CHICAGO — “I was sitting at home alone one night and had taken out my pistol; I remember how cool it felt in my hands and knowing I was moments away from taking my life. In that split second, my phone went off with a text from one of my Airmen who said he needed my help getting to work the next morning, and I remember putting down my weapon to be there for him. That next morning, I planned on picking up where I had left off but received an email from the Air Force Wounded Warrior saying I had been accepted into their program … that text and that email saved my life.”
Staff Sgt. David Olson, an explosive ordnance disposal troop from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, recounted his personal struggle with suicidal ideations, and the toll his physical and invisible wounds have taken not just on his life, but on those of his loved ones.
Olson suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. He has had several knee and anterior cruciate ligament procedures, along with needing to wear hearing aids in both ears.
Serving nearly 13 years in arguably one of the most dangerous career fields across any military branch has left clear and hidden scars on Olson.
“Imagine a Hollywood movie – you are sitting in a vehicle, and in that moment when the explosion goes off they freeze everything … you see the tire go in one direction, and the fireball starts to expand, and you watch the vehicle in front of you rise and begin to slam in another direction; in a moment, you see every horrific detail of absolute chaos,” Olson said. “And I do not remember any sound or motion, but the world comes rushing back in a similar blast with harder impact.”
His brush with suicide occurred near the beginning of 2017, but Olson recounted the events leading up to that moment and explained how a once praised, superior performer hit such a low point in his life and career.
“I had begun piling up official paperwork. I was being routinely counseled for my attitude with co-workers … even at home, I was struggling to be a husband and father; I was angry and was taking it out on everyone around me,” Olson said. “It felt like I had no other option; and it was not that I wanted to end my pain, but rather that I wanted to stop being a burden and failure for everyone else.”
Recognizing his own need for assistance, Olson sought to utilize widely known tools and avenues provided to all Airmen.
“I had tried talking to people and using the resources the Air Force provides us from day one of training,” Olson said. “I made appointments and saw mental health, went to ADAPT [Air Force Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Program], and talked to my first sergeant and my supervisor, but I felt as though while people were hearing my struggles, they were not grasping the severity – what I was facing and how real it was for me.
“For many, it is seemingly easier to attribute such a dramatic shift in personality from someone suffering from invisible wounds as [that person] just showcasing their ‘true colors’, and that is just not the case at all. But then to have this attitude of ‘whatever you need to do to take care of it, take care of it’, leaves the individual who is suffering with few options to internalize – ending my life seemed like I would be doing everyone who had these perceptions of me a favor.”
The gradual and dramatic decline for Olson took on a quicksand-like quality; the more the Airman struggled to free himself from a situation he did not plan to get himself into, the more aggressive the pull of depression weighed him down. The small lifeline he received moments before losing sight of the light and being fully engulfed came in the form of that text and email.
“Even then, I did not just flip off a switch along with those thoughts and feelings I was internalizing, but I wanted to be strong, even just for a moment longer – I owed it to my wife and kids to be at least that,” Olson said. “And while I did not believe at the beginning that the program would make my life or my situation better, my wife kept reminding me that it would offer a break; not from work or family life, but from myself … from all the noise around me and within myself, and I knew I needed something different – I was willing to try anything at that point.”
The break Olson referred to should not be confused with or equated to a vacation. The wounded members who enter the AFW2 program are provided with personalized care, services and advocacy which help care professionals anticipate needs of the recovering service members and connect them with additional resources. The overarching goal is to provide a refined, simplified transition back to duty or into civilian life while ensuring recovering members are properly equipped to manage challenges caused by wounds, injuries or illnesses.
“That first care event I attended was in San Antonio [Texas], and it was great, but it was not until I attended the Air Force Trials for Warrior Games in Las Vegas [Nevada] that I felt a positive shift,” said Olson. “I had competed in archery, shooting and seated discuss, but I was beating myself up again because I felt like I had let the team down … I felt as though I was not competing at a level worthy of having a place on the team.
“So, they start getting ready to do the official medals ceremony and the team tells me I won a silver medal in discus, and all I remember thinking is ‘you have got to be kidding me’. I remember taking the stage and the command chief from Nellis placing that medal around my neck, shaking my hand and congratulating us and just thinking that maybe I was worth something … maybe I did have something to offer someone again.”
That small moment of personal accomplishment was the upward momentum Olson needed and fortunately, was not the last during those trials. Olson went on to win a bronze medal in shot put along with a bronze team win in sitting volleyball.
“The feeling of belonging and the power of encouragement you get from being part of a team that is succeeding is truly incredible,” Olson said. “All of the positive moments I have begun feeling during those trials started chipping away at the feelings of failure I had been facing; and the more the victories came for me and the team, the more I began to believe I was more than the failure I believed myself to be.”
Olson’s feelings of personal failure had compounded severely over time. He believed he was failing his wife and children, the EOD career field and the Air Force. When traditional helping resources and leadership were not enough to pull him back from his despair, it was the AFW2 adaptive sports program that kept him from making an irreversible decision.
“Failures do not win, succeed or win medals, but I was doing all that and it woke something up in me again that had not been there in a long time,” Olson said. “I was standing shoulder to shoulder with these incredible men and women struggling with loss of limbs, terminal diseases, and battle scars, but I was fitting in and rallying with them in a way I had not experienced since coming to terms with my own personal struggles.”
Struggles for athletes competing in these adaptive sports and games can also come in the form of resistance from leadership who are unaware of their legitimate benefit or significance in the recovery process. For Olson, hearts and minds were more slightly altered following his success and victory during the permissive temporary duty to Nellis.
“Despite what anyone might have thought prior to me heading down to the trials, it was clear to those in my unit who had previously worked with me that I came back a slightly better version of myself,” Olson said. “In fact, my change was significant enough that another guy in my shop who had been suffering silently with similar PTSD and TBI struggles did some research and was invited with me a few weeks later to an event hosted at Eglin [AFB, Florida] to prepare the team selected for the 2017 Warrior Games.
“He got to see first-hand what we are put through to prime us for competition and the care we are given to help further our recovery, and he was able to go back and echo to our unit how far from a vacation these TDYs are. That just proves to me the power of this program; and if this can pull a gun away from one more person, then in my opinion, it is worth every investment for our service members.”
While it has been a short seven-month journey for Olson, he recalls vividly how dark of a place he was in compared to now and notes the measurable progress he’s made to date.
“I am at these games now, and I am already planning my training schedule for next year because this program is that big of a deal to me,” Olson said. “I have never seen people look after each other the way these 40 athletes do. And it is not about the sports, or the wins, or the medals … I know I can pick up my phone at any time, no matter where I am, and I have dozens of people who know me, know my struggle and will be there for me.
“This has changed my life – I am alive today because of this. I have not been this happy in years; my family sees it and remains optimistic about the path I am on. We have so many services provided to us here that are not offered anywhere else in the Air Force, and that many of us desperately need. I am still not fully who I used to be, and that day may never come, but at least today I can say I am looking forward to tomorrow.”