Wounded Warrior Program reaches beyond combat

  • Published
  • By John Parker
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

A retired master sergeant credited the Air Force’s Wounded Warrior Program with turning around 10 years of anger and bitterness following wrong diagnoses and missed treatment opportunities after she survived a roadside bomb attack in Iraq.

Nineteen-year Air Force veteran Lisa Hodgden spoke to first sergeants, base leadership and others Nov. 23 during the Wounded Warrior Care Appreciation Breakfast at the Airman and Family Readiness Center.

Sergeant Hodgden is a speaking ambassador for the program, eager to spread the word about the help available for Airmen injured in combat. But the program’s name can be misleading. It also includes free, extensive help for Airmen with serious illnesses such as cancer, or with any significant injuries that happen on- or off-duty.

“I wanted you to see the results of the Wounded Warrior program,” the sergeant told base leaders, including 72nd Air Base Wing Commander Col. Stephanie Wilson. “I am living, standing, breathing proof, and that’s why I’m an ambassador – because I want you to hear it from me. If you met me two years ago, you would not recognize me. I probably wouldn’t even have talked to you.”

Sergeant Hodgden, a .50-caliber gunner by training, was riding in an M915 armored tractor truck on Dec. 13, 2005, which was part of a Security Forces detail guarding semi-trailers hauling equipment and other items. The Army was familiarizing her and other Air Force Security Forces about their convoy missions.

An improvised explosive device detonated under her vehicle, destroying the tractor. She and another Airman survived, escaping from inside the fiery truck, emerging in shock and covered with JP-8 fuel.

The blast fractured her spine in three places and broke parts of both feet. The shock wave inflicted traumatic brain injury – none of which she knew about at the time.

After the attack, and with no outward signs of injury, convoy commanders told her she looked fine, the sergeant said. The troop medical clinic told her the ringing in her ears would go away, but she might be sore for a while.

“No X-rays. No exam. They just looked me over and just like that said, ‘If you need some Motrin, come back.’”

Sergeant Hodgden said she willingly accepted the clinic’s verdict. Nearly two weeks were left in the ongoing Army-embedded mission. She wanted to do the job she was trained for, she said.

On the next mission out, she had problems seeing straight - not good for a gunner. Sometimes her legs would go out beneath her, the sergeant said.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night and feel like I was hit in the head with an ax,” the sergeant said. “I could not control my bodily functions. I couldn’t figure out why. When I told my leadership, they said it’s because you’re stressed. Get yourself together. Get some Motrin. Go get some water. You’re dehydrated. But you better figure it out because we need you on the road.”

Two of her best friends, who were fellow Airmen on the mission, rescued her from a bout of vomiting and soiling herself on her knees underneath a semi-truck. They insisted on taking her for another medical exam. She told them not to tell anyone.

“I just want to do my job,” she told them.

Her wingmen ignored her and a brief clinic visit led to a prescription of one dose of painkiller to get rid of her “headache,” the sergeant said. Her friends died the next month in an IED attack.

After her Iraq tour, she began working with the advanced programs office of the F-22 Raptor fighter. She lived with undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but did her job. She also was commonly written-up and, on occasion, she considered suicide, the sergeant said.

“For 10 years, I was angry. I was borderline deplorable. I would push people away with just not looking like I cared about anything.”

Sergeant Hodgden, a recipient of the Army Combat Action Badge and the Purple Heart, said she self-referred to mental health counseling. Later, a friend had a heart attack that qualified her for the Wounded Warrior Program. The friend insisted that she self-refer to the program.

Sergeant Hodgden was accepted and soon got Air Force help. That included her first diagnosis of the spine fractures and TBI only two years ago.

But her Wounded Warrior non-medical care managers made the biggest difference when they badgered her to go to an adaptive sports event in the program.

Angry and reluctant at first, especially with how everyone “hugged each other,” Sergeant Hodgden joked, she eventually broke down. She became a discus and shot put champion in the games.

For a lifelong non-athlete, adaptive sports were a gateway to a new way of thinking, she said. She learned through the sports program what she could do, not what she couldn’t.

“That Lisa Hodgden of 2005 and beyond is no longer going to come back,” she said. “The terrorists didn’t kill her overseas, but she was slowly killing herself for them over here. 

“Then I realized through this program: nope. You can’t get rid of me that easy. I’m staying.”

The sergeant currently lives in Moore with her husband throughout her ordeals, Senior Master Sgt. Michael Hodgden, with the 72nd Security Forces Squadron.

Tinker-based Air Force Recovery Care Coordinator Tony LeGree said Sergeant Hodgden’s poor recovery experience is one of the reasons why Congress created the Wounded Warrior program in 2008. The goal is to make sure military personnel who are severely injured in combat, significantly injured elsewhere on- or off-duty, or seriously ill, don’t fall through the cracks.

He urged Airmen and the “first shirts” to use the program and let personnel know that it doesn’t take a leadership referral to qualify for help. The effort includes all Airmen – active duty, Air National Guard or Air Force Reserves. 

“The self-referral process that we have in the Wounded Warrior program is to capture things that were not captured before,” Mr. LeGree said. “If you look at Sergeant Hodgden, she’s bullet-proof. You know, ‘I can do this.’ Everyone in the Air Force has the demeanor of ‘Not me, I’m strong. Let’s march on and get back to work mentality.’

“But that’s not always what’s best. There are success stories out there of situations being captured early and having leadership understand what’s going on in your life. Don’t minimize this program. Lisa said it perfectly: you may not see results fast … but you’ll eventually see results – about self-esteem and self-worth and growing as a person. This is a big deal.”

 Wounded Warrior Program contacts

The Air Force Wounded Warrior program proactively identifies qualifying Airmen, including active duty, Air National Guard and Reserves, from daily medical status reports sent to all major commands, but encourages self-referrals from anyone who may qualify.

Tinker AFB:

Tony LeGree, recovery care coordinator, 72nd Medical Group, 435-9411, tony.legree.1.ctr@us.af.mil. His territory includes Airmen in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Jerry Melton, community readiness specialist, Airman & Family Readiness Center, 739-2747, jerry.melton@us.af.mil

Website: www.woundedwarrior.af.mil