BREVARD COUNTY – Though we could never know for certain, one could suppose that when our service men and women first enlist they hope to one day return just as they were, if only more accomplished. We can imagine there was likely no suitable preparation, or an expectation, to return to a life of pain and struggle.
At least, this is how local hero U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kristina Coble described it. She said the process of civil reintegration after a long or intense time of military service can “take a toll on your soul.” Many of our wounded heroes return without a sense of self and, without adequate support, it is not uncommon for them to feel isolated, defeated and depressed. This is where community programs can step in to have the impact that often means all the difference.
The Tampa Bay U.S. Special Operations Command was proud to host the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games, a 14 paralympic events competition where approximately 300 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans participated for a chance to place as winners, test their resilience and inspire each other.
The athletes represent the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command. Athletes from the U.K. Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, Canadian Armed Forces, Armed Forces of the Netherlands, and the Danish Armed Forces also competed.
The athletes symbolize to all wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans across the nation, and others facing adversity, that individuals can recover from a serious injury or illness and lead fulfilling, productive and inspiring lives.
As part of Team Air Force, Sgt. Coble said she proudly represented her hometown of Indian Harbour Beach, her military branch, and her own accomplishments. Sgt. Coble signed up to participate in the Cycling, Field, Powerlifting, Swimming and Track events. Her team won the gold for the relay track race, and Sgt. Coble herself took home the gold for powerlifting, an event that she said is her “baby.”
Sgt. Coble enlisted in the USAF in 2007 at the age of 20. She did so to help fight the war against terrorism and was on active duty for almost 10 years, spanning two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was upon her return that a good friend noticed Sgt. Coble was no longer acting like herself and urgently prompted her to seek medical attention.
“That was the moment when I knew I had to focus on myself, because I wasn’t 100 percent me anymore. I couldn’t find myself anymore,” Sgt. Coble said. “If it wasn’t for her I would have never gotten help. So, I was very lucky to have someone to support me, who knew me very well.”
The staff sergeant was medically retired in November of 2016 for several invisible injuries, including PTSD. She said the transition back to the civilian sector was extremely difficult, causing her to take a long hiatus from fitness and just life in general.
“It was a difficult time for me being out of the service, being out of the Air Force, which is what I knew for the last close to 10 years and is who I identified myself as – as an adult,” Sgt. Coble said. “I mean, it was my love, it was my passion. So, when I got medically retired I felt so alone.”
Sgt. Coble explained that many veterans tend to define themselves through their military service, and that to go from having an impact every day to “what feels like nothing” in the civilian world, all while battling new physical and mental health challenges, can be more than a single person can handle on their own.
“It was thanks to the Air Force Wounded Warrior program that I have been able to find myself again,” Sgt. Coble said.
She got an email in 2018, inspiring her to apply for the Air Force Wounded Warrior trials. Sgt. Coble said she had never heard of this program, but she knew it would benefit her. Once accepted, her life started to turn around and move forward again in a positive direction.
“That is when I met other veterans like me and that is extremely impactful because you’re surrounded by people just like you, in a sense. They are people who have gone through the same struggles and are reintegrating and trying to find themselves and re-identify and move forward in spite of injuries and other challenges,” Sgt. Coble said. “We all work together in building up that resiliency and working that path not only for ourselves but those around us – it’s an amazing program and if it wasn’t for them I don’t know what I’d be doing today.”
Audience members, other veterans and the participants themselves can all get to be present at and inspired by the events of that amazing week, when the DoD Warrior Games gave them an opportunity learn, grow and reach their own levels of success. The Warrior Games also help gather the support from the community, a support that our veterans can see and hear. Sgt. Coble said it was very exciting and fun, and expressed her love for the audience and their cheers.
She said she hopes their efforts help inspire and motivate others, that it “gives them a little piece to take home” and help them move forward. “Because they can do it and it’s nice to be reminded.” She also expressed deep respect and comradery toward the other wounded warriors, saying that she trained very hard to get there and could tell that every athlete around her did the same.
“Everyone is here to bring it. There’s no doubt about that,” Sgt. Coble said. “And that’s what I love about other wounded warriors: everyone is here to succeed in their own way, and you see the discipline, you see the sacrifice and that hunger in their eyes.”
For more information, visit www.dodwarriorgames.com.