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JBA Airman finds happiness in AFW2 program

By Airman 1st Class Xiomara M. Martinez 11th Wing Public Affairs

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As Capt. Jennifer Hays, wounded warrior and 11th Medical Support Squadron patient, sits in a chair waiting to begin an adaptive sports event at the 2019 Air Force Wounded Warrior Program’s Northeast Warrior CARE Event on Joint Base Andrews, she thinks about two quotes, over and over.

“It's okay to fall down and lose your spark, just make sure when you get back up, you rise as the whole damn fire.”

“As long as somebody loves you, you can't give up. You always have to come back.”

She uses these quotes to remind herself to never give up and to know that she’s not in this journey alone.

Hays joined the wounded warrior program in October 2018 for neurological issues and Meniere's disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to dizzy spells and hearing loss.

When Hays’ initially went to see a doctor, they told her she had muscle knots, and prescribed medication and stretching.

But the pain persisted and she knew something else was wrong.

“I saw a specialist, [but] nobody believed me,” Hays explained. “Not being taken seriously was upsetting, particularly since I was clueless to what was going on, just that my arm and hand weren’t functioning.”

After undergoing more tests, Hays finally found out her neurological disorders are from thoracic outlet syndrome which impacts her dominant left arm and ulnar neuropathy. She lost a significant portion of functionality in her left arm and hand and experiences constant pain.

Since her diagnoses, she’s attended physical and occupational therapy and regained control of her thumb, index and middle fingers.

Finding the care she needed also led her to joining the AFW2 Program.

The program works to provide non-medical care and support for combat wounded, ill and injured Airmen and their families as they recover and transition back to active duty or into civilian life. Joining helped Hays find the support system she needed.

“You meet people who totally understand what it's like to have your life get flip turned upside down and aren't afraid to talk about the dark places we find ourselves,” Hays said. “Everyone is so positive and supportive, constantly encouraging you to try new things and believe in yourself. When I got overwhelmed at one point, I found myself inundated with support and encouragement to get back up and try again.”

Since Hays benefited so much from the AFW2 program, she encourages others to join.

“The support network really helps you open up to others who can relate to you and share your story,” she explained. “Doing adaptive sports made me recognize I can play sports and be active. I tried out the race chair and don't think I stopped smiling the whole time.”

One member of that support network, Capt. Carter Kunz, the 11th Explosive Ordnance Disposal commander, said he’s witnessed the changes in Hays’ firsthand.

“Whenever Hays’ talks about the AFW2 program her demeanor and outlook instantly change,” stated Kunz. “She’s taken an active role in advocating for the many services available to wounded warriors. Many members of my EOD flight took advantage of the programs available to them because of her outreach.”

While AFW2 has provided help, Hays expressed staying resilient isn’t easy and attempts to take it day by day.

“Somedays are good while others are a challenge,” she said. “Being outside really helps me stay positive, whether I am walking or running. Nature helps me relax and think through things bothering me. Walking dogs has been really helpful too. If I am feeling really stressed out or anxious, dogs are awesome for helping me get past it.”

Despite still dealing with her conditions, Hays’ continues to fight on with the help from those around her.

“Without support from my friends and family, I would not be here today,” she expressed. “Whether they were listening to me vent, giving me support or helping me find ways to cope with changes, they’ve had my back since day one. In situations like this, it is easy to isolate yourself and feel alone, my support team has never let me build up those walls. We have laughed and cried together. This has been no easy feat.”