JOINT BASE SAN ANTNOIO-LACKLAND, Texas. —
At the 343rd Training Squadron, the road to becoming a Defender in the U.S. Air Force is not for the faint of heart. Twelve-plus-hour training days, unpredictable weather, intense physical conditioning and a demanding academic curriculum are waiting for Airmen who wish to earn their place in U.S. Air Force Security Forces.
This journey becomes even more difficult when faced with physical injuries that can limit performance and add another level of stress to an already grueling training schedule. Luckily for prospective Defenders, experienced specialists from the 559th Trainee Health Squadron are standing by to patch them up and get them back in the fight.
Certified athletic trainers from the 559th’s VIPER clinic evaluate and treat Security Forces students daily at both the Combatives Lab at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and the field training site at JBSA-Camp Bullis. VIPER stands for Versatile Injury Prevention and Embedded Reconditioning, and the team can heal most minor to mid-level musculoskeletal injuries without needing off-site medical attention.
Having such specialized care on site saves time and resources, and is a huge boost to students’ morale.
“Before VIPER, usually if someone was injured at combatives training, our only option was calling an ambulance,” said Tech. Sgt. Barry Hollister, combatives instructor supervisor. “That was time-intensive, expensive for the Air Force and that Airmen usually lost so much training time that they had to be washed back.”
The Combatives Lab is one of the students’ first exposures to the physicality of their new career field.
“I tell the Airmen on training day zero, ‘you’re going to figure out how your body reacts to this training,’” said Jacquelyn Hale, VIPER athletic trainer at the Combatives Lab. “’You’re going to be sore in places you didn’t even know existed, but we have tools to help you get through that.’”
When students are physically injured, the psychological impact can raise their stress levels significantly.
“One of the things I battle here is the students being scared to come see me because of the stigma of being washed back or placed on waivers,” said Erin Thiltgen, VIPER athletic trainer at JBSA-Camp Bullis. “I try to explain to Airmen what’s going on and why they do or don’t need a waiver. It helps them understand ‘this is why it’s hurting, but this is why it’s also not that bad.’”
Being medically disqualified from certain activities can delay training and separate students from the team they’ve been working with for weeks.
“I think there’s definitely a stigma; there are a lot of people who don’t want to get washed back for simple reasons,” said Airman 1st Class Haley Downin, a Security Forces student who was injured early in her time at JBSA-Camp Bullis. “I know I was definitely scared because I could have very easily been washed back and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t.”
Breaking through that stigma against seeking medical treatment has been a major goal of both the course instructors and the trainers at VIPER.
“We try to let the trainees know that our goal is never to wash them back and that if they have a medical injury, they absolutely need to come forward with it,” Hollister said. “We do everything to keep Airmen in training and VIPER is a huge part of that."
Over the couple years that VIPER has been embedded within Security Forces training, students have learned that the athletic trainers are a valuable member of their team.
“The stigma of seeking medical treatment kind of died down once VIPER came to the Combatives Lab,” said Tech. Sgt. Brian Litney, combatives instructor. “The Airmen see some of their fellow wingmen go see the athletic trainer and are back in training in the next 10 minutes, versus going in an ambulance where they’re gone most of the day, and some of them don’t even return.”
The on-site presence of VIPER has contributed to success working with both students and instructors in the training course.
“The embedded element of VIPER is really what helps. Getting out there talking to the instructors, knowing the instructors, going out to the training areas and seeing what the Airmen do,” Thiltgen said. “In two-and-a-half years, I feel like I’ve developed a pretty good rapport with leadership and instructors. I try to make sure I communicate well with them and I feel they are really receptive to that.”
“Most of the instructors, with the gear we carry and the work we’ve done, we’ve all been injured and had to see the doctor at one point or another,” Hollister said.
He and the other combatives instructors teach students to seek the help they need to ensure they’re ready to accomplish the mission.
“Coming back to the core value of Service Before Self, how can they perform that service if they don’t take care of themselves so they can give to the Air Force.”
Downin said she worked very hard to push through her injury and keep training with her team.
“I was able to do therapy. A lot of my pain ended up going away and now I’m not actually in pain at all, which I’m thankful for because I couldn’t even raise my arm above a 90-degree angle, and now I can move it through a full range of motion,” Downin said.
Through her hard work, the dedication of her instructors and the support of VIPER, Airman Downin is healthy and on track to graduate in a few weeks.
From fresh off the bus immediately after BMT to walking across the stage to receive their flash, students at the 343rd Training Squadron pour their blood, sweat and tears into the course, for the privilege of calling themselves Defenders.
They can give their maximum effort, knowing equally passionate and talented athletic trainers work tirelessly to keep them in training and ultimately on the battlefield. After all, it is easier to Fly, Fight and Win, when you know there is someone there to catch you when you fall.