JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii --
Three Airmen attended the Pacific Air Forces Wounded Warrior CARE Event in January, not knowing it would lead to each of them attending the Wounded Warrior Games this summer.
Beginning in June, retired Chief Master Sgt. Garrett Kuwada and Master Sgt. Roger Hopkins will compete at the games held in Tampa, Florida, as primaries, and Senior Airman Faith Donato will serve as an alternate.
Kuwada will also be the torch bearer for the games after exemplifying professionalism and sportsmanship during a CARE event in April.
In September of 2016, Kuwada had a ruptured brain aneurysm resulting in blood around his brain and damage to his spinal cord and legs. He now suffers loss of coordination and balance, hearing, vision, speech and cognitive function.
“I was in a dark place,” said Kuwada, who retired in 2018 after more than 27 years of service. “I was med boarded from the Air Force before I was ready and there was nothing I could do.”
Donato, 647th Security Forces Squadron, also found herself in a dark place after she was struck by a tour bus while checking ID cards at the Ford Island entry control point.
Donato was rushed to Tripler Army Medical Center where she learned she had a severe case of fibromyalgia, spinal cord injuries, and loss of range of motion on the left side of her body.
“I was in a deep pit, everyone thought I was crazy because there was no way to prove I had nerve pain, so I started drinking alcohol,” said Donato. “I tried to commit suicide for the first time in my life and when I had a mouth full of pills I knew I truly needed help.”
Unlike Kuwada and Donato who were injured suddenly, Hopkins, U.S. Special Operations Pacific, did not know he was injured. After serving 17 years as a pararescueman, Hopkins was assigned a staff position with a slower work tempo than he was accustomed to and his injuries caught up to him.
Hopkins started piecing together an overall picture of his health and discovered he had problems with his hands, nerve impingements, cervical disk fusion, chronic back pain, multiple fractures, and overuse of his hips, knees, and feet. He also learned he suffered from a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury.
“After a surgery I was heavily sedated and I became dissociative, I started having flashbacks and became pretty combative, they wouldn’t even let my wife see me,” said Hopkins. “They re-sedated me and brought me back, but the writing was on the wall, I had post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Although Kuwada, Donato, and Hopkins had different paths, they all found hope in the Wounded Warrior Program.
Through their medical journeys, each of the Airmen were referred to Cisco Johnson, Air Force Wounded Warrior Program Recovery Care Coordinator, who encouraged them to participate in a CARE event. CARE stands for Caregiver support, Adaptive Sports and Ambassador Workshop, Recovering Airman Mentorship Program and Resiliency Programming, and Empowerment in Transition.
“The CARE event was amazing, I just didn’t know it existed,” said Kuwada. “It’s hard to move forward and recover, but I realized I was not alone, so I have to keep working and not give up hope.”
In addition to recovery, the Airman are beneficiaries of an additional bonus.
“We are legit family, we hangout and talk often,” said Donato. “We were in a deep pit and the Wounded Warrior Program literally saved our lives.”
In addition to their Wounded Warrior ohana, each of the warriors are also fortunate to have caregivers by their sides.
As part of the CARE events, caregivers are also given time to reflect on their role as caregivers and offered support.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Betsy Jenkins is a Navy reservist, who is also a yoga teacher, which is something she does with her husband Hopkins to assist with his recovery.
“It’s nice to have a group of people you can relate to, who have similar issues as you’re going through with work, family, and even just talking about the future, which is something I’ve not been able to do before,” said Jenkins.
Michael Donato is a former Marine who changed his life to better support his wife, Faith.
“After I left the Marine Corps, I was in a really bad place mentally,” Michael explained. “I was dealing with a lot of stuff and at the CARE event I learned other people are dealing with similar issues and I learned I have to keep going.”
Joey Kuwada, who is Garrett’s wife of 25 years, hopes more caregivers are made aware of available support programs.
“You can’t take care of your spouse if you don’t take care of yourself,” said Joey.
Taking care of Airmen is more than a phrase, it’s what the Air Force does for all Airmen, including providing professional support for wounded Airmen and their families.