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AFW2 helps Airmen take steps toward recovery

Kai, a service dog, lays on the lap of Staff Sgt. August O'Niell during an Air Force wounded, ill or injured warrior sitting volleyball practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18. O'Niell, a pararescueman, was wounded in July 2011 during a deployment to Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Kai, a service dog, lays on the lap of Staff Sgt. August O'Niell during an Air Force wounded, ill or injured warrior sitting volleyball practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18. O'Niell, a pararescueman, was wounded in July 2011 during a deployment to Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded warrior Staff Sgt. August O'Niell sets a volleyball during practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded warrior Staff Sgt. August O'Niell sets a volleyball during practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A prosthetic leg sits on the sideline as Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

A prosthetic leg sits on the sideline as Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice serving at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice serving at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded, ill or injured warriors practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded warrior Staff Sgt. August O'Niell waits to make a play during practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

Air Force wounded warrior Staff Sgt. August O'Niell waits to make a play during practice at the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, for an upcoming Pentagon Sitting Volleyball Tournament. The one-day tournament is designed to bring awareness to the challenges of the wounded, ill or injured population. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- One would never know the twelve current and retired Airmen walking into the Joint Base Andrews West Fitness Center, Nov. 18, were wounded, ill or seriously injured.

Minutes later it is evident as the bleachers and floor fill with gym bags, volleyballs and prosthetic limbs, and two K-9s sit loyally on the sideline waiting for their owners to return from practice.

These Airmen are part of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Adaptive Sports Program, a fellowship of athletes, volunteers and coaches that use athletic reconditioning to help rehabilitate wounded, ill and seriously injured Airmen.  While also inspiring, the program helps Airmen build strength and endurance.

"By supporting the event, the Air Force and 11 WG are demonstrating their commitment to wounded warriors and their families, and also encouraging greater awareness and support for Air Force Wounded Warrior in the region," said Steve Otero, AFW2 communications coordinator.

For one highly motivated Airman, the program is a step toward returning to what he loves most, being a Pararescueman.

On July 15, 2011, on a mission in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. August O'Niell experienced an event that would change his life forever.

En route to rescue three Marines who sustained serious gunshot wounds, O'Niell's helicopter came under hostile fire.

"The bird took four or five round and then one of them bounced off the doorway," O'Niell said.

At first, O'Niell was confused. But, as blood began soaking through his uniform, it became clear that he had been shot. The round had entered his left knee, shattering it, and proceeded through to his right calf.

When he awoke later at a medical center in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, he was told it wouldn't be long until he would be headed back home.

The first words that came out of O'Niell's mouth personified his dedication to his job.

"Not until I get my reenlistment paperwork."

Later, his brother, an Air Force Combat Rescue Officer, would join him at his hospital bed and perform his reenlistment oath. 

O'Niell's road to recovery over the next three years would be long, strenuous and often frustrating.  He underwent more than 20 surgeries before doctors offered him two options; a knee replacement surgery that would likely leave his leg in pain and nonfunctional, or amputation. 

"I haven't regretted it," he said, after opting to have his leg removed above the knee on Oct. 17. "I'll take the little bit of phantom pain now versus the pain I was living with every single day."

Now, a veteran of adaptive sports, and a winner of five gold medals at the 2014 Warrior games held in Colorado Springs, Colorado. O'Niell uses AFW2 as motivation during his journey to rejoin his Air Force Special Operations brethren.

"If you can see others push through their pain and mobility issues and still get out here to play and come together as a team, it's very motivational," he said. "Mentally, it keeps you happy."

By using programs offered by the Air Force and utilizing the support of his family and friends O'Niell has kept a positive attitude.

"The beginning of the year was pretty hard for me," he said. "But, after I got some help with that, I started to realize that you can't fight every battle at the same time."

For more information on AFW2, visit www.woundedwarrior.af.mil.