By Staff Sgt. Rachel Hammes, 55th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 11, 2017
Tech. Sgt. (Ret.) Ben Clark, a warrior with the Air Force Wounded Warrior CARE Event at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, competes in wheelchair basketball at the Offutt Field House Aug. 4, 2017. Clark was medically retired from the Air Force due to injuries sustained in a 2009 deployment to Iraq.
First Lt. (Ret.) Casey Dockins, a warrior with the Air Force Wounded Warrior CARE Event at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, competes in wheelchair basketball at the Offutt Field House Aug. 4, 2017. Dockins was medically retired from the Air Force after years of hiding injuries sustained in a 2008 deployment to Iraq.
Tech. Sgt. (Ret.) Ben Clark, left, Tech. Sgt. (Ret.) Jeremiah Jones and 1st Lt. Casey Dockins, right, attend the Air Force Wounded Warrior CARE Event at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, Aug. 4, 2017. The event, geared toward wounded warriors and their caregivers, provides ambassador training, athletic competitions and a chance to work together with active duty service members.
Wounded Warriors and caregivers from all over the Midwest flocked to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, from Aug. 1 – 4 for the North Central Air Force Wounded Warrior CARE Event, comprised of days spent in ambassador training, adaptive sports and interacting with members of Team Offutt. For many of these warriors, the time spent at Offutt was a homecoming, and a welcome one.
First Lt. (Ret.) Casey Dockins, formerly with the 55th Strategic Communications Squadron (now the 625th Strategic Communications Squadron), Tech. Sgt. (Ret.) Ben Clark, formerly with STRATCOM and Tech. Sgt. (Ret.) Jeremiah Jones, formerly with the 97th Intelligence Squadron, all once called Offutt home.
Jones retired June 27, 2017, after years of attempting to ignore the wounds, visible and invisible, he had accumulated while working intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the Middle East.
“In 2013, one of my best friends from basic training all the way to here at Offutt – his aircraft went down in Afghanistan, and he died on a Project Liberty aircraft,” Jones said. “And that was like holding up a crumbling wall in your mind, and then somebody standing on the side and hitting it with a sledgehammer.”
With the encouragement of his wife and friends, Jones went to mental health and finally spoke about some of his experiences. After receiving a diagnosis of PTSD, Jones was recommended for a medical board.
“It drug me through the dirt – I felt like I had completely failed in my career,” he said. “I had pinned on technical sergeant at nine years, and thought, ‘Ok, good job, you busted your butt and made tech, and now you’re done.’ It hurt because it felt like I had failed my mission.”
However, Jones said he has found a new mission in the work he’s done since retiring, with the Office of the Warrior Advocate and AFW2.
“I have one final good mission that will actually give me some closure as opposed to my career feeling like it was ripped away,” he said. “This is something I can actually complete.”
Clark retired out of STRATCOM April 27, 2017, after spending eight years hiding the extent of his injuries from a 2009 deployment to Iraq.
“A mortar dropped right on my head and blew me into a truck,” he said. “I had a fractured skull, two of my vertebrae were crushed, my heart was displaced, I had a hole in my retina. I was injured pretty bad, and I hid it for a long time.”
Clark was ultimately given a Purple Heart for his injuries, but he still fought against revealing the degree to which they affected his life. Eventually, he was unable to complete a fitness exam, and was recommended for a medical board. He went to visit the doctor, and filled out form after form.
“I kept having to ask what date it was,” he said. “So she said, ‘Let’s look through your records.’ Everything was in my records, but no one had really addressed it. But at that time, I was planning on hiding it, even in retirement. I didn’t want anybody to know.”
Ultimately, Clark was medically retired due to physical and mental injuries, and joined the AFW2 program. For this CARE Event, he participated in bicycling, wheelchair basketball and shooting.
Dockins was embedded in a Navy explosive ordinance disposal unit in Iraq in 2008, and was injured multiple times.
“I dealt with those injuries kind of silently – I tried to continue on,” he said. Dockins commissioned in October 2013, and was stationed at Offutt in June 2014. He fought through one medical board, but eventually couldn’t continue to serve.
“Most of my injuries happened so long ago, and I’ve been pushing them down and trying to keep going for so long,” he said. “Because of doing that, the residuals have been exacerbated. Going on so long and not treating the root cause was like trying to put a Band-Aid over arterial bleeding. And finally, everything just fell apart.”
He was introduced to the AFW2 program after his medical retirement March 28, 2017, which gave him a new sense of purpose. He’s now going to school in pursuit of a degree in clinical counseling, with a specialization in military and Veterans Affairs affiliation. He plans on putting a lot of what he’s learned from AFW2 into his practice.
“I want to meet you where you are, so we can get you where you need to be, on your own terms and pace,” he said. “And that’s what Air Force Wounded Warrior does for us. When we’re swimming, maybe we can’t do it this way. But the coaching staff knows our injuries and they teach us that we don’t have to do it that way. ‘Here are some other ways, you pick what works for you.’”
The ambassador program run by AFW2 has helped many of the athletes find the voice to tell their stories. Several AFW2 athletes underwent ambassador training at Offutt.
“Every one of us told a story to over a 150 people, and that was the first time most of us had talked about it so personally,” Dockins said. “I shared just part of my story, about being blown up by a 12-year-old suicide bomber in Iraq. If I had heard a combat story or something similar sooner, it would have resonated and I probably would have jumped on board a lot sooner and gotten help sooner.”
Wounded Warriors said their experience at Offutt has been extremely positive.
“It’s definitely one of the best – I would say the best – hosting community,” Dockins said. “You have the top down and the bottom up support here – you have the whole community support, whereas some other bases have intermixed support. But here it’s the whole community effort.”