JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — “Seeking care never slowed me down; it helped me through my toughest times.”
Senior Master Sgt. Richard “Joe” Chwalik has been through a lifetime’s worth of setbacks; incidents that have left long-lasting emotional scars. Yet, he found his way through the darkness by asking for help when he needed it most.
Like many, Chwalik witnessed a lot during his deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2009. However, an incident in October of that year left a lasting impact on him. While on a dismounted patrol, a vehicle born improvised explosive device detonated near his location, killing nearly 20 and injuring dozens more. He was awarded the Purple Heart for the visible and invisible wounds he suffered.
Chwalik sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that day. Initially, doctors diagnosed him with a concussion and it would take two years before they would discover the full extent of his injuries. During a post-deployment evaluation, the examining physician began crying when Chwalik shared what he had witnessed “down range.” This display of empathy had a negative impact on Chwalik and caused him to shut down. Turning inward with his feelings, Chwalik made what he considers the biggest mistake of career: he walked out of the medical facility.
“I waited two years to get help… I wish I would not have.”
Chwalik did not return to seek help due to fears of facing the medical evaluation board process. He numbed his pain with sleeping pills most weeks, and with alcohol over the weekends. His symptoms included flashbacks, bouts of anger and frustration, night sweats and terror leading to many sleepless nights. He constantly relived what he experienced while deployed to Afghanistan.
Chwalik shared one vivid memory from that time…
“One night, I was in a dream state where I thought I was back in Afghanistan. I jumped up, grabbed my wife, wrapped my arm around her and reached for a pistol on my hip. Luckily, I didn’t have a gun. I’m reaching, thinking my gun is there, and I’m in Afghanistan,” he said.
He also struggled through those days with an undiagnosed TBI. Academics became extremely difficult; he was enrolled in the Noncommissioned Officer Academy and had a very hard time comprehending course material. Eventually, it reached the point that his wife, friends and leadership talked him into seeking help.
Mental health providers gave Chwalik effective coping tools to help him deal with his invisible wounds; physical fitness being one of the main methods. They also gave him memory exercises to help work through the lasting effects of his TBI.
These devices soon became more useful to him than he would realize.
The resiliency he learned from his mental health providers helped him through an onslaught of health issues that soon befell his family. Their 15-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Later, they found out their 3-year-old son, who has Down syndrome and severe heart problems, had Hodgkin Lymphoma. Six months later, Chwalik’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Chwalik said these issues rocked him to his core.
“I had three members of my family diagnosed with cancer in 23 months, but I knew how to at least handle that great amount of stress,” he said. “It is not going to hurt you to get help; I waited two years to do it, but I wish I had sought it out sooner.”
Controlling his issues is an ongoing struggle, but things no longer feel insurmountable.
“It’s more like maintenance. I hope the maintenance contract doesn’t ever come up,” he said with a laugh.
Chwalik finds added healing through providing support to and mentoring fellow Airmen who have gone through similar situations. It is his role as the Air Force Wounded Warrior program’s traveling first sergeant that is significant to him. According to him, being surrounded by others who understand what he has been through is therapeutic.
“I relate to the warriors because I am a wounded warrior,” explained Chwalik. “I have been able to connect with sexual assault victims, cancer patients and countless Airmen with post-traumatic stress disorder. I hear them talk about their anger; about their frustration… I know what that feels like.”
Chwalik noted that he would not be where he is today without the care he received from his mental health providers.
“I got the help I needed, and it didn’t hurt me,” Chwalik said. “Airmen need to know that they can still have a career even if they have to ask for help… I am living proof. I am a senior master sergeant and first sergeant in the United States Air Force. I am in the two percent club. I have continued to excel in my career; this adversity never slowed me down. It might have been a speed bump, but I have been able to continue, in large part because I had solid leadership surrounding me when I needed it most.”
Editor’s note: Are you or someone you know suffering from an invisible wound? Find available resources for Airmen in need. Also, visit the Invisible Wounds Initiative web page for additional information. The Invisible Wounds Initiative is focused on Airmen taking care of Airmen. The Air Force is committed to ensuring you have the resources to find strength in yourselves and others, go the added distance, seek help, and come back stronger than before.