the right direction and I knew being surround by these warriors would open his eyes to a new way of life and possibilities.”

At the urging of his supportive spouse, Chris took a chance on the program and himself, beginning his own warrior journey.

“Since my first adaptive sports camp, I have been able to see first-hand that this program is so much more than physical injuries,” Chris said. “Here, we all speak the same language and we have developed a common ground supporting our recovery and healing processes.

“Without this program, I would not be where I am today,” he continued. “I would not have been this successful in creating my new sense of normal - I simply would not be the me I am now.”

Mindy echoed her husbands sentiments about the significance the support of the program had on her personal experience as a caregiver.

“After working with the family care coordinators over the years, they have taught us how to be resilient on our own throughout this process,” Mindy stated. “When your warrior first becomes injured or ill, you can not help but feel like you are alone. When you become involved in this program, you are shown just how large this family is and how willing everyone is to help one another.”

Not only are the games an opportunity to cheer on those who have sacrificed so greatly on behalf of their nation, they provide an opportunity to see the unbreakable bond between these athletes and those surrounding and supporting them.

“There are a lot of individuals here and part of this AFW2 program who have had a direct hand in my recovery; the level of support and care we get from our coaches, the care coordinators and the rest of the wounded warrior program team is astounding,” Chris said. “Everyone here just seems to get our struggle and without this network I believe my life path after injury would have been completely different for me and my family.”

For someone who suffers from syncopea, which Chris explains as a disease that causes him to immediately pass out if he has been standing for too long, stands up too rapidly or walks for long periods of time, these games represent the culmination of everything that Chris has endured and accomplished over the course of two years in an effort to create personal normalcy.

This is Chris’ first year participating in the Warrior Games, where he is competing in air pistol shooting, compound archery and hand cycling. As one of the oldest members of Team Air Force, Chris acknowledges that his noncommissioned officer training and service longevity has made him an asset not only as a participant, but also as someone who can offer sound and understanding guidance to teammates from an extensive Air Force career.

U.S. Air Force Reserve Christopher Rust, an aircraft maintenance airman from Russiaville, Indiana, fires an air pistol during the shooting competition at the 2017 Warrior Games at the McCormick Place-Lakeside Center, Chicago, Illinois on July 6, 2017. Rust also competed in archery and cycling in this year’s games. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James)
U.S. Air Force Reserve Christopher Rust, an aircraft maintenance airman from Russiaville, Indiana, fires an air pistol during the shooting competition at the 2017 Warrior Games at the McCormick Place-Lakeside Center, Chicago, Illinois on July 6, 2017. Rust also competed in archery and cycling in this year’s games. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James)

“While I am one of the oldest competitors on this team, I stand firm in my belief that the older you are, the quicker you get it,” Chris explained. “What I mean is you get what draws everyone to this program and the experiences they have been through. By surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, you quickly come to the realization that you do not need to endure this type of struggle on your own. As someone who has had 28 years worth of Air Force experiences, I am able to leverage my experiences and talk to these Airmen, my new family, as someone who has genuinely been there.

“I can tell you professionally that this stroke has completely redefined my experience as an Airman,” he continued. “I have served these past 28 years and have loved every moment of it. The final challenge for me will be coming to terms with understanding it is ok to let the next generation Airmen take over.”

Walking with a cane for precautionary support, seeing a mental health counselor for anxiety, depression and an adjustment disorder, and fully accepting his new outlook on life, Rust’s road to recovery has developed a deeper sense of pride from his own three children, all of whom are currently serving or have served in the military.

“I can say with complete confidence that my children are proud of me,” said Chris. “Seeing where I started, basically on my death bed and not knowing if I was going to make it or not, to seeing me attend the adaptive sports camps, to now representing the Air Force for the second time in the DOD Warrior Games - it has made me incredibly proud to hear them say ‘oh yeah…the old man’s still got it’.”

To those who remain undecided on whether or not becoming a member of the wounded warrior program would be beneficial on a personal journey to recovery, Chris offers this challenge.

“Answer the email,” he stated simply. “Make a commitment to try it out and if you do not like what it is about after that point, just know that it is also ok. But I am going to let you in on a little secret: you are going to love it. There is a family here who gets what you are going through, so please let us help you toward recovery, and let the staff lead you on this new path. I cannot do some of the things I used to be able to; however, with this program I have learned to do things I once believed were impossible.”

By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Chip Pons
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2017

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