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Airman fights back after traumatic brain injury

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The work day is over and a master sergeant climbs on his  motorcycle and takes off. He’s looking forward to the one-hour ride home. A smile covers his face as he thinks about seeing his wife of 12 years and two children.

However, he will soon not have much to smile about. At speeds nearing 60 mph approximately 38 miles from home, he will crash on Interstate 80 near exit 66 in Dixon, California. The crash will knock him unconscious, break the clavicle and scapula in his left shoulder and every rib on the left side of his body.

The date was October 2, 2015 and Master Sgt. James Stalnaker, then the flight chief of enlisted accessions for the 364th Recruiting Squadron in Vallejo, California, was riding his motorcycle home like he’s done many times before.

“I was riding in the middle lane because I-80 is always congested in that area and the middle lane left me with options in case something happens,” said Stalnaker.

One of the cars traveling in the left lane braked suddenly and started to merge into the middle lane.

“There were cars in the left and right lanes so I couldn’t go left or right,” said Stalnaker.

He scanned the area trying to find a way to avoid colliding with the car. He soon realized there was no escape and braced himself for impact.

“I didn’t want to hit his car at 60 mph so I hit the brakes as hard as I could without causing the bike to lose control,” said Stalnaker. “My bike hit the rear passenger corner of his car.”

Stalnaker fell with his motorcycle on his left side and slid for an unknown amount of time and distance down the interstate losing consciousness along the way. The car traveling behind Stalnaker before the crash stopped less than 10 feet from hitting him.

When he awoke, the man who slammed into his bike was standing over him.

“He probably thought he killed me,” said Stalnaker. “He said he was sorry that he didn’t see me and he was as white as a ghost. I felt sorry for him because I’ve never seen someone so white in my life.”

After Stalnaker regained consciousness, he moved his bike to the side of the highway. He soon learned the driver of the car that hit him was a doctor who began assessing his injuries.

“I couldn’t have asked to be hit by a better person,” Stalnaker said with a smile.

The crash resulted in numerous injuries, including a concussion and an injured spleen. Stalnaker was rushed to a hospital in Vacaville, California, where he spent the next day undergoing evaluations and treatments.

At the time, doctors failed to find the broken ribs that were causing Stalnaker an overwhelming amount of pain. An MRI was not conducted so doctors also failed to diagnose him with a concussion.

About two weeks after the accident, Stalnaker said he felt like he was in much more pain than he should be. He went to see his doctor at David Grant USAF Medical Center who informed him his pain was caused by broken ribs.

Around that same time frame, Stalnaker noticed something else was wrong.

“I would try to work or decipher things or have conversations with people and I would spend extra time searching for words,” he said. “I couldn’t maintain the conversation. I didn’t have the mental attentiveness I normally would, and I couldn’t focus on things for very long. I would get very angry. I’d hear an audible sound from a fan and that would drive me to a point where I wanted to hurt someone…because I couldn’t deal with it.”

Stalnaker also noticed problems at home.

“I was having difficulty communicating with my wife and kids and family members in general,” said Stalnaker. “At the time, my father-in-law was battling brain cancer so we spent a lot of time with family often with 10 or more people at a time. Things would get loud and I couldn’t deal with it and that wasn’t me.”

Realizing he needed help, Stalnaker contacted the Mental Health Clinic at DGMC.

“Once I spoke to the doctors at mental health and explained what I was dealing with they referred me to neurology for more testing,” he said. “I was diagnosed with post-concussive symptoms. They did a brain scan and found I suffered a traumatic brain injury.”

The TBI caused Stalnaker many problems, including memory loss and severe headaches.

“If you told me you needed something a year from now, I wouldn’t have to write it down. I would know. I don’t have that capability now and I still have lapses in memory,” he said.

He’s also had a headache every day since his accident. As of March 21, that’s one headache every day for the past 537 days. These headaches often make Stalnaker so sick he vomits, an average of three times per week causing him to lose 35 pounds.

He’s completed three months of speech therapy to re-establish the connections in his brain so he can find and use the words he wants to when he needs them. He’s also completed nine months of physical therapy, undergone shoulder surgery and will eventually have surgery on his sternoclavicular joint, one of four joints that compose the shoulder complex.

Given everything Stalnaker has been through, he still finds a reason to smile; a reason to keep fighting to get back to the man he was…his family.

“Being there for my wife and children has been the biggest focus for me,” he said. “I love them. The biggest thing for a father or a husband is you want your family to look up to you, to see that you can go through struggles and life’s tribulations and not allow those things to stop you. It’s a pride thing.”

Especially for his children, Stalnaker added.

“My kids are a puzzle of me so when I teach or show them something, I lose a piece of me to put their puzzle together,” he said. “In the end their puzzle will get bigger and mine will get smaller so, eventually, they’ll have everything of me.”

Today, Stalnaker serves as the assistant accessories flight chief with the 60th Maintenance Squadron and he’s responsible for leading 121 Airmen across three different specialties.

Lt. Col. Claudio Covacci, 60th MXS commander, said Stalnaker is a role model.

“Stalnaker is a true demonstration of resiliency that’s inspirational to others,” Covacci said. “He’s a remarkable person and an extraordinary Airman. Overcoming adversity isn’t easy, but with enough determination you can achieve amazing things. Stalnaker embodies that.”

In January, Stalnaker became a master resiliency training instructor and now teaches Airmen across Travis Air Force Base, California, how they can enhance their resiliency skills.

“I figured if my story could help someone, than I should share it,” said Stalnaker. “My biggest message is with mental health. Unfortunately, it can get a bad rap. I want people to see that you can still be a productive member of the Air Force and not get in trouble by seeking help. In fact, it’s made me more productive because they’ve given me tools to help me.”

Stalnaker also wants airmen to understand, no matter what they may be dealing with, they can get through it.

“Find your strength or your will to push through, everything’s not all bad,” he said. “Often it’s what you think of it. If you think it’s bad, it’ll be bad. But if you can find your silver lining, then you can find good in nearly anything. It’s a mindset. I wake up every day with a smile on my face ready to go. I can stub my toe on the way to the shower and that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t define my day. My enthusiasm defines my day, not one given moment.”

To date, Stalnaker has taught several resiliency classes at Travis and shared his story with more than 700 airmen.

“I tell my airmen, ‘you have a part of me, my name is attached to you,’” he said. “I’ve always been a firm believer that my airmen will either be outstanding or out-processing, so I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they’re outstanding.”