JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. –
The mid-summer heat scorched the ground, filling the air with the scent of synthetic rubber. “Take your mark,” boomed over the loudspeaker as the athletes positioned themselves to launch from their starting blocks. Adrenaline coursed through their bodies, only adding to the heat that already surrounded them. A moment of calming quiet came over the competitors. The crowd's cheers became a low unintelligible hum as the runners became hyper focused, listening for the signal to explode into action. The few seconds of waiting felt like an eternity. Finally, a gunshot rang out, echoing across the field and immediately snapping them back to the present.
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jessica Garcia, 316th Wing Legal Office noncommissioned officer in charge of civilian law, went to college on a soccer scholarship, but after an injury sidelined her, it didn’t sit right with her that she would get her schooling paid for by sitting on the bench. As a firm believer in earning what you get, her injury led her to decide to do something she had been planning for a long time, join the military. Her initial thought was to join the Marine Corps, but after some consideration, she steered towards the Air Force.
Garcia has always had an affinity for sports including soccer, track and field, cross country and more recently, adaptive sports.
Garcia’s career started in 2008 as a Defender in the Security Forces career field at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. It wasn’t until 2010 when she was assigned to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, that she would discover sports in the armed forces.
After finishing a 5K run on base in 18 minutes, 30 seconds, a lieutenant colonel who was at the event was impressed. He encouraged her to try out for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Women's Track and Cross Country Team, and she quickly jumped at the chance.
Several years later, while competing in track and field competitions and cross-country events frequently, Garcia discovered the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Women's Soccer Team. She made the team in 2014 and quickly started competing in tournaments.
"I got to meet people from all different types of career fields and meet foreign national competitors as well," said Garcia. "You see how one sport can bring countries together and in my opinion, that definitely strengthens host nation relationships. That was my first experience of seeing how powerful one sport or some type of extracurricular activity can bring people and countries together.”
Everything took a drastic turn in September 2019.
While competing for the soccer team against other international countries, Garcia developed a Lisfranc injury. This injury typically results in bones in the midfoot being broken or ligaments that support the midfoot being torn. She was treated by a British doctor who told her that this type of injury usually ends a sports career.
“I was told I was never going to run again or if I do run again, it's going to be at least a year and a half to two years,” Garcia recalled. "On top of that, I was then told I will probably never be able to play soccer again and the area never really recovers, especially if I were to develop nerve issues, which I ended up getting. When she told me that, I was devastated and my first thought was that there has got to be something I could do.”
Despite the devastating news for someone who had been playing sports their entire life, Garcia was determined to not let this initial prognosis be the last word on her future in sports and sought a second opinion.
In February 2020, Garcia spoke with her commander, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Kowalski, the 422nd Security Forces Squadron commander at Royal Air Force Base Croughton, United Kingdom, to get approval to fly to the United States and seek a second opinion from Dr. J. Chris Coetzee, the Minnesota Vikings orthopedic surgeon. He guaranteed a 96% success rate.
In a matter of months, Garcia had found hope. The surgery was scheduled and Garcia went into it optimistically.
“After the surgery, he then referred me to a neurologist because he suspected I had a neurological disorder he couldn't diagnose me with,” said Garcia. “I was then diagnosed with a neurological disorder called complex regional pain syndrome type two, nicknamed the ‘suicided disease’ that had already transferred from my right foot to my left foot.”
It was recommended that Garcia could either have an amputation or get a spinal cord stimulator implant to prevent the spread of the disorder. Garcia initially rejected the idea of an implant, but she didn't want to continue taking her current ineffective pain medications.
There was no reversing the disorder, and her only hope to relieve most of the pain was the spinal cord stimulator. Though it would medically disqualify her from Security Forces, she decided to get the implant.
“When I started to become more positive, I made peace with the fact that I would never be able to play sports or run again," said Garcia. "It is what it is. My feet are not the only thing I use to live my life. I had to come to terms that my identity was not based on just sports and being active. I had more to my job and I had more to me. If I had to, I would just continue to develop my intelligence and abilities to help the world in different ways.”
Garcia was unable to return to the United Kingdom, so she applied for the Airman Medical Transition Unit. The AMTU provides comprehensive transition planning in support of wounded, ill or injured Airmen during their recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration phase of care. She received orders to Joint Base Andrews as soon as her application was approved.
While in the AMTU, a member's primary responsibility is to seek care. They are also authorized to shadow different Air Force career fields outside of their appointments.
When she reported to Joint Base Andrews in September 2020, she had several procedures and surgeries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to get the implant. And, while awaiting her medical evaluation board results, she shadowed at the Andrews legal office.
That August, she received her evaluation results and was given a second chance to stay in the Air Force as a Paralegal there.
“It felt like an eternity waiting to get back the results, so to have finally gotten them was like I could breathe again," said Garcia. "I felt very grateful and blessed that I was given a second chance. I know that not everybody gets to go back in, and I feel for those people, so I wanted to do my best and not let it go to waste.”
While at JBA in the AMTU program, Garcia met Denise Sandifer, Recovery Care Coordinator for Air Force Wounded Warrior at Andrews. She informed Garcia about the AFW2 program, and Garcia immediately applied.
In November 2021 she was introduced to adaptive sports and in April 2022, she was invited to attend the Air Force Wounded Warrior Trials where she made the team. She was invigorated with a new sense of purpose and a realization she could still compete in sports.
“The Wounded Warrior Program was a way to get closure on this experience that initially started in 2019,” stated Garcia. “If there are other people that are doing things with much more severe injuries, there’s no excuse for me, and to have gone through all of those surgeries, I’m not going to just throw that away and let it all go to waste. I will continue to push myself as much as I can.”
Soon after, in August 2022, she was able to compete in the Department of Defense Warrior Games. In the multi-day event, she placed first in the 1500-meter run, 100-meter run, 200-meter run, 400-meter run and 800-meter run. She was the fastest female in the 4x100 meter relay. She placed second in the Air Force Recurve Archery Team and second out of more than 40 competitors in individual recurve archery. She also competed in air rifle standing and prone, a one-mile cycling time trial, a 20K cycling race and in one and four minute rowing races.
Playing in the warrior games was Garcia’s first time competing against other military branches. She recalled the competition being very intense and an experience of a lifetime. She was also inspired to see how supportive the competitors were of each other.
“It truly inspired me to train even harder, because you see people out there with two or three missing limbs, pushing themselves like there is no tomorrow,” said Garcia. “That is amazing to me. I had tears of joy and happiness for all of them because seeing them out there, doing what they are doing with a missing limb and competing against other people who have two or more and they’re still rocking it. They’re still doing something that they were told they’d probably never do again, and proving those people wrong.”
This year, Garcia stood once more against the outstanding warriors aiming to demonstrate their skills. Just the same as last year, her hard work paid off and she took home the gold medal for all the solo running races again and her team took second in the 4x100 meter relay. She also took a gold medal in both individual and team recurve archery and competed in cycling to top off her 2023 DoD Warrior Games experience.
She mentioned that the feeling of inclusivity and support was even stronger than last year and she enjoyed cheering on her teammates just as much as she did competing in the adaptive sports.
“Don’t give up and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Garcia. “Being vulnerable enough to ask for help is not being a coward or weak, it’s being strong. I struggled with that myself. To be a strong person does not mean that you can’t ask for help. We’re all a part of the same team.”
Garcia urges anyone interested in and eligible for the games to try out, noting they are an amazing resource and opportunity to be surrounded by people who may be going through a similar struggle.
“I can say that the best resource is reaching out to people who are going through similar experiences because we will know people that can give you what you need,” Garcia stated.
After going through her experiences, Garcia realized the race did not begin when the gunshot fired. Rather, the race began when she overcame her fear of asking for help. The race began when she decided to put the work into herself. The race began when she chose to take life into her own hands and not be defined by a challenge she had to face.
Every stride she took on her journey has aided her in becoming who she is today. She may have won 12 gold medals, but to her, the games are about more than awards. They are about coming together as athletes and showing people that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.
Regardless of your situation, Garcia urges anyone interested in, and eligible for, the games to try out. They are an amazing resource and opportunity to be surrounded by people who may be going through a similar struggle.
“Get out there and write your own story.”