Wounded warrior returns to run for AF after injury

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - This week, a 96th Test Wing Airman will run for the Air Force at the 2023 Warrior Games.  The competition marks a return to the sport she’s loved all her life and on a bad day in March 2021, almost killed her.

Staff Sgt. Teri Charles, 96th Force Support Squadron, had a rough day at work.  Disagreements and conflicts pushed the Personnel Airman to seek out her main stress-reliever, a long run.  Charles, an avid and competitive runner before joining the military, continued the activity throughout her Air Force career.

At the end of two miles, the day’s problems drifted a bit and she began to relax.  On her run back home, she was running in the grass along Lewis Turner Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach.  A noise made her glance over her left shoulder and that’s the last thing Charles said she remembers.

She’d been hit in the shoulder and arm by a pick-up truck’s rearview mirror.  The impact tore the mirror off the truck and threw Charles to the ground.  She struggled in and out of consciousness until arriving at the hospital.  She was able to contact her spouse and her family was with her at the scene.

“I remember the EMT hurting my hand so bad, because that’s the only part of my body I could feel anything,” the 38-year-old mother said.  “I also remember hearing my daughter’s voice momentarily.”

The next few hours at the Fort Walton Beach intensive care unit were a blur of people and procedures.  Once awake and in bed, Charles continually cried fearing she may be paralyzed.  She said she was relieved when feeling came back into her feet and she could wiggle her toes.

The accident left Charles with a traumatic brain injury, memory loss, herniated discs and ongoing left shoulder and arm issues.

Adapting to her new circumstances pushed her toward anxiety and depression and the injuries removed the outlet she used most for stress relief, running.

She began physical therapy, but she said the process was exhausting.  She was also raising a toddler in the middle her recovery.

“A two-year-old doesn’t understand that Mommy is not well,” said the 13-year Airman, who joined the Air Force for education and travel.

After six weeks, Charles returned to work and went on the waitlist for the Intrepid Spirit Center.  Once there in July 2021, Charles said she benefitted from the one-on-one and specific TBI care.  She said the ISC staff helped her understand what was happening inside her head and best of all, how to cope with those issues when confronted by them.

During her ISC therapy, Charles began jogging again using the tracks and trails on base.  She said running along the road or sidewalk in the day time was terrifying.  Around the same time, Charles learned about and then joined the Air Force Wounded Warrior program. 

Charles attended her first AFW2 care event in May 2022.  It didn’t start well.  Upon arrival, Charles said the experience overwhelmed her and she had an anxiety attack and completely shut down.  It was the introduction to AFW2’s adaptive sports that brought her around and created a new path on her recovery journey.

The NCO said the discovery of all the various sports, the trainers and new friends became a real light in her life.  Only five months later, she attended her second AFW2 care event in November 2022.  Here, she excelled in the adaptive sports, particularly her favorites, the track and field events. 

After that event, the AFW2 team invited Charles to the team trials in February 2023.  At the trials, athletes compete to make the Air Force team that will face other military services at the Warrior Games.

“It was very exciting and exhilarating,” said the Airman from, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  “To have someone who believes in you even if at times you don’t believe in yourself, means a lot.”

Charles said she gave everything she had during the trials and when the track and field coaches announced the selections, they called her name first.

It was really one of my proudest moments,” she said smiling broadly.  “I lost a lot of happiness due to my injury.  I never saw myself ever making a team or representing the Air Force this way.” 

The Airman, who fell to her lowest life point while running and almost left the service because of the injuries sustained, stood ready to represent the Air Force in competition in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races as well as six other events: power lifting, rowing, archery, sitting volleyball, and wheelchair rugby.

“I learned its okay to fall because the comeback is going to be greater and it has been. I look at my journey with the wounded warriors as a way to teach myself and others,” said Charles, who was recently asked to be an AFW2 ambassador and share her recovery story with others. 

As the Warrior Games draw near, Charles said she’s trying to tamp down her excitement and control her competitive nature and unleash it on the track.  Once there, she said the switch will flip and she’ll be ready to run once again.

The Warrior Games take place June 2 -12, 2023.