Overcoming life’s curves, my resilience story

  • Published
  • By Col. Bryan Runion
  • 445th Mission Support Group Commander

Resilience. That word is getting a lot of attention now.  Why? Unfortunately, suicides in the Air Force and in society as a whole, are increasing.  Resilience is being seen as something that can help address this epidemic and perhaps prevent it. What is it?  It’s basically the ability to bounce back. 

In 58 years on this earth, I can tell you that you will have disappointments in life. I have had a couple of big ones: losing my career in the Navy and the bigger one I am going to share with you. 

My story began on Aug. 22, 1997 with the birth of my first child, my daughter, Ashlynn. At the time, I was a senior Air Reserve Technician officer with the 507th Combat Logistics Support Squadron, Tinker Air Force Base. As the senior ART in a unit with 150 traditional reservists, it was common for me to work 12-hour days and two weekends a month. I was a workaholic plus it was my first real ART job after being a trainee. However, I then learned sometimes that things happen that make you re-prioritize.

Two days after my daughter’s birth, she went into the intensive care unit. She was not able to feed and stayed in the ICU at Presbyterian Hospital in Oklahoma City, for two months. She required surgery for a feeding tube. Following the surgery, she could not come off the ventilator and could not be weaned off it. She needed the ventilator to help her breathe

Ashlynn had a rare metabolic disorder and required 24-hour skilled nursing care. The doctors recommended a facility nearby in Bethany, the Children’s Center. My wife and I visited the center and it was a tough decision, but we were impressed with the staff and knew it could meet her needs. We committed that at least one of us would visit Ashlynn every day. We received training to where we could periodically bring her home for visits.

People react to trails differently. My wife’s initial reaction was anger with God. We had done everything right; how could this happen? My reaction was to be strong. I felt like I was being tested and my faith was being tested. I also had the toughness I learned from the military, which included SERE training in the Navy where I was in a simulated POW camp for a week and got slapped around.

You never know why these things happen. But, maybe God was using us as an example? One day, we had nice feedback in the way of a card from one of the nurses at the center. It said how my wife and I had touched her by the dedication we had to our daughter. So, you never know whose life you will touch.

In April 1999, our oldest son, Jimmy, was born, and then in May 2001, our youngest son, Jonathan, was born. Also, in 2001, I had the opportunity for a recall to active duty as a flight commander at Randolph Air Force Base. This also happened around the same time as 9/11. In fact, I was driving from Oklahoma to Randolph to talk to the staff at Wilford Hall about my daughter and the logistical challenge of getting her to Texas and I heard 9/11 as it unfolded on the radio. After talking to the staff, we were able to coordinate a medical evacuation flight from Tinker to Fort Hood. Unfortunately, the closest we could get my daughter was a facility two hours away. Weekend visits with my daughter and staying at the Ronald McDonald House became a way of life for us. 

Then another blow happened in 2002. Jimmy was diagnosed with autism. However, the good news in that was there was a team there at Brooke Army Medical Center that was able to diagnose him. He was diagnosed early and received services and went to a pre-school program at the age of three and has come a long way since then. So, I had a special needs daughter, a son with autism, and my day-to-day challenges as a flight commander in an active duty squadron.

In 2004, my recall to active duty tour was coming to an end. Wanting to stay on active duty, I then went into the Active Guard Reserve program at Langley Air Force Base. But in March 2006, Ashlynn started having issues with infections around her trach, (she had a tracheostomy for her breathing tube). She was in and out of the hospital for the next three months. Looking back, I think God was preparing us for her passing. My squadron at Langley was very supportive. My commander gave me permissive leave, due to my daughter’s illness and the squadron brought meals to the house.

In June 2006, Ashlynn appeared to be o.k. I went TDY for training at McGuire Air Force Base.  I got a phone call the morning of June 20th from my wife saying Ashlynn had passed away. She did not quite make it to the age of nine.  The first sergeant worked with the Red Cross and got me back home. As I headed to the Philadelphia airport, I will never forget driving up onto the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge and getting a phone call from my commander offering his condolences.

Life went on again. From December 2006 to May 2007, I deployed to Germany. It helped. I had friends, socialization, and an interesting job there. I then found out that sometimes grief hits later. In my case, it was more than a year and a half after my daughter passed away. 

One morning in December 2007, I was driving to work at Langley, waiting to get into the gate and then this feeling of intense sadness hit me. I will never forget it. My mom told me she thought I was depressed. Of course, being my mom, I blew her off. One of my co-workers asked me if I was o.k. He said he noticed that I had been snapping at people and other people had come to him concerned about me. When I get depressed, I get irritable. I also started stuttering and had a hard time talking, to the point where I had to see a speech therapist. I felt like the wind was taken out of my sails. I was adjusting from re-deployment, my daughter’s death, my son’s Autism, on-going issues with the job, etc.

In January 2008, I was referred to mental health. I had a great counselor that I connected with and I was on medication. Getting help made all the difference in the world for me. In April 2009, I went from AGR back to ART status, with the opportunity to be near my wife’s family at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind. I had a separation physical from active duty and thought I was good to go. Shortly after checking in, the reserve medical unit did a review of my medical records. I had been on meds for more than a year, and they said I should have had a medical evaluation board.

The philosophy at that time was that I was being followed by military doctors on active duty; but I was not being followed in the Reserve, even though I had a civilian doctor following me in my civilian life.

I felt like I experienced the “stigma” on mental health. I worked on clearing up my medical status for a year as my status was in doubt. My group commander was not sure if I could still be a squadron commander. I also got weaned off my meds

In April 2014 as I prepared for an upcoming assignment at McChord Air Force Base. I wanted to make sure that there was no cloud over me. I saw a military psychiatrist at Wright-Patterson, and it was verified that there were no issues with me being on meds, and that I was high functioning.

I have learned over the years that it is better for me to be on my meds than off. I have tried off and on, also counseling off and on. Things like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder do not go away; you learn to live with it. For me, there are things that will trigger it, such as seeing a handicapped child in a wheelchair reminds me of my daughter. 

A couple of years ago at a function held at Clark State (Community College), I saw a 20-year-old female Air National Guard one-stripe Airman. When she said she was born in 1997, it hit me; that could have been my daughter. I started getting tears in my eyes.

The good news is, because of me and others like me, over the years the Air Force Reserve leadership lobbied hard and finally got the medical standards changed to treat mental health in the reserve just like it is on active duty. 

If you feel depressed, have suicidal thoughts, feeling a lack of hope: 1. Get help (that’s why I am here today), the good news is the mental health “stigma” is going away; 2. Be a good wingman to others: look for signs, reach out like my mom and co-worker did, ask, “Are you OK”; 3. Build those supports: For me: physical (bowling), social, family (wife), spiritual (that was the most important to me); my faith/beliefs; 4. I am willing to talk to people and share, not as an O-6, but as a person that wants to help.

I hope my resilience story will help. Life is going to hand you some curves, but there’s help to get you through those times; to be resilient so you can handle it, learn from it, and grow.