Air Force Wounded Warrior Program provides hope to injured Airman

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — Some Airmen dream of a 20-year career. Some know they’ll serve one enlistment and then separate. But some have that decision taken right out of their hands.

Retired Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Harper met a major career obstacle in 2011. Harper served in the Air Force Reserve as a loadmaster for the 89th Airlift Squadron, 445th Airlift Wing, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, from 2008 through 2014.

The Ohio native survived an ultralight trike crash on Aug. 31, 2011, suffering a multitude of injuries, including a blown-out right ankle, a compound fracture in his right leg, broken knee, a shattered pelvis, a fracture of his sacrum and a traumatic brain injury.

“I have no memory of the crash,” said Harper. “When I woke up in the hospital and the doctors revealed to me what happened, I was relieved to still be alive.”

On active-duty orders at the time of the crash, Harper had to be rescued and flown to a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he had to be resuscitated four times. His then-fiancée, now wife, Joanie, was told Harper had sustained only a broken ankle. She was unaware until arriving at the hospital that her future husband was in critical care.

“When I was released from the hospital, Joanie took care of me,” Harper said. “She moved a hospital bed into her room and cared for me until I could walk again.”

On the road to recovery, Harper began to finally walk and drive again in February 2012. A firefighter for over 15 years when not wearing the Air Force uniform, he was informed by his medical caretakers it was time to hang up his boots.

Harper was told about the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) Program while going through his medical evaluation board. Harper said he didn’t think he was worthy of joining the program because his injuries didn’t occur in a combat zone.

“I didn’t want to go at first,” said Harper. “I felt like I didn’t deserve it because you have some guys and gals that are missing arms and legs from explosions in a combat zone, and my injury occurred stateside off-base.”

With the help of his wife pushing him to pursue the path of a wounded warrior, he learned about the various opportunities the program provides; so he decided to give it a try.

Attending an AFW2 Program caregiver’s event in Washington, D.C., Harper was able to experience what the program had to offer. At the event, Harper interacted with other wounded warriors, heard their stories and gained a better understanding of what it meant to be a wounded warrior. He decided the program was something he wanted to be a part of.

“It doesn’t matter where you got hurt,” said Harper, recalling what a wounded warrior had said to him. “What’s important is you wore the uniform and got hurt, and we’re here for you.”

Now participating in the current camp, Harper is experiencing for the first time what it feels like be a part of a community of people like him, who have endured pain and have the courage to bounce back and not limited disability.

“The Air Force Wounded Warrior community is awesome,” said Harper. “It’s hugging, high-fiving and all about cheering each other on.”

The camp is an introduction to adaptive sports such as wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, cycling, swimming, archery, and track and field. This year’s pool of athletes included old and new faces, with a variety of injuries, wounds or illnesses.

Harper was able to achieve a personal goal, running for the first time since the crash. Doctors had told him he would never be able to run again.

“I was able to run for the first time since the crash,” said Harper. “I made it about halfway around the track before my ankle started to hurt, but I was able to finish with everyone cheering me on.”

Harper plans on competing at the Air Force trials next month in Nevada in the sports of archery and running. With high hopes and with his wife’s continued support, he hopes he can make the Department of Defense Warrior Games later this year.