JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. — As the Airman speaks, the tears well up in her eyes until the weight brings them rolling down her cheeks. She can’t hold her tears back, but she won’t keep quiet; every tear is a memory and every word a liberating breath.
Every sob is met with a comforting hand on the shoulder and a ‘we are with you, let it out,’ as the group surrounding her knows those feelings all too well.
“Our support group goes back to that basic standard of the Air Force — taking care of your wingman. We’re a family, we’re here next to each other every day so we should take care of each other as much as we work with each other.”
A support group of U.S. service members came together for the first of many invisible wounds luncheons at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 10, 2019.
Whether it’s post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury or other cognitive, emotional or behavioral conditions, invisible wounds are associated with a trauma experienced by an individual that may not be seen on the outside, but can be devastating on the inside to an individual without proper treatment.
“In the beginning, I was dealing with my personal invisible wounds,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Patrick Sims, 733rd Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle maintainer and invisible wounds luncheon coordinator. “I’m always an extremely open person when it comes to what’s going on with me; I have nothing to hide nor am I ashamed of what’s actually happening to me because I know the more you talk about it, the more support you can get.”
Sims has benefited from the mental health services available to military members since 2011, but has never experienced the level of help and healing achieved amongst a group of like people. To help with that, Sims took it upon himself to start a group at JBLE.
“I [was] taught a long time ago that once you get new information that is helpful to you [you have to share it],” Sims said. “Hurry up and share it, get more people into it because you are not the only one going through what you’re going through.”
He knows more people suffer from invisible wounds but not everyone is getting the help they need.
“Some people don’t know their options,” Sims said. “Some people don’t know that there is more than just Mental Health and some people want more than one person saying, ‘hey, this is what it is.’”
Since starting his group, Sims has received feedback from the members who believe what he created is what was missing at JBLE and in the Armed Forces as a whole.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Sims said. “Almost everyone that’s been to the group has said, ‘this is needed — I need this.’”
The support group presents a ‘come as you are’ environment for those who participate. They also provide many off-base resources — most of them through Veterans Affairs who help active duty members as well as veterans.
“I haven’t seen so many people happy to be around [each other] and not worry about rank structure,” Sims said. “From Airman 1st Class, to Major, to Chief, it doesn’t matter. Everybody is there, even [Department of Defense] civilians. We all come together as a family.”
According to Sims, the group provides a place to network, vent and heal; surrounded by people who will know, understand and call each other in the middle of the night if needed.
Throughout his walk with invisible wounds, Sims has struggled, researched resources and strived to get better not only for himself, but for those around him.
Sims is a wounded warrior ambassador, an ordained deacon, a first aid mental health responder, resiliency trainer and a victim advocate. Therefore teaching on ‘touchy subjects,’ he says, is something he is capable of doing and wants to do more of moving forward.
“I want to invite those who are ready in our support group to come along with me and form an education group,” Sims said. “This way we can put together classes for leadership to help them understand how to balance the mission while working with someone who is dealing with invisible wounds.”
According to Sims, this can be a real eye opener for leadership. As much as some leaders want to help, some just don’t know how.
With the right tools, wingmen, leaders and warriors can take care of each other as people so no Airman is left behind. Helping one another in their walk so they don’t falter — and the mission will not fail.