By Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 04, 2017
RAF MILDENHALL, England -- RAF Mildenhall, England -- Michael Christiansen, a technical sergeant assigned to the 100th Security Forces Squadron, is the only U.S. Air Forces in Europe Airman to qualify for the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Chicago this summer. He earned his place on the team after recently competing in the Warrior Games Air Force Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
Similar to the Paralympics, the DoD Warrior Games hosts a wide variety of events including wheelchair basketball, swimming, track and field, sight-impaired events, rowing (machine), cycling, and standing and sitting categories for various sports. This year’s event is hosted by the Navy, and the Air Force team will not only be competing against their American sister services, but also against invited teams from Great Britain and Australia.
In Chicago, Christiansen will participate in the rifle, pistol, recurve archery and sitting volleyball events. He previously brought home a medal from the Air Force trials for sitting volleyball.
He became interested in participating after being introduced to the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) Adaptive and Rehabilitative Sports Program by Beau Jones, AFW2 recovery care coordinator and retired senior master sergeant. According to the AFW2 website, the program provides opportunities for recovering service members to develop independence, confidence and fitness through sports. Participants are introduced to healthy behavior changes, stress management, mental health, nutrition and weight management, physical fitness and activity.
“The AFW2 has an adaptive sports event every quarter,” said Jones. “Normally it’s an event to get people rehabilitated and show them they can do a lot of different things. If they’ve participated in one of those before, then depending on how they did, they get invited to one of these trials – there are only 40 spots, and 10 alternates, on the Air Force team.”
The recovery care coordinator explained that those performing and placing well enough in the Warrior Games can go on to compete as part of the U.S. team in the Invictus Games, which is an international parasport event for wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans.
Although at first glance it might not appear that Christiansen is a wounded warrior, he’s undergone years of pain and suffering from back injuries sustained during combat.
While deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq, in 2004, Christiansen, 100th SFS assistant flight chief, was working near a munitions compound when it caught fire from a rocket attack.
As the munitions started exploding, Christiansen and his team immediately rallied to secure the perimeter sector of nearby towers as they were being evacuated.
“We were too close to the explosions and shrapnel that was coming down,” he recalled. “I went to move a Humvee, but when I was about to open the door a large explosion went off and threw me backwards into the back corner of it, fracturing my lower back.”
As a result of the accident, a medical evaluation board ensued and the Air Force initially decided Christiansen was unfit to continue to serve. However, the Limited Assignment Status program meant he could accept the findings then request permission from the Secretary of the Air Force to stay on active duty and continue his duties for the next few years. The 100th SFS Airman is one of approximately 10 Airmen in the Air Force to be in that program.
“At first, I didn’t realize the extent of the injury I’d sustained,” said Christiansen. “Over time it started to cause further problems and I had a lot of battles and medical issues trying to figure out what was going on. It wasn’t until my next deployment in 2007 to Balad, Iraq, when my back just completely quit on me.
“I had to be carried into the medical center in Balad, where they referred me to the theater hospital physical therapy,” he said. “The doctors were very quick to assess what was going on. After examining me, they discovered my vertebrae were out of alignment and the fractures in my lower back had healed, but not properly.”
Christiansen described how it’s been a long road for him, undergoing various treatments and surgeries to treat the pain and disc issues with which he’s suffered.
“The hardest part has been accepting that I’m stuck not being able to do what I used to,” he said, adding that the 100th SFS has been great in helping him by providing support. “They convinced me to get past my personal limitations and reach out to others. My family has also continually pushed and motivated me to be better and stronger. My wife, Hollie, encourages me to realize I can still accomplish anything, and that only I hold myself back.”
The 100th SFS defender explained that during the Air Force trials, wounded warriors compete head-to-head. In some categories, when competitors place in the top eight at the preliminaries, they move straight on to the finals.
“Once in the top eight, that’s when you compete for a trials medal. To make the team you don’t necessarily have to win a medal, but you must show the right potential and ability. It’s not only the top three in each category who make the team,” he recalled.
Starting with 150 competitors, the preliminaries are used to narrow numbers down to select the top eight people, although not all will necessarily make the team. Overall, in the preliminary rifle competition, Christiansen said he had the highest score in his category.
With only 40 places available on the Air Force team, it’s vital that chosen participants are well-rounded in different areas. Most, therefore, take part in multiple events, which means those who are exceptional in certain events but don’t place in all their categories, can still earn a much-coveted place on the team.
As wounded warriors, service members both past and present have already endured more than most could ever imagine. To then go on and become an athlete takes even more courage and strength.
“I wanted to challenge and convince myself I could still do it,” said Christiansen. “It’s an adrenaline rush for me – I was stagnant in what I could do. Even though I wanted to do the sports I used to do but couldn’t, I still had that competitive drive. From the first wounded warrior care event I attended, when they introduced me to all the adaptive sports, it was quickly very addictive because I could take my mind off everything else and focus on just the sport.”
Jones explained how the AFW2 Adaptive Sports and Rehabilitative Sports program can be a huge help to wounded warriors who may be undergoing their own battles and having a tough time moving forward.
“It can pull people out of their shells a little,” he said. “Before they go to events like this they often think, ‘I can’t do this – why would I want to go to that?’ But when you persuade somebody to go, they usually come back full of excitement and wanting to go again, and they’ll encourage others to go.”
Christiansen said he doesn’t see himself as injured or disabled, and it took him a long time to realize his injuries are “invisible,” as often they can’t be seen by others unless he’s having a bad relapse and can barely walk. He explained that when he first became part of the program, he didn’t feel worthy of competing against the other wounded warriors because his injuries didn’t appear so great.
“This program helps me and others like me get past that psychological, out-of-our-shell thing and think, these are wounded warriors – these are guys who are missing limbs, suffering serious mental injuries, and often barely able to function,” he said. “But they’re getting past that. They’ve become heroes, gotten past their injuries and made themselves what they are.
“The sportsmanship between competitors is incredible – you’re competing against others, but at the same time they’re like your best friends and you’re encouraging them to do their best to beat you, which in turn drives you to do even better than that,” he remarked. “It’s a good mix of brotherhood and sports competition.”