Christina Truesdale: Army, life, balance

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SC Featured: Finding hope through Warrior Games (6:53)

Jon Stewart profiles U.S. Army Major Christina Truesdale and her new-found hope through adaptive sports and the Warrior Games. (6:53)

It was a glimpse of light in the darkest period.

It happened about a year ago, shortly after Christina Truesdale, a U.S. Army major, flight surgeon and veterinarian, learned she was 100 percent disabled, as declared by the Army's medical board. Complicated back problems that defied surgical repair, along with permanent neurological damage, meant she could not remain on active duty. Truesdale was about to enter the Warrior Transition Battalion for seriously injured soldiers, which depressed her. Like so many career servicemen and servicewomen in similar predicaments, she hated leaving the military on someone else's terms.

"I wasn't given a choice. The medical board was pretty adamant about me getting out. I felt like a complete and utter failure." Christina Truesdale

"I wasn't given a choice," she said. "The medical board was pretty adamant about me getting out. I felt like a complete and utter failure."

Stationed at Fort Benning and living in adjacent Columbus, Georgia, with her cat, George, Truesdale felt alone and miserable. One night, determined to get out of her house, she walked to a nearby sushi bar she liked for dinner. Inside, glancing up at a television, something caught her eye: track and field highlights from the Warrior Games, with amputee runners competing on Oscar Pistorius-type blades.

Truesdale had never heard of the Warrior Games, the Olympics-like sporting competition for military personnel with combat injuries, illness or psychological issues.

"I knew right away they were para-athletes," Truesdale said. "I'm like, is this the Paralympics? Then I saw [it was] the Warrior Games, and I'm like, what's that? So I started looking it up on the internet. I didn't know the Warrior Games pipeline was through the Warrior Transition Unit."

Not until the fall, after a few weeks in the battalion, did Truesdale make the connection. A former triathlete who also loved showing horses, Truesdale dove in.

Track was out because of her injuries. But cycling, air pistol, air rifle and archery she could handle. Though she never picked up a bow until a few months ago, Truesdale, 40, qualified for the Warrior Games (June 1-9) in all four disciplines, arriving at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as an eager competitor. To John Owsiak, her physical therapist at Fort Benning, that's a triumph in itself.

"She has an internal drive and an intestinal fortitude I've seen in few people ... There is an internal drive in this woman that is just incredible. There is a determination for success that I see in very few people." John Owsiak, a physical therapist

"She has an internal drive and an intestinal fortitude I've seen in few people," he said. "She is somebody that when she commits, she's going to follow it through to completion. There is an internal drive in this woman that is just incredible. There is a determination for success that I see in very few people."

Truesdale landed in the Army almost by chance. Originally from Jefferson City, Missouri, she attended Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State) intending to be a veterinarian. Needing a physical education elective her freshman year, she chose non-obligatory ROTC, which met once a week for paintball. That sounded like more fun than the other phys ed option, a five-days-a-week class at 7:30 a.m.

She never knew the Army had veterinarians until an ROTC officer recruited her to be one. The daughter of a Marine, Truesdale signed on for four years of ROTC, which paid for her undergraduate schooling. Then she earned an Army full-ride scholarship to veterinary school -- a huge relief.

"The veterinary profession, we have the highest debt load and some of the lowest starting salaries," she said. "And I really wanted to serve because I had seen my father serve."

Watching 9/11 unfold on television during her second year of vet school influenced Truesdale to do more. Assigned to a clinic at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, Truesdale volunteered to go to the Middle East. Soon she was off to California's Fort Bragg for training. She deployed twice to Iraq (in civil affairs, then with a veterinary unit) and finally to Afghanistan, after being recruited into a Special Operations airborne unit. The latter required parachute training; Truesdale qualified as a Jumpmaster, the premier level.

But after years of jumping, Truesdale began experiencing excruciating back pain. Doctors found a large, benign tumor at the base of her spine too sizable and entangled in nerves to remove. Truesdale made light of the tumor, nicknaming it Linda, but the problems it caused defied easy solution. Surgery to reduce the tumor and remove half her sacrum came with complications -- spinal fluid leakage, plus a mini-stroke -- that required a second, emergency back surgery, which also resulted in a mini-stroke.

Still in pain, Truesdale wasn't sure she could resume the activities she loved. Months passed. Physical therapy brought gradual improvement but not relief. She couldn't turn her head to the right or feel anything in her left foot. And occasionally, intense crippling pain brought her to her knees.

Asking for help wasn't easy for someone who prided herself on her independence. But Truesdale learned to lean on her closest friend, Claire Kirsch, a horse owner and riding instructor who cooked for her, ran errands, fed kitty George and took her to the horse barn to hang out and clean bridles.

George died last August -- he was 18 -- and Truesdale adopted two rescue cats that Kirsch cares for when Truesdale is away.

"She's one of these people that's always there," Truesdale said. "She had to deal with me in my worst, darkest hours."

Qualifying for Warrior Games helped bring Truesdale out of the dark. Owsiak, a civilian, met Truesdale as the head of adaptive reconditioning for Fort Benning's Warrior Transition Battalion.

"When they first come in, I kind of find out medically what's going on with the individual, any interests they have -- stuff they used to do and don't think they can do any more, or things that they've never tried that they might want to try, like scuba diving or something like that," he said. "I then look at any precautions they have, things they might not be able to do. Then we look at the list of activities that we offer.

"If I pick up even the slightest considered edge, I try to talk to them about, hey, we've got games and things here, to try to get people involved. It didn't take Christina long to be involved. She was hungry for something. You could see it in her eyes, though she didn't realize it at the time."

The Warrior Games feature recumbent and upright bike events, but Truesdale insisted on riding the upright racing bike from her triathlon days. Owsiak wasn't sure she could handle it with half a sacrum and no feeling in her left foot. He also knew she couldn't walk from the parking lot to his office without being winded. But Truesdale quickly proved him wrong.

"The day that I actually got back on, and I was able to clip in, and go on a bike ride, I felt like a human again," she said.

Owsiak marveled at her determination.

"She could feel her body position in space through her knee joint, hip joint, and through the muscles, even though she couldn't feel it in her foot," he said. "It was quite amazing she was able to do that. And she trusted herself an awful lot."

Extensive shooting training from her Special Ops days helped Truesdale adjust quickly to air rifle and air pistol. Archery, however, posed a challenge. Besides her back issues, Truesdale suffered from an autoimmune disease, Hashimoto's, that attacks the thyroid and saps energy. And she had so little upper body strength that Owsiak started her off on a lightweight bow for teenagers.

"It was funny to watch," he said. "She had five years of pretty intense firearms training, and every bit of that showed up the first time she had the bow in her hand. When she picked up that bow and drew that arrow back, that very, very first time, all that instruction she had with shooting weaponry fell into place. It was incredible. I swear I was looking at a professional, standing alongside her.

"She shot the arrow and it hit down near the target. You could hear her go, 'Huh.' She shot another arrow. By the time she shot her third arrow, she was giggling like a kid and smiling. It's the first time I had seen that. From then, I could tell -- she was hooked."

Truesdale offered her take on archery.

"I fell in love with it the first time I tried it," she said. "It's a good fit as a sport for me. Very relaxing. A mind sport, though there's a physical component to it."

While training, Truesdale overcame additional obstacles. She was bitten on both legs by a dog in November, three weeks before regional trials at Fort Benning. Then 2½ weeks before the Army Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, in March, she suffered a concussion when a driver running a red light slammed into her and another cyclist on their bikes. Pressing on, Truesdale won two trials cycling golds. And she discovered that being active lessens the intensity and frequency of her back pain.

"She's a tough lady," said Owsiak, part of the Army medical support team at the Warrior Games. "It's all about goal setting with her. We set the goal of shooting in the unit trials, the lowest level. She got there and did it. Then it was the regionals. Her self-confidence wasn't really up there, but she's like, 'I'm going to do it.' And she did and got selected to go on. Lo and behold, look where she is now."

In Colorado Springs, competing against the best for medals.

And the Army already has selected her for the Invictus Games, the British version of the Warrior Games, this October in Sydney, Australia.

It's quite a difference from the dark place of just a year ago.

"I have put so much heart and time into this," she said. "No, I don't feel completely ready. I'm trying not to play the comparison game, because there's always going to be someone who rides faster than you do or shoots better than you do. You can't worry about it.

"I think I'm extremely competitive, and I will at least medal in some of them, if not all of them. Team Army, we're got a pretty stacked team this year."