By Natalie Stanley | 926th Wing
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — It was a Tuesday that changed the trajectory of Bronwen Gulledge’s life.
Phone in hand, standing alone in stunned silence outside a classroom at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, Gulledge received the devastating news. Cancer.
“The floor just dropped out from underneath me, because it’s just, it’s literally life changing,” she said.
Master Sgt. Bronwen Gulledge, 26th Space Aggressor Squadron, Adversary Intelligence Flight, flight superintendent, was diagnosed with breast cancer Feb. 12, 2019.
“My cancer was discovered in somewhat of a backwards way,” Gulledge said. “All previous testing never showed anything, so my doctor took a step back and we started from square one, genetic testing.”
While she had been seeking answers for medical issues for a while, it was genetic testing that gave her access to a team of doctors that were finally able to give her a diagnosis after a battery of tests.
As Gulledge worked to process her new reality and begin the long road to recovery with her medical team, she received another, more positive phone call that created a new all-encompassing network of support for her journey; a call from the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program (AFW2).
“I never even knew that the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program was something that existed for actively-serving members, and then out of the blue I get a call from a guy named Rod, and he was so positive and high energy,” said Gulledge.
Rod is Roderick Schwald, Recovery Care Coordinator for AFW2, and his job was to ensure Gulledge received access to an AFW2 Care Management Team to support her throughout her treatment and recovery after she was automatically referred to the program due to her diagnosis.
“Our staff is trained and ready to provide personalized services to warriors and their families and assist in critical decisions and support during some of the most scary and difficult times in their lives,” said Schwald.
For Gulledge, the support she received from AFW2 was so significant that when she shares her journey, it’s a story about how AFW2 changed her recovery and her life.
“I had an entire team of people, so genuine and caring for me and my family, letting me know my job was to heal, to focus on getting better and they would take care of the rest,” she said. “This was the first time I ever truly experienced support like that, to have the freedom to focus on myself and not feel guilty.”
Gulledge said one main area of support was having the AFW2 team help lift and carry the logistical burden of her treatment, giving her the mental space needed to focus on her cancer treatments and not on the next paperwork step.
“They understand you still have to serve in a military capacity. That’s where their focus is, to help you through the process of authorizations and insurance issues or to get you in contact with a doctor. All of the stress is just taken away from you and you don’t have that as such a huge weight anymore,” she said.
While her family, military family, medical team and AFW2 provided a comprehensive support system, for Gulledge it was the emotional support of having an AFW2 mentor who understood her challenges first hand that helped her through the painful and isolating dark times of treatment.
Gulledge said at the time she was starting her surgeries she was struggling to reach out to people, not knowing what to say or talk about, when a spitfire Captain reached out to her and told her she’s ready to be there for her because somebody was there for her when she needed it.
“When you’re going through recovery you can be a little bit isolated because people often don’t know how to talk to you, and that’s okay, I understand,” she said. “But sometimes you can go for weeks on end without really communicating with anybody else other than your family or your doctors, and you miss that connection with other people. I really looked forward to having a conversation with another woman about her story, about what to expect, and just having that bond with someone else.”
Gulledge said her mentor created a place for her to feel safe and connected and the deep bond between them not only helped her through her treatment but gave her a purpose to help others even while she was still in the midst of her own battle.
“I wanted to find a way to give back, to make somebody else’s journey a little bit easier, because having the support makes a world of difference,” she said. “For all of the surgeries I went through and all of the complications I had, it was very difficult for me to just be still, even though my body wasn’t always willing and able, my mind was still wanting to connect with other people and to give back in some way.”
Now that Gulledge is in remission, she is still learning how to share her story and be vulnerable so that she can be a light in the darkness for others. She continues to be a mentor and Ambassador for AFW2 and hopes that sharing her experience can make even one woman’s journey easier.
“I still have my moments of weakness, I’m still in the process of figuring out the new me, and that’s okay,” she said. “I just want to be able to give to as many other women as I can a fraction of what my AFW2 mentor gave to me.”
The AFW2 is a Congressionally-mandated and Federally-funded program that provides personalized care, services, and advocacy to total force Airmen and Space Force Guardians with serious wounds, ill and injured combat and non-combat medical conditions. If you would like more information, please visit https://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil.