U.S. Air Force senior airmen Chris Sweeney most enjoyed serving because it enabled him to give back to his country. As a young boy, he was inspired by his parents (also both service members in the Air Force) and decided to follow in their footsteps after graduating high school.
“I joined the Air Force to give back to the country,” he told me. “It was rewarding to serve as an ambassador, especially in a lot of the foreign countries that I went to. It was rewarding to give people who might not have even known about the United States a shining example of who we are.”
Unfortunately, Sweeney’s duty was put on hold in 2004 when he was electrocuted by lightning while working on a piece of equipment.
“I was in a state of shock. One second I’m leading a normal life and then the next I’m catapulted into a new life where I need help doing simple things like tying my shoes and dressing myself,” he said. “And at the same time I was trying to come to grips with the fact that I should have died, it was a pretty traumatic accident.”
After the accident Sweeney decided to remain on active duty at his station in Germany while he recovered. However, as it became more apparent that he wasn’t healing properly he retired temporarily and sought more specialized treatment.
“That decision involved a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. “On one hand, it was such a relief because I could focus on getting better. I felt like I was letting people down. But on the other hand it was devastating because the military was my life. I planned to make it a career and now I was in a new world where I didn’t really know what was going to happen or what I was going to do in the future.”
After making the tough decision to take time off, a horrific turn of events turned Sweeney’s long road to recovery on its head when he was struck by lightning a second time while driving along the Gulf of Mexico during a storm one day.
“The second injury was probably the hardest. I wanted to give up,” he said. “Honestly, I felt like I was getting kicked when I was already down and I didn’t want to do it anymore. Every day was an even harder struggle than it was before.”
Despite suffering severe injuries including chronic pain, internal burns on the back of his eyes and neurological complications, and also being forced to permanently retire from the Air Force, Sweeney and his family fought hard to remain positive as he started on the road to recovery once again.
Along the way, a parent at their son’s school encouraged Sweeney to connect with Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), an organization that offers support services for wounded veterans. With reassurance from his wife and mother, Sweeney decided to join and found that he was welcomed into an inspiring community where he finally felt like he belonged.
“It was hard to imagine myself in that kind of environment again, I didn’t know how I would be accepted,” he said. “I had been through so many ups and downs in my recovery, and when I joined I was actually in the middle of another difficult point in the recovery. I was able to really see where I fit in and what I was capable of doing. Wounded Warrior Project not only showed me what I’m capable of doing, but pushed me to do more.”
Sweeney also mentioned that one of the best aspects of being a part of the organization is that it has helped him connect with others who understand what he’s going through.
“I’ve met a lot of other people who understand and who are going through similar things,” he said. “They understand what it’s like. You’re at the bottom of a mountain and you’re figuring out how to get to the top.”
While some days are better than others, Sweeney strives to maintain a positive outlook and says that he is most inspired by his sons.
Recently, he was the only hand cyclist to complete the Soldier Ride in Colorado Springs, a 25-mile bike race hosted by WWP.
“Finishing that was a flood of emotions,” he said. “My kids were there. My mom was there. My wife was there. It was a million emotions all at once. I still to this day can’t put it into words, but it was one of those moments in time that strike you as being significant, like seeing your kids being born.”
Despite significant achievements and overcoming many obstacles, Sweeney says he still has days where he feels like giving up, but he doesn’t let that stop him. After finishing the Soldier Ride, he decided to sign up for the WWP 8k set to take place on August 9 in Colorado Springs.
“You can’t just take the easy road. Giving up just isn’t an option,” Sweeney said.
Instead of a hand cycle, Sweeney plans to cover the upcoming 8k on his forearm crutches.
“I can go at a runner’s pace on those things, so I’m going to give it a go and see,” he said. “If I have to slow down, I’ll slow down. But I’m going to try and do it at the quickest pace I possibly can.”
His main goal, though, is to finish.
“I really want to finish,” he said. “My goal is to be able to show people that even though you have something that causes you hurdles in life, you can overcome those things if you just put your mind to it.”
And he says that the maintaining a positive attitude is absolutely critical to overcoming any obstacle.
“If you don’t have a positive attitude you aren’t going to be able to get through it,” Sweeney said. “When I went down that road of negativity, I wasn’t able to accomplish anything. But when I went at it with a positive outlook, I was able to accomplish whatever I set my mind to, and through that I learned a whole lot about myself. My physical limitations don’t stop me, because I don’t let them.”
Sweeney says that he channels positivity through his children because he knows that they need him as a father.
“Although my kids haven’t seen me at my one hundred percent healthiest, I’m going to do everything that I would have done before my accident to show my kids that I’m still there and that no matter what, I will overcome whatever I need to so that I’m able to join them in those things that they want to do,” he said.
While he admits that his recovery has been a long, arduous road with many challenging obstacles, Sweeney says that participating in athletic events through WWP has instilled a new found confidence in him.
“For me these are things I didn’t think I could do before, so going out there and doing them to show not only myself, but maybe another warrior that it can be done, it’s vindication.”