HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- One by one, Airmen from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron lined up at the back of a C-130 Hercules, paused, then stepped off the aircraft Oct. 16, completing their free fall training jump into the picturesque water of Florida's Emerald Coast.
For Staff Sgt. Johnnie Yellock Jr., this jump was two years and 28 surgeries in the making.
In 2011, Yellock, a 23rd STS combat controller, was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. While on a mission checking Afghan local police outposts, his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.
"When I opened my eyes, I was on top of the truck with my legs hanging down onto the bed," Yellock said. "I had open fractures on both of my feet through my boots."
Despite his injuries, he continued to pass information to his team, including the details for a helicopter landing zone for his own medical evacuation.
"I'd been in the career field for years and I was trained for this type of situation, trained on medical trauma care," he said. "I took pride in the knowledge I had, and I was confident I'd be able to help a teammate if needed. I didn't expect it to be myself."
For two and a half months his parents and sister stayed by his side while he was recovering in the hospital in San Antonio, Texas. Once released, he began his outpatient rehabilitation and the long road to recovery. The first year, he stayed mostly in a wheelchair before he was finally able to walk, first with crutches, then unassisted.
The idea for the jump originated in the 23rd STS as his leadership was coordinating his return to Hurlburt Field to outprocess and medically retire Oct. 18.
"We have a lot of wounded warriors in various stages of recovery, and maintaining care and contact with our wounded brothers is important to us," said Lt. Col. Mason Dula, the 23rd STS commander. "Of course, the jump is important for (Yellock) and a nice exclamation point for his career, but it's also equally important for the guys in our squadron to see him come back and see the commitment we have with all of our wounded warriors. They are still our teammates."
Yellock said his leadership made sure his doctors approved and that he could accomplish multiple tasks to prove he was ready, like swimming 100 meters with his gear on and going to wind tunnel training to show he could handle a free fall.
"People have said this is a symbol of resilience -- my attitude -- since the injury hasn't gotten me down," Yellock said. "But I tell them anybody in my situation, any of these other special tactics operators would handle it in the same way. I just hope they wouldn't have to."
During the jump, Yellock was surrounded by his fellow operators and teammates from the deployment, and supported by the same leaders who were there when he was hurt. He said that was even more meaningful than the jump itself.
"It just represents (Air Force Special Operations Command's) never-ending support for our wounded guys and our fallen comrades," he said. "I may be retired from the military, but I'll always be a combat controller."