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Check your ego at the door, be your own advocate

Master Sergeant James Stalnaker was riding his motorcycle home from work when is life changed forever. Music by: Killer Tracks

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Master Sgt. James Stalnaker always thought going to mental health was a deal breaker for your career; that mental issues make you a weaker person. It took encountering struggles of his own to change those views.

Stalnaker has persevered through a debilitating motorcycle accident that left him struggling with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury and multiple painful physical injuries. Thanks to strong leadership and family support, his career is thriving again and he’s developing young Airmen as a master resiliency trainer.

I always could pull through on any challenge. But on this one, I needed help.

During the time between the accident and his diagnosis—early October to December 2015—Stalnaker, assistant accessories flight chief with the 60th Maintenance Squadron, dealt with serious setbacks from his invisible wounds that were hampering his ability to do his job. He would lose words in the middle of a thought; he had trouble focusing on his work; he was in constant pain caused by severe headaches that brought on vomiting. All of this created frustration from his sudden inability to do the things he previously did with pride and ease.

These struggles define invisible wounds—especially since he wasn’t yet diagnosed to provide an explanation of what was causing his issues. He was desperate to explain to his leadership what was going on, and why he was having such a significant drop in performance. But he didn’t have the answers. He couldn’t even form the words.

His frustration and anger began to get the best of him. Tanya, his wife of more than 12 years, shared that the decision to get help wasn’t an easy one for either of them. The worst part for her was that she couldn’t do anything to help him.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “My husband is such a strong person, and he was broken. He doesn’t ask for help. He’s so strong willed and does anything he puts his mind to. To see him that way, it was heartbreaking.”

“The way I grew up, if you had mental health issues, you were a weaker person,” explained Stalnaker. “So, I’ve always been able to pull through, on any challenges I’ve had. But on this one I needed help.”

Shortly after the accident, Stalnaker transferred to his core squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California, and with the support of his new commander, Lt. Col. Claudio Covacci, 60th MXS commander, he began his care journey.

“When he first arrived, he was struggling with speech. He was very squared away, determined and dedicated. I encouraged him to talk to someone to get the help he needed,” Covacci said.

Ultimately the decision was made between Stalnaker and Tanya.

“Sometimes you have to check your ego at the door and be your own advocate,” he said.

Since his care began, Stalnaker has had ongoing surgeries and pain management to manage his physical wounds. And the mental health providers helped him identify healthy coping mechanisms for when his anger and frustration bubbles up. 

“The support from the mental health providers has been unbelievably helpful. Who knows how long it would have been before he would have been able to recover from the issues caused by his TBI,” Tanya said.

Finding healing by helping other Airmen

Stalnaker has now become a master resiliency training instructor to help young Airmen develop their mental fitness. He believes that by enhancing these skills he’s helping to better prepare the next generation for long-term careers in the Air Force. 

“It allows me to open my eyes and see outside of my bubble,” Stalnaker said. “To not only help myself, but to help others by giving them the tools they need to push forward, helps me to heal. I can connect with them, because I can say, ‘This is what I’ve been through, and this is what worked for me.’”

He also began developing training at Travis Air Force Base.

“I’m working with NCOs and SNCOs to develop new ways to deal with mental fitness and communicate with the younger generation of Airmen,” he said. “The younger generations need to know why and how they fit into the puzzle and what value they bring to the table, organization, and the Air Force. I truly believe that if we can change how we communicate, we can catch mental health issues in advance.”

Covacci said he considers Stalnaker a blessing to his unit.

“He’s altruistic, a true servant leader,” he said. “He’s spearheading the training efforts to help integrate the younger generation into the Air Force for long term success. It’s going to have a wide-spectrum of positive impacts on young guys across the base into the future.”

Advocating for invisible wounds: We truly never know what people are going through.

Stalnaker wanted to step forward as an advocate for others with invisible wounds, because he wants to be a part of the culture shift in the Air Force.

“Pre-accident, it didn’t affect me, so it didn’t hold weight,” he said. The change of the attitude within my own mind has made me a better person, father, husband, senior NCO. Everything I went through changed my perspective completely. Once I was able to gather my thoughts and reflect on how I was viewed, because I had wounds that didn't make sense, I realized that I needed to do something about changing the culture not only in the Air Force but everywhere. We truly never know what people are going through.”

Are you or someone you know suffering from an invisible wound? Access the traumatic brain injury toolkit, find available resources for Airmen in need, and visit the Invisible Wounds Initiative website for more information.