Making a come-back; road to resiliency

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Sarah Dowe
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Sweat drops begin to form as the sun beats harshly down, no one seems to notice the rising temperatures or the sand blowing to and fro as coffin after coffin draped with flags is carried by… “A scream rings out and I jump up throwing punches. It was another recurring dream. I am the one screaming. I walk out of my bedroom, pop the lid off a bottle of alcohol and start drinking. I just want to get away from it all for a couple minutes. I don’t want to think about it.”

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Powers, 633rd Medical Group Internal Medicine non-commissioned officer in-charge, joined the Air Force after graduating high school in Pittsburgh in 2005. He trained as a Security Forces defender and received his first assignment at Lajes Field, Portugal. This is his story.

As a new Security Forces Airman at a refueling base, Powers worked 14-hour days in a car guarding the flight line.

His immediate supervisor made the transition to military life rough. On a regular basis he would call Powers names and throw his gear down a hill, making him retrieve it up in the name of “training.”

“It was not an easy start and I was struggling, I also hadn’t seen my family in a year and a half because getting back to the United States was so expensive,” Powers said.

Powers decided to make an appointment at mental health. At this time, the Iraq War was ramping up and Powers felt that mental health was not viewed or prioritized the way it is today.

“After going to mental health they decertified me, removed my ability to carry a weapon and took my next assignment,” Powers said. “I was pretty much blacklisted; supervisors listed me as a troublemaker.”

Powers pushed through the year hoping things would get better.

The following year he deployed to an area in Iraq known as the “triangle of death.” There were over 366 deaths in one year, averaging to over one death a day.

“I had no understanding of what death really was,” Powers said. “You don’t realize what the world is like until you are standing in a formation watching 19 and 20-year-olds being sent home with a flag over their coffin.”

Powers and the team he was with were put through a lot during this deployment, both physically and mentally.

“As a young 19-20 year-old kid, seeing all that messed me up pretty badly,” Powers said.

Back in Portugal, he began to drink heavily trying to forget everything he had seen. His next assignment was in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I got back to America, and got going at my next duty station,” Powers said. “I was now 21 and could legally drink, so I continued to do so heavily.”

He began to struggle unknowingly with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which lead to difficulty sleeping.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, yelling, punching, you name it, I was a mess,” Powers recalled. “I didn’t know what it was, PTSD wasn’t talked about then.”

Drinking was the way he continued to cope with everything going on in his mind.

Six months later a friend invited Powers along to a party.

“Three days later I got called in, there were minors at the party and I was now in trouble for contributing even though I had only attended the party,” Powers said. “I lost my Senior Airman stripe and was pushed back to Airman 1st Class. Three days later I found out I had made Staff Sergeant.”

After doing basic Airmen duties again for a couple months, Powers was placed in a desk sergeant position to run security for the whole base. Then Powers deployed again.

During a mission, Powers kicked in a door and blew his knee out completely.

He was medically evacuated home to South Carolina where things started to get really bad.

“I got through the next year on pain medicine and alcohol,” Powers said. “I ended up rehabbing and then got stationed at McCord.”

Six months after arriving at McCord Field, Washington, he was tapped for another deployment.

“I will never forget it, I was at deployment training and my kneecap got stuck in my knee,” Powers said. “My friend and I took our palms and we smacked it back into place and kept going.”

When he got back from the deployment he had a second surgery on his right knee.

He now took pills to control every part of his day; waking up, going to sleep, mental health and even more to keep him going throughout the day.

“The way of dealing with PTSD was to medicate and isolate,” Powers explained. “The Air Force and Security Forces had a mission and we just kept going.”

Powers then received orders to go to sniper school.

“My commander pulled me into his office and said; ‘Ryan, I’ve known you for four years, we’re not going to do this. You’re not going to sniper school, we’re going to medically retire you,’ Powers recalled.

At this time Powers was 26 years old.

“I loved the Air Force and wondered; what am I going to do?” Powers said. “He said I could find a way to cross train or be medically retired.”

Powers did his research and began the process of cross training into the medical field began. He quickly progressed through Career Development Courses and upgrade training.

Powers was now seriously struggling with his mental health. One day his new commander walked in, started a conversation with him and soon found out he had been in Security Forces.

“I believe God puts people in our lives when we need them,” Powers said. “It turns out he was a mental health provider.”

The commander suggested that Powers go to mental health again. He was finally diagnosed with PTSD and given the proper medications to help manage it.

Over that year Powers earned NCO of the year and was loving the work he was doing. He also began to use weight lifting, instead of drinking, as an outlet for his stress and PTSD.

“I was put into the Wounded Warrior program and they sent me to a program with NFL players,” Powers said. “For eight weeks I no joke got paid to work out, I also had a physical therapist and a massage person.”

One of the doctors saw the way Powers moved and soon found that something was very wrong with his hips.

“When the doctor looked at my right hip he thought he was looking at an 85-year-old persons hip,” Powers said. “They had to do microfracture surgery to hopefully regain cartilage in my right hip.”

Even with everything going on with his body he began to get more into body building and began to compete in shows. Soon after, his left hip cracked and he needed another surgery to reconstruct the bone.

After surgery Powers took a cruise to Jamaica to relax for a little bit. The vacation did not go as planned.

“I was kicked off the boat and sent to a hospital in Jamaica because I was throwing up blood and they thought I had Ebola,” Powers said. “They wanted $4,000 to treat me, I picked up the phone and called the first sergeant.”

The first sergeant made some phone calls which routed quickly up the chain to the Pentagon and then to the Ambassador in Jamaica who cleared the airspace for a private jet to come pick him up.

“That was the day I knew I was never leaving the Air Force,” Powers said. “No civilian job will take care of you like that.”

Powers knew he needed to progress in his career and became a Generals aide for two years. With the support of the general he was working for he won several awards.

After those two years he was assigned to JBLE. Powers made Master Sergeant and now helps oversee the work of 26 Airmen, ensuring they receive the training necessary to complete the mission while making sure they are taken care of.  

“I see my Airmen as my family, they are like my children,” Powers said. “When my child is feeling unhappy I make sure they are taken care of, when my child is lost or trying to learn, develop and be happy I make sure they have the resources to do that.”

Powers explained that he is now focusing on helping Airmen be the best they can be and looks forward to serving in the world’s greatest Air Force for years to come.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the people around me,” Powers said. “Resiliency is a team effort, this is what we are here for. If you are struggling, stand up and ask your wingmen for help.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD or depression don’t stay quiet, ask for help today:

Military Family Life Counseling (757) 777-4172

Military One Source (800) 342-9647

Langley Chapel (757) 764-7847

Fort Eustis Chapel (757) 878-1304

Mental Health (757) 764-6840

BHOP (757) 225-7630