Physical therapy keeps Airmen in fight

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jamal Sutter
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
When U.S. Army Sgt. Jon Wilson first entered the physical therapy clinic at Fort Bragg, N.C., 21 years ago, he had no idea the experience would lead him to the profession he's in today.

The infantryman and Gulf War veteran had six months left on active-duty service. He suffered from knee problems due vigorous activities while performing scout sniper team, rifle squad and rifle squad fireteam leader duties.

After getting to know more about his physical therapist's job and chatting with her about the educational requirements, he decided to pursue it as a career. After three years in the Army National Guard and 18 months as a civilian physical therapist, he finally joined the Air Force in 2001.

Now, as a major, Wilson is the 93d Air Ground Operations Wing director of human performance and works directly with 820th Base Defense Group Airmen as a physical therapist embedded in the unit.

His position as an embedded physical therapist is one of seven in the Air Force and is the only one not within an Air Force Special Operations Command special tactics unit.

"I could not imagine a better job as a physical therapist than working with the 820th [BDG]," Wilson said. "They're motivated, they're great at what they do, and they are just a real pleasure to work with."

Wilson's job is to keep Airmen in the fight through injury prevention, performance assessment and enhancement, and rehabilitation of injuries.

Within the injury prevention component of the physical therapy program, he conducts a seven-step injury screen that looks at how well an individual moves and the quality of their motion. If the Airman doesn't move quite right and doesn't meet certain criteria, he can be up to 11 times more likely to be injured, Wilson said.

He also evaluates the unit's training programs and makes suggestions to commanders on how they can be more effective in limiting injuries.

"Their training is different than any other security forces Airman in the Air Force," he said. "When they're downrange, they're doing their job. When they're here, they are training to do their job. Because of the intensity of that training and the long duration of training, there are opportunities for overuse injuries or acute injuries to occur."

The performance assessment and enhancement piece of the program analyzes Airmen's agility, upper and lower body power, front and back core strength, and anaerobic condition and recovery through National Football League combine-style tests. Once gathered, the test information is paired with the unit's historical injury data and matched with its mission-essential task list to come up with ways of maximizing performance.

"Here's the mission these Airmen need to perform," Wilson said. "How can their fitness program help bolster that? If they've got to kick a door open, then we need leg power. I don't need you to be able to do 150 burpees. I need you to be able to kick a door open and move through that building and kill bad guys."

After an Airman is hurt, the rehabilitation process is similar to one seen at a high-end college or professional sports program. It's also the same approach Air Force special operations forces use.

"We try to use an aggressive sports-medicine approach [when] rehabilitating injuries, which means we get them in as soon as they're hurt so an acute injury doesn't become chronic and take longer to heal," he said. "We use manual therapy such as joint manipulations, trigger-point dry needling, all the way up to our anti-gravity treadmill."

Tech. Sgt. Sean Gray, 822nd Base Defense Squadron flight sergeant for Alpha Flight, has been in the physical therapy program since November 2012. He tore three of his four left knee collateral ligaments and his meniscus while doing cut sprints and underwent surgery.

"I've had a lot of improvements," he said. "After the surgery, I couldn't bend my leg really at all. I was in a straight-leg immobilizer. With Dr. Wilson helping, we got it bent very fast. Before I was six weeks post operation, I was bending to 120 degrees with his assistance, which is actually pretty good."

Gray said he was told it'd take nine months to a year for him to get back to 100 percent and said it's important for him to recover as quickly as he can.

"First and foremost, I'm a security forces member," he explained. "Due to the fact that the nature of our job is to be on our feet, until I can get myself back proper, I am not combat effective."

What sets the 93d AGOW's physical therapy program apart from one typically seen at a medical group is the access Airmen have to Wilson. There's no receptionist or appointment hotline they need to call. Airmen can walk right into his office and tell Wilson what's bothering them.

This flexibility is largely based on the fact that Wilson only has about 800 Airmen to support versus the thousands a medical group facility provides care for. With a reduced potential-patient workload, he is allowed to be more hands on with patients.

"It's such a relief to be able to say, 'Today I'm going to spend nine hours at work, and I'm going to spend nine hours interacting with my Airmen,' and that's a real asset," he said. "[With] the number of patients they have to see at the medical group, you don't get a chance to break away and do injury prevention. You don't get a chance to break away and do site assessments and look at how people do their job. There are just not enough hours in a day."

One of the ways he gets hands on is by training with the 820th BDG and the different equipment they operate with. This firsthand observation gives him better ideas of ways to tailor his therapy to what his patients need, he said.

Being there in the mix with the Airmen also helps build rapport and can break the ice with someone who may be skeptical about what physical therapy can provide for them.

"It's great to get the commanders to buy in," Wilson explained. "But what I need is that staff sergeant or senior airman to say 'Yeah Dr. Wilson's going to help. He's not here to take you off jump status. He's not here to kick you out of the unit. He's here to get you back in the fight sooner.'"

Despite having its differences from a base medical clinic, the 93d AGOW's physical therapy program has a close relationship with the 23d Medical Group. Wilson supports the 23d MDG's physical therapy section as best he can whenever their therapist is out of the office. His venturing out to help others doesn't stop there though.

With the 93d AGOW being geographically separated through various units countrywide, Wilson has a unique opportunity to work with men and women outside of Moody. Next month, he will hold his first teleconference with the 3d and 18th Air Support Operations Groups to further provide assessment for their Airmen as well.

"With the miracles of the internet, what I can do now is train them how to gather the data," he said. "The hard part is interpreting the data. All they have to do is feed me the data electronically, and, then, I can work within the parameters that the commander gives me and give them advice on how to maybe add some components to their fitness program."

At the end of the day though, his first priority is caring for the men and women of the 820th BDG, something he doesn't take lightly at all.

"I found myself working harder in this duty position than I've ever worked as a therapist at a medical group," he said. "Even when I'm overworked and someone comes in and says, 'My knee's killing me, or my neck hurts,' I don't want to turn them away."