By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — On a warm, cloudy day Staff Sgt. Velette Webb, 21st Dental Squadron, mounted up on her mountain bike, joined the rest of her riding group and rode off to take advantage of the excellent trails in the area. At one point the trail branched, one side for more advanced riders and the other for the less experienced. Webb was supposed to go with the less experienced riders, but decided to take the challenge of the more difficult path. It was a decision that would very quickly impact her life forever.
“I was obviously not experienced enough,” Webb said.
What Webb knows is that she went over the handle bars and struck her head hard enough to shatter her helmet. She was found 80 feet down the side of the mountain, and she was not breathing. She was loaded onto a rescue helicopter and transported 45 minutes away to the hospital where she would spend the next month in the intensive care unit. The damage was horrendous. She had a broken neck, traumatic brain injury, broken collarbone, and seven broken ribs. Add in a completely fractured T8 vertebrae and spinal cord damage beginning at the T6, and Webb’s future looked bleak.
“I couldn’t feel anything from my belly button down,” she said.
Webb was in Craig Hospital, Denver, when she first understood the prognosis: she would never walk again. At first she doubted herself, beat herself up over her decision to take the more difficult trail.
“I thought, ‘why’d I do that? Why’d I go that way?’” she said. “Then I accepted the decision to go that way and the results instead of beating myself up. I decided I wanted to be independent. I made up my mind.”
Her resolve and resilience have been the key to progress in the difficult process of gaining the independence she holds so dear. Webb had to relearn how to swallow and how to eat. She couldn’t even breathe on her own for about three months. She knew that fewer than one in three people who suffer spinal cord injuries regain their previous abilities and most healing occurs between six and 12 months after the injury. Now, about eight months have passed and Webb is accepting her likely permanent reality.
“(Walking again) is not my focus. My focus is on accepting where I am at,” she said.
There have been positive milestones along the way. One of those happened as soon as her medical team removed the ventilator from her throat. Webb’s boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Charlie Britt, 35th Logistics and Readiness Squadron fuels hydrant supervisor, received emergency leave from Misawa Air Force Base, Japan, to be with her, and when the ventilator was out she popped the question.
“I asked him to marry me. It took a while to understand what I said, (but) he said yes,” she said.
Another milestone of significance was when she told her first joke while in therapy. Webb said she doesn’t even remember the particular joke she told, but that isn’t as important as the fact she told one. It let her know some things were getting back to normal.
Webb’s parents relocated to Colorado Springs and she lives with them now. She still needs help with things others may take for granted, such as walking up a flight of stairs or getting in and out of the shower. Her mother had to help her get in the shower at first, but now she can handle that herself.
“Getting in the shower was probably the hardest thing to do,” she said.
Coming back to work was a big thing for Webb. It keeps her busy and allows her to contribute to the wing’s mission.
“I am thankful I was assigned here. I could start new,” she said. Before the accident Webb was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. “It gives me something to work toward. I can tell myself I’m still useful.”
Since the accident, Webb found she is much stronger than she ever thought she could be, and things that used to concern her are not very important any longer. The definition of resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed. A synonym for resiliency could easily be Velette Webb.
“In the Air Force I definitely learned how to be more resilient and how to bounce back,” she said. “What I learned helped me recover the best I could.”
Mental resilience is making an impact on her progress too.
“Instead of questioning ‘why,’ I have learned to accept that I am paralyzed and go from there,” said Webb.
While recovering at Craig Hospital, Webb knew she had to get back on a bike. She rode a Ride 2 Recovery Memorial Challenge in May 2015 on an upright bicycle partly because her roommate’s boyfriend was a wounded veteran, now it was her turn to be on the other side of things.
“I decided it would help me,” said Webb. “I’ve got to do it on a hand bike. They are doing a lot of good for our veterans and now me.”
For Webb it seemed simple enough, so she signed up for R2R’s Gulf Coast Challenge, a ride from Atlanta to New Orleans, about 250 miles over five days, March 6-11. People who were there when the accident occurred came to support her on the ride, and so did friends she made from the Memorial Challenge.
“It was definitely harder. On hills I would yell, ‘I miss my upright,’” she said. “It was more rewarding this time. (Race organizers) didn’t know if I would be able to do the 250 miles in five days, they expected me to do 10 miles a day. I did 30 on the first day and 70 on the last day.”
Her attitude and drive have not gone unnoticed by others. Ride 2 Recovery president and founder John Wordin, for one, is impressed.
“We are thrilled to have her be able to participate in the ride. It’s remarkable how far and fast she’s come to participate,” Wordin said. “It’s because of her personality and determination. We expect great things in the future and we are glad to be part of her recovery and reintegration into life.”
Another ride is certainly in her future. Webb is already planning to ride in the Nine/Eleven Challenge later this year, riding from Washington, D.C. to New York City. But that’s not all Webb has planned. She wants to go back to school and study psychology and social work so she can help others who face personal crisis like she has.
“I’d like to teach veterans about resiliency and coming back from traumatic injuries,” she said.
Webb wants to stay active, so mono skiing and getting back on the trails are also possibilities for future activities. She is trying to get into driving rehab so she can transport herself.
The biggest life change for Webb, as a result of the accident, involves her Air Force career. She planned to stay in for at least 20 years, but now, after nine years, must face leaving the service she loves.
“I know I can’t completely be what the Air Force needs. Does it hurt? Yes,” she said. “I still feel I can contribute. I hope I can change someone’s perspective for the better.”
Her attitude in the face of events is nothing short of amazing. Famed Titanic survivor Molly Brown was nicknamed “Unsinkable” for surviving that maritime disaster, but it was also partly for her can-do, positive attitude. In that light Webb has earned a claim on the nickname too.