FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
Becoming physically unable to accomplish the mission can be a huge detriment to the morale of any Airman. The Air Force needs able-bodied Airmen for deployments and to keep the stateside bases running at high efficacy, but a growing number of work-related injuries have impacted the Air Force’s ability to operate at peak levels.
Many of these Airmen’s injuries don’t always happen all at once.
Denise Huls worked as an administrative postal clerk while on a six-month deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and spent more than 300 hours flying in mail deliveries via helicopter. Occasional sand storms made for rough flying and could force the helicopter to land before becoming engulfed in sand and dust, but the impaired visibility made landing difficult.
“One time, the pilot misjudged the distance and we bounced off of the ground hard,” said Tech. Sgt. Denise Huls, 92nd Air Refueling Wing command chief executive assistant. “I had 75 pounds of gear on with a helmet, vest and an M-16 rifle that crushed my body from the impact.”
“I didn't register any immediate pain, so I continued my duties as usual,” added Huls, “It wasn't until years later that I started feeling more pain in my back than usual. It was annoying, but I just ignored it and kept working.”
The pain did not go away, but instead became steadily worse over the years. The pain spread throughout her back, ribcage and neck, causing her to seek over-the-counter medicines to address daily symptoms, Huls said.
After years of enduring increasingly persistent pain that could no longer be ignored at work or endured during physical training, Huls reluctantly checked herself into the base physical therapy clinic.
“I could not turn my head properly nor could I unfold my right arm by that point,” Huls said. “The doctor told me that I would be put on a physical training profile. Hearing those words literally broke my heart and tears started rolling down my face.”
“I was no longer perfect. I had never been on a profile before. I've never been exempt from anything,” added Huls.
Injury not only affects the Airman, but also can have a long-term impact on their family and work places. This is where the 92nd Medical Group Physical Therapy Clinic comes in.
“Our goal is to have people able to remain active and available for duty,” said Lt. Col. Troy McGill, 92nd MDG physical therapist. “Across the Air Force, not just here at Fairchild, there is a significant number of the active duty Airmen that are un-deployable due to a profile condition.”
Many Airmen become injured in the line of duty from incidents on the job, through strenuous exercise, or from repetitive daily actions.
"The main repetitive injury we see is from people sitting all day long in busy office positions,” McGill said. “We also see Airmen working in heavy gear doing police, fire or explosive ordinance disposal work, maintainers working in tight spaces or anybody who pushes themselves too hard during physical training.”
Getting back to duty and becoming fit to fight once more is priority one for those injured Airmen.
"We treat everything muscular-skeletal,” McGill said. “Low back pain, joint pain, neck pain, headaches, muscle tightness, injuries and post-operation recovery. Anything to do with your ability to flex and move, we treat here."
The road to recovery can be a long and painful for some, requiring months of treatment to correct. However, some never make it to physical therapy, remaining on profile and waiting for the problem to remedy itself.
“Nobody should be put on a profile and told, ‘we'll see you back in 60 days,’" said Tech. Sgt. Jesse P. Myers, Physical Therapy and Orthotics flight chief. “Airmen should be seeing us here if they are on a profile longer than 60 days so we can address the cause of their protracted issue and get them back to duty before it becomes worse.”
The PT Clinic helps Airmen heal an injury, but the reduced movement and exercise can leave them weakened and unable to meet fitness requirements. This can leave some Airmen with another struggle in regaining their physical abilities, and some may have to start from scratch.
“Injuries feed themselves,” Myers said. “It is easier to do less and not try as hard, so people don't heal and may become worse over time. More bad choices can creep in as the pain worsens, be it food or vices to avoid dealing with the injury.”
The social impacts of always being on profile can have Airmen seen as dead weight or "gaming the system" by others. This can lead to depression and side effects, furthering their resistance to getting the help they need, McGill said.
"Fairchild started a functional return-to-duty clinic six years ago to help those Airmen that were continuously on profile and unable to deploy,” Mcgill said. “It was found that their problems were not being adequately addressed and it just kept them from their duties. Many cases had detrimental secondary effects of depression, weight gain and sleep problems to name a few.”
“Those Airmen were going from bad to worse,” McGill added. "This program has helped many Airmen recover and return to a normal life."
The functional return-to-duty clinic program was established to retain these Airmen by returning them to fighting shape and not be discharged because they couldn’t meet physical standards.
“We give them individualized attention, putting them through an intense regimen to best help in recovery,” McGill said. “This program helps save the Air Force excessive expense in protracted medical costs, retains the invaluable skills and experience of these Airmen and increases their quality of life.
“The clinic will always be here to help people get through that last hurdle to full recovery,” McGill added.
Patients appreciate the professionalism and care the clinic affords them, giving individual care to each issue they face, every time they face it, Myers said.
“I didn’t know what to expect, just that I needed help to fix my back,” Huls said. “I was pleasantly surprised how professional and thorough they are, as they give me personalized attention and care that is sincere, so I have every confidence they will help me reach my recovery goal.”
The Physical Therapy Office offers a walk-in access to all Airmen and dependents, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., at the base clinic. For more information, contact their office at 509-247-5882.