Retired chief shares experiences with Air Force Wounded Warrior Program

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Erik Wineland and his wife Paula pose for a photo during Chief Wineland's retirement ceremony in 2006. (Courtesy photo)

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Erik Wineland and his wife Paula pose for a photo during Chief Wineland's retirement ceremony in 2006. (Courtesy photo)

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- When Airmen deploy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan they accomplish difficult and challenging missions - unfortunately some return injured or even having paid the ultimate price for freedom.

The Air Force honors the sacrifices of its wounded Airmen, their families, and the families of the fallen by providing the best medical and professional support throughout the entire recovery process. The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program is part of that commitment to care.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Erik Wineland is one wounded warrior who answered the nation's call. Deployed with the Army and Marine Corps to Afghanistan in 2006, Chief Wineland trained Afghan commandos in the Kunar Province. Chief Wineland injured his back during one of his combat missions with the Afghan and Pakistani Special Forces. Months later, he was medically retired due to the extent of his injuries.

The former Air Education and Training Command supply functional manager said dealing with his separation from the Air Force after 23 years of service was extremely challenging.

"It is very difficult when you have to depart the Air Force on conditions other than your own," Chief Wineland said. "At times I could barely walk. The pain was unbearable, and the fear and sadness of leaving the Air Force is overwhelming. I am certain there are others like me who are feeling the same way."

Chief Wineland said he entered a severe depression and certainly did not want any help.

"I wouldn't talk to anyone - especially people in the Air Force - even though I was having trouble putting one foot in front of the other," he said.

Things started to change, however, when he received his first of many calls from Sharon Roark, an Air Force Wounded Warrior Program case manager at the Air Force Personnel Center here. Initially, Chief Wineland did not want to work with her and would not tell her he needed assistance. But her persistence and kindness helped him open up to her.

"Sharon Roark kept calling and e-mailing me and would not take no for an answer," the chief said. "Finally, I returned her call and it was the best call I ever made."

Since then, Chief Wineland has worked with Ms. Roark and the AFW2 program to research employment opportunities and learn about programs available to help wounded warriors. He said having a case manager to address issues helped get his life on track, turning his life-altering event into something from which he can build.

"I just want the AFW2 case managers to know that the men and women who don't answer the phone or are hard to reach are the ones who need it the most," he said. "God bless them for what they do."

For Ms. Roark, working with Chief Wineland and other wounded warriors helps the Air Force identify ways it can continue to improve upon the AFW2 program, making it more conducive to their individual needs.

"The Air Force's commitment to these heroes, who've sacrificed so much, is unwavering. It makes me both proud and humbled to be part of their lives," Ms. Roark said.

According to Ms. Roark, each case manager acts as an advocate for the wounded warriors assigned to them, helping sort through challenges, questions and concerns so the wounded warrior can better focus on recovering from his or her injuries.

"As non-medical case managers, we have full access to all associated agencies that help wounded warriors, such as the personnel, services, medical and finance communities, as well as Social Security and Veterans Affairs," Ms. Roark said. "We monitor and coordinate the transition our wounded Airmen face during the sensitive and difficult process of recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration, and then attempt to make those transitions smoother and easier for them and their families."

Ms. Roark also added that assisting wounded warriors brings her satisfaction in knowing she's helping them get their lives back on the right track.

"For people who thrive on helping others, there is no better job," she said. "We understand wounded warriors go through this process only one time, so there's always a lot of anxiety and confusion. We want to alleviate that anxiety and confusion as much as possible and act as their navigators through this difficult time to get them back to a stable life."

The Air Force defines a wounded warrior as an Airman who has a combat-related injury or illness requiring long-term care that will require a Medical Evaluation Board and a Physical Evaluation Board to determine fitness for duty. The AFW2 program was developed to provide long-term support and assistance to all those Total Force Airmen and their families as they either return to duty or transition to civilian communities.

Currently, more than 580 wounded Airmen and their families are supported under the umbrella of the Air Force's Warrior and Survivor Care. For more information about AFW2, visit http://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil or call the AFW2 Program office at 1-800-581-9437.