Guest Blog: Kari Hahn, Vice President of Member and Field Relations

Friends,

As I sit reflecting on the amazing events of the last five days, the only word that comes to mind is “grateful”. I am grateful for the amazing wounded Airmen and their caregivers that welcomed me into their lives. I am grateful for the dedication of our United States Air Force and the Air Force Association to ensuring these heroes are always taken care of through our Wounded Airman Program (WAP for short). I am grateful for the people who have stepped up to say “yes” to anything that was asked to ensure that our wounded Airmen received the best possible support and left with memories that will last a lifetime.

Current Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein huddled with the athletes for a pre-race pep talk and rallied beside them during the events.

Current Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein huddled with the athletes for a pre-race pep talk and rallied beside them during the events.

 

Thursday

We were thrilled to welcome our Wounded Airman team to town on Thursday! Airfare was generously donated by American Airlines and they loved the roomy seats they got up front. AFA staff and volunteers were standing by to greet the team … pom poms were, of course, part of the equation. (You may notice a theme of sparkly pom poms throughout the weekend.) We loaded up our WAPmobile donated by AVIS to get the weekend started! The WAPmobile was great but sometimes challenging to drive around DC … luckily, I had a van full of backseat drivers “helping” me out!

After our team got checked into their hotel, we had a team dinner at SOCCi restaurant in Crystal City. AFA leadership and staff welcomed our warriors and their caregivers through an informal dinner so we could get to know each other and give an overview of the upcoming activities. Mr. Lombardi joined us to discuss the Air Force/Air Force Association panel that would take place the next morning. He helped answer questions both on what to expect on the panel to make sure our team felt comfortable.  

Friday

We started the day full of anticipation for the co‐sponsored Air Force/Air Force Association Wounded Airman and Caregiver Panel at AFA HQ. AFA’s Vice Chairman of the Board for Aerospace Education, Brigadier General (ret) Dick Bundy welcomed the abundant audience as it filled the entire room. Lieutenant General Gina Grosso, Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, gave opening remarks on the Air Force’s commitment to taking care of our wounded warriors. The panel was moderated by Mr. Rich Lombardi, Special Assistant for the Invisible Combat Wounds Initiative in the Office of the Under Secretary of the Air Force. Audience members included Active Duty and Retired Air Force members, AFA members from across the Central East Region, Air Force spouses, and many more. The panelists opened up their hearts to our audience as they shared their stories. The only complaint I’ve heard of the event is that we should have provided tissues. The panel took questions from the audience and we all left with a better understanding of these heroes and an even stronger commitment to do everything we can to help our wounded Airmen.

As summarized by Will Skowronski in AFA’s Daily Report:  

An airman doesn’t need visible battle scars to be a wounded warrior. TSgt. Chris Rust said he deleted emails from his recovery care coordinators inviting him to Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2) events after he had a stroke and developed a clotting disorder in his legs because he didn’t see himself as a wounded warrior. Luckily his wife and caregiver, Mindy Rust, responded to an invitation to an adaptive sports camp on his behalf. Rust went and realized he could be part of the team of wounded, ill, or injured airmen. “I am a wounded warrior, and it has taken me about 16 months to actually say that,” he said. Rust now participates in sporting events, including archery, volleyball, and hand cycling regularly. On Friday, the Rusts and two wounded veterans, Tino Uli and Heather Carter, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the Air Force Association’s Cycling Classic shared their stories during a panel discussion at AFA’s headquarters in Rosslyn, Va. Uli, who was medically discharged with PTSD after 10 years of service and three tours in Iraq, said the AFW2 sporting events made him feel a part of something again. He earned a spot on the US team at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Fla., in May. “I’m still important; I’m still part of the fight; I’m still part of the team; I’m still part of the Air Force,” he said. Carter, who served for four years as an intelligence analyst, broke her leg while playing softball and eventually had to undergo an amputation. Asked what she would tell other wounded warriors, Carter said: “The only restrictions that we have are the ones that we put on ourselves.” But she joked she might need a push up some of the area’s hills during the bike race. “In Florida, you feel great about yourself,” she said, “and then you come here.” Rust had simple advice for others in his position: Don’t hit delete.

After the panel and many, many well wishes and promises of support from the audience, our team had lunch at AFAHQ. Lt Gen Grosso and Brig Gen (ret) Bundy joined the team to engage in one‐on‐one discussions in an informal setting. After lunch, we departed AFA through a group of AFA cheerleaders (I told you there were a lot of pom poms in our weekend). We made it to the Pentagon with only a few jokes about my driving/parking the van and were treated to a phenomenal VIP Pentagon Tour. We got to see General Goldfein’s and Chief Cody’s office. We even left some notes for Chief Cody to find.

After our Pentagon tour and resting our feet for a bit, we departed for dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse arranged by AFA’s Steele Chapter. The team at Ruth’s Chris treated our Warriors and Caregivers like royalty and covered their entire meals. We were treated to a variety of appetizers to sample, got to meet the Chef and laugh watching Tino order the 40 ounce steak! A good time was had by all and we left with full bellies and a lot of laughter.       

With full stomachs, we departed Ruth’s Chris to head to the Air Force Memorial for a special concert celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Air Force Band. We had front row seats reserved for the team to watch current and veteran Air Force band members play their hearts out for us under the spires. The wounded Airmen and caregivers were recognized formally and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Congressman Marlin Stutzman joined the team for the concert and listened to their stories. They were greeted by the Nation’s Capital Chapter and presented with a check for the $5,000 the chapter raised to help contribute to making this weekend’s events possible. On the way home from the concert, Chris said “Well, my bucket list is getting smaller and smaller this weekend.”

Saturday

Saturday was a free day for our team but that didn’t mean it was a free day for staff and volunteers! We were busy running around doing equipment runs between bike shops, Walter Reed and Joint Base Andrews. Special thanks to Bikes@Vienna for donating Tino’s bike for the race!

We didn’t let the fun end there. On Friday night, I asked Tino’s caregiver, Shari, if she enjoyed riding with Tino. She said she loved it growing up as a kid but didn’t have a bike to ride. This led to a discussion on the lack of shared activities Shari and Tino had together which was causing a divide. On Saturday, we took her to REI and AFA’s Wounded Airman Program surprised her with the gift of a bike and helmet so that she and Tino could spend time together while he’s training. Bringing this joy into their relationship was a highlight of the weekend. Tino looked at us and said, “You just saved my relationship.”

Sunday

We finally made it to the big day! On the way to the event, we shared some encouragement from the kids at Sacred Heart Academy with our team. They did a fundraiser for the Wounded Airman Program and wanted to provide these cards and electrolyte packages to our team.

Once we were on‐site, we were rushing to get the bikes ready and to the front of the race. We were extremely lucky to have SSgt Hobbs and SSgt Acosta working with us to get the equipment on site and ready to go! At 7am they were off! The cheering section was strong for our Air Force team (more pom poms!) … especially when the Air Force won the most laps against the other branches! Go Air Force!    

Miss Chyrece may be one of our toughest warriors but her kids brought their own game too!   

General Spencer was honored to accept a check for $30,500 to AFA’s Wounded Airman Program from Arlington Sports and Rosenthal Automotive! Everyone wanted to congratulate our warriors on a job well done! Our day didn’t end there! Next we were off to Nats Park to see the Nationals take on the Phillies. Our tickets were generously donated by VetTix and the Washington Nationals.  We couldn’t have asked for a better game! After the game, Tino looked at me and said “I think I’ve found my team.”

Monday

As much as we didn’t want to, we said goodbye to everyone on Monday. There were many lives changed over the last few days thanks to our supporters. At the panel on Friday, when Mindy was asked what she would like to say to the audience, she replied, “Please don’t forget about us.” I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening.

The list of people that deserve thanks is a long one. This is a testament to the love we have for our wounded Airmen. The co‐hosted Air Force and AFA Wounded Airman and Caregiver panel would not have been possible without the dedication of General Goldfein, Brigadier General Richoux, Mr. Lombardi, Ms. Tamre Newton, Ms. Michelle Padgett and their teams to ensure that the stories of the resiliency of our Airmen were heard. As with all support of our wounded Airmen, very little is accomplished without the amazing support of the Air Force Wounded Warrior program and the teams of Ms. Marsha Gonzales and Mr. Scott Wilson. Your love for our Airmen is an inspiration and reminder that our warriors are in good hands.

The strength of AFA rests with our grassroots chapters and this program is the perfect example of how dedicated volunteers come together to rally behind a great cause. Volunteers in the Nation’s Capital Chapter, Virginia State AFA, and Maryland State AFA rallied to raise funds to ensure that our Airmen had the best possible experience on their trip. AFA’s Arnold Air Society interns stepped up to support all weekend their very first week on the job! Additional support from community supporters such as Arlington Sports, Ruth’s Chris, VetTix, the Washington Nationals and Bikes@Vienna showcased the desire of our local community to always say “yes” when any needs arose for our team.

Finally, none of these events would be possible without my dedicated teammates at AFA. Thanks to General Spencer’s support, we were able to aim high to make this experience the best possible for our wounded Airmen. AFA staff and volunteers including Lyndsey Akers, Bridget Dongu, Mac MacAloon and Michele Thomas were always on hand to help put out fires, encourage our Airmen when they needed it and do anything necessary to ensure the success of this event. Last, but certainly not least, Whitney Distaso put her entire heart into everything she did in preparation and on site to make sure our Airmen had the amazing experience they deserved. This is her very first year with the Wounded Airman Program and nobody would have guessed it. She bleeds blue and it shows in everything she does. We are blessed to welcome her to our AFA family. The dedication, friendship, and love for our Air Force among all of my AFA team is an inspiration to me every day. The events over the last five days changed lives. Our wounded Airman team expressed their gratitude throughout the entire weekend. I was blessed to be there to see the change in our Airmen and their caregivers. I am forever grateful.