EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ryan Delaney said he was happy to be a mentor for fellow wounded warriors that participated in an introductory adaptive sports and rehabilitation camp held here April 13-22.
Delaney, a flight chief with the 412th Security Forces Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California, helped prepare approximately 45 participants in the camp and training events.
He said the experience he gained through participation in two prior adaptive sports camps allowed him to relate to his fellow athletes' triumphs and to offer a listening, compassionate ear in their tough times.
"I know how beneficial the camps can be to athletes, if he or she accepts what they offer," Delaney said. "Athletes get pushed here. When they hit that wall and say 'I can't do it,' I help them remember they can do it. When they accomplish a goal and they come back to me and say, 'You were right, and I did it,' it's always a good feeling. That sense of accomplishment is important in their recovery process."
Confronting Personal Challenges
Being a leader and motivator is nothing new to the 18-year Air Force veteran.
"I'm in charge of 43 airmen at my regular job," Delaney said. "My job consists of day-to-day patrol duties, ensuring everything runs smoothly at Edwards' gates, and supervising the patrol sergeants, the desk sergeant and all day shift personnel. I make sure law and order is maintained at Edwards."
On this assignment, however, Delaney has personal experiences to share with his fellow warriors -- ones that don't involve traffic stops and police reports.
Before he could help other wounded warriors with their unique challenges, he first had to learn to confront and manage his own.
The first life-changing event that started the law enforcer's journey to an adaptive camp mentor role happened during a 2007 deployment to Baghdad in Iraq. Delaney was serving as the criminal investigator and intelligence officer for the joint area security group.
"I contracted a skin disease on my head there, which got progressively worse over the next two years," Delaney said.
According to his doctors, the diagnosis closest to Delaney's condition is dissecting cellulitis of the scalp -- a rare issue where blockage of hair follicles leads to the growth of cysts. There’s currently no cure. It causes constant pain and intermittent draining of the cysts, and it requires medication.
"Sometimes it's hard to go to sleep, because I can't find a comfortable place to lay my head," Delaney said. "However, I have made up my mind to not let it physically control me. It's just another chapter in my book."
Dealing With Depression
He recalled one incident during a base hospital visit that rivaled any pain the disease has caused.
"I was picking up some medication at the pharmacy and a little kid pointed at me and told his mother, 'He's got owwies.' His mom replied, 'Yes, son, that's why you'll never join the military.'”
The incident “got to me,” Delaney acknowledged.
Delaney was also initially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2008, after returning from his third Iraq deployment. He was diagnosed with increased symptoms in 2012, after completing a Saudi Arabia deployment. Issues in his work and personal lives had come to a head.
"I became severely depressed," he said. "I wasn't sleeping or eating. A good friend of mine pushed me to get help."
The airman was sent to the Salt Lake Behavioral Unit in Salt Lake City, where he underwent two months of treatment with the Freedom Care Program, a specialty inpatient program structured to meet the needs of active-duty service members, veterans, retirees and their families.
The program was the first step toward tackling his challenges, Delaney said.
"I learned how to face my problems and deal with them, instead of letting them compound themselves," he said. "The program helped me cope with the depression, not sleeping, not eating, which were all brought on by PTSD."
Next came follow-on counseling and additional assistance, which Delaney said have helped him make a huge turnaround in his life.
"The help I've received equipped me to deal with my issues," he said. "Now, I can relate to people with similar issues. I can take an issue I may perceive as a negative and not let it compound itself. I can now deal with a negative issue before it gets beyond my control."
Delaney also suffers from minor curvature of the spine, brought on by years of carrying gear in his security forces job. However, he won't allow anything take his eye off the endgame.
"I can't let any of that control who I am," Delaney said. "I have a goal. I want to retire from my Air Force career with 20 years of service."
Delaney said when he feels he's at a low point, he's comforted to know he has resources to rely on for strength, comfort and perspective.
"I'm thankful to have the support of my brothers and sisters in security forces and in the wounded warriors program," he said. "Even if I'm not at camp, no matter how bad a day I'm having, I can pick up the phone and call a peer at a base, or I can call a warrior teammate. It's been amazing."
Delaney has encouraged many of the athletes at the camp to go beyond their perceived limits. He showed one wheelchair basketball participant, a stroke victim who lost the use of his right hand, how to maneuver his wheelchair and shoot a basketball, left-handed.
"When we got into the scrimmage, he went from 'I can't do it,' to an enthusiastic, 'I'm doing it,'" Delaney said. "That made a real impact on me."
The father of two said he has found a sense of family through camaraderie with his fellow wounded warriors.
"Within five minutes of walking around this camp environment, anyone can see the special connection we have," he said. "If one person falls down, we're all there to pick them up."
Though feeling better, Delaney also said he still has good days and bad days. Over the last two years, he said, things have slowly fallen into place. He points to the adaptive camps as playing a major role in getting his life back on track.
From where he was in 2007 to now, Delaney said he's glad for all the good fortune that has come his way.
"I'm happy and healthy as much as I can be," he said. "Now that I'm at the twilight of my career, I'm thankful to for the opportunity to serve my fellow wounded warriors as a mentor."