Monday, April 30, 2007

COMMENTARY>>If you think you can go it alone, think again

By Capt. Robert A. Firman
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

WASHINGTON (AFNEWS) ó As I woke up at seven on Saturday morning, July 8, 2006, my five- and three-year-old boys came in to our bedroom looking for a pillow fight with dad. My wife, only five weeks pregnant, a little queasy, and eager to avoid the ensuing melee, got up to make breakfast. None of us knew it would be our last morning in that house together.
As a public affairs officer, I had been assigned to NATO Airbase Geilenkirchen for the past two years. We were fortunate to have found in a small German village a beautiful house with a big back yard and welcoming neighbors. Although work was busy for me, with two beautiful boys and one on the way, life was good for us and I knew I was on top of my game.
After a few minutes of pillow combat, I felt a strong tingle in my face, and then the room started spinning. I collapsed on the bed, wondering what was happening. A half hour later I was unconscious with a breathing tube down my throat, riding a medevac helicopter to a nearby hospital. A blood clot had lodged in my brainstem and parts of it had scattered to my cerebellum.

I was 33 years old and I was having a stroke. Thirty-six hours later I woke up in the intensive care unit, unable to speak, and with the right side of my body lifeless.

Although I had been unconscious for more than a day, the Air Force family had started to mobilize almost immediately.
As the helicopter left our village, my wife Kitty was on the phone with a good friend, Lt. Col. Jim Casey, one of the senior Americans on the base. He raced from his house in the Netherlands and drove Kitty to the hospital while our neighbors took care of the boys. By the time he got to our house, Colonel Casey had already gotten things started, and many people were in action.

One of the first steps was getting support for my wife and boys, and casualty affairs Airmen at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, got the job done quickly. They had my parents on travel orders and got them from South Dakota to my bedside within 24 hours. In the meantime, the whole NATO airbase was alerted and eager to help.
While this was happening, I waited for motion to return to my right side. After six days I had almost given up hope. Then my thumb twitched. A few days later, I could make a fist. After almost two weeks, I could hold a plastic cup, although I couldnít drop it. But the recovery had started.

At that point, the doctors decided I was stable enough to move. The Air Force personnel system linked up with the Tricare medical system and made arrangements for me to be transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. via the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Once I was at Landstuhl, it was only a matter of days before I was on a C-17 Globemaster III bound for Washington D.C.

As I left, Kitty was faced with moving herself, our boys and our entire household from Germany to Washington, DC. The help of many people in the Air Force family in both official and private capacities kept this from being an overwhelming prospect.
In a short time, Kitty had to clear the transportation management office, the legal office, personnel, finance and more. Friends helped in every way they could with my U.S. and NATO out-processing checklists.

Thanks to the Company Grade Officers Council, Kitty had a group of volunteers to help her with heavy tasks. The Protestant and Catholic chapel communities cooked meals and offered spiritual support. Groups, individuals, and organizations across the base and the Air Force pulled together for us during this difficult time.

With the help of so many people, Kitty and the boys made it to D.C. by the end of August. By then, my rehabilitation was progressing and I was able to meet them at the airport, walking with only a cane. Iíll never forget the beautiful sight of the three of them getting off the plane. We were finally together and were excited about moving forward together as a family.
But we were not out of the woods yet. Just when we thought the hardest part was behind us, it got worse. After only a few weeks in D.C., we needed the Air Force family again.

Only five weeks pregnant when my stroke happened, Kitty was nearly 20 weeks along by the time we moved on base at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. During a routine 20-week ultrasound at the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, the doctor said he saw ďsome things that concerned him.Ē After some tests, he confirmed that the baby had a fatal chromosome defect, Trisomy 18.

The little boy we named John Robert and called Baby Jack would likely not live more than a few days past birth, if he survived pregnancy and delivery.

Valentineís Day, 2007, Baby Jack died during labor. Again, the Air Force family stepped in. People at the Airman and Family Readiness Center, mortuary affairs, the medical squadron and from the base community came to our aid. Mortuary affairs specialists made the arrangements to get Baby Jack to my home town in South Dakota for the funeral.

My parents had come out to be with us and take care of the boys again and Air Force Aid Society officials bought us all tickets home for Jackís funeral. And the Andrews community rallied around us to cook meals and support us as we dealt with this loss.

Loss and trials, although so hard to go through, teach lessons better than books and briefings. It was God and our Air Force family who got us through this past year. It was people in personnel, Tricare, TMO, casualty affairs, mortuary affairs, legal and more, doing their jobs to help us, and doing them well.

It was the incredible medical professionals all along the way working to help us heal. It was the communities at Geilenkirchen and Andrews pulling together to support us. And it was thousands of donors and the Air Force Aid Society staff who got us quickly to the funeral.

From all of this Iíve learned in a profound way that I had been fooling myself into thinking I could go it alone. Thank God and the Air Force family that isnít true.

Epilogue: Today Iím back at work, assigned to the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. In December, Colonel Casey, who had raced Kitty to the hospital in July, ran a 5K race with me at Walter Reed.

The medical board results have just come back and I have been cleared to return to active duty. I also have been selected for the Air Forceís Regional Affairs Strategist program as a Sub-Saharan Africa specialist.

But most importantly, we know that as we go forward together, the Air Force family is with us.

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