FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md --
Growing up as an ‘Army brat,’ she wanted to keep the family military tradition alive and wanted to join the Air Force. She enjoyed cheerleading in high school, but after graduation she went to basic Air Force Basic training in 2011. Everything was going as planned.
During her first duty station in Hawaii as an Analyst, she was enjoying her new life and career. Shortly after, she became ill and needed to undergo routine surgery in March 2015.
Waking up after the anesthesia wore off, Senior Airman Karah Behrend, Air Force Wounded Warrior, thought everything was fine.
“I woke from surgery with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), it’s a constant malfunction of the Autonomic Nervous System,” Behrend explained.
Behrend’s surgery triggered RSD within her body, an outcome that was unexpected and very rare. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are only two to five percent of Americans with diagnosed RSD.
RSD affects the autonomic nervous system which influences the internal organs and that act unconsciously and regulates our day to day body functions. All of these nervous system functions are controlled by the hypothalamus.
Still an active duty member, she began treatment along with medications and vitamins to control the RSD symptoms. Not only was her body changing but also her lifestyle, which she now had to adapt to a new way of life. She talked about how hard it is for her to function on a daily basis.
“It’s usually the first steps of the morning that are the worst, it’s a make or break for the day if I can or can’t put weight on my leg,” she said. “Getting through the day, it depends on the day honestly. If it’s raining out and was sunny yesterday or started raining randomly, I’m going to be in a lot more pain, a lot more swollen and have lot more trouble moving around.”
Behrend said that by the end of the day she is in so much pain she is unable to sleep.
“Usually by two or three a.m. I fall asleep, and try again the next day,” she said.
As a mother of two, this became a challenge and it began to lay heavy on her heart and mind. She wanted to be normal again.
“Before I got sick we used to go hiking, go to the beach, try surfing (laughing) and fail but we tried,” she said. “I stopped being able to do more and more and that (RSD) took it all away from me.”
As a natural athlete, cheerleading and being taught archery from her grandfather, Behrend needed to find a way to get back in the game. That was when her first sergeant introduced her to the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program in late 2016. They talked about how it could help her, and was able to get her in contact with an AFW2 program coordinator.
In April 2017, she was given the chance to participate in her first ever Warrior CARE event. From there, she knew she found a calling and chance to be herself again.
The CARE aspect in Warrior CARE represents; Caregiver support, Adaptive and Rehabilitative Sports, Recovering Airman Mentorship, Employment and Career Readiness.
“She made an impression immediately due to her bright personality, Marsha Gonzales, Branch Chief of Warrior Care Support said. “She immediately took to the adaptive sports and showed interest in returning as a competitor and here we are a year later and she's competing at the 5th Annual Air Force Trials at Nellis AFB, Nevada.”
During a Warrior CARE event, Behrend was able to try several different adaptive sports. All which tested her ability and skills allowing for wounded warriors to practice in a welcoming family environment. These events are held for a week, where wounded, ill or injured Airmen and caregivers are invited to experience the support that is available to them through the AFW2 Program. CARE events are referred to as a ‘holistic wellness events’ that not only features sports, but art and music therapy as well.
“The CARE events are multiple different clinics where the warriors can get some experience in not just one sport but try them all and see what you can do, can’t do and see what your body will let you do,” Behrend explained. “That was the biggest thing for a lot of us, we didn’t really have a safe place to experiment and see what our bodies would allow.”
Since 2017, Behrend has been able to train and learn several adaptive sports. She’s participated in quad-rugby, quad-basketball, shot put, seated volleyball and archery. While training and traveling, she has been able to meet people with multiple stories that have motivated her to participate in the 2018 Warrior Games trials. This will be her first year going out for the Wounded Warrior Team trials in Nellis AFB, Nevada.
“The biggest thing for me is relief. You feel normal again,” said Behrend. “Relief is the biggest thing that washes over me, it’s when I am able to keep continuing what a year and half ago I wasn’t able to push through.”
A big part of Behrend’s drive is watching her teammates do well and push through. She mentioned that there is a misconception that surrounds the AFW2 Program.
“You don’t have to be combat wounded to be part of the program,” Behrend said. “I wasn’t. I got sick, there was nothing we could do about it and it was it classified as a severe illness. There are a lot of people that are there for similar things and some not similar. The biggest thing I can say is, you belong.”
As Behrend and her friends compete in the trials February 23 to March 2, 2018, they will get a chance to meet other wounded warriors and supporting agencies. This not just a sporting event, it is also a chance to let Airmen know they are still part of the Total Force family.
“She has been working on improvements and now it's up to her to really put in the champion effort to make the team,” Gonzales said.
Air Force trials applications are open to members enrolled in the AFW2 program.
“We always look forward to volunteers at the places we hold events so we suggest that Airmen and those wishing to help keep an eye out for announcements of events in their area and come out to support,” Gonzales said. “But, the biggest way people can help our Wounded Warriors is by being a good Wingman. If you see someone struggling, help them out.”
For more information on how to get involved with AFW2 or refer an Airman, visit www.woundedwarrior.af.mil and click on the ‘Refer an Airman’ link.