Warrior Games 2013: Track and field star has ‘wings on her back’

by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Midway through retired Tech. Sgt. Katie Robinson’s first track and field practice at the Air Force Warrior Games training camp, she pulled out a pair of butterfly wings from her workout bag and strapped them to her back. The wings were both comedy relief and a symbol of the dramatic change several fellow wounded warriors noticed in her personality from her first Warrior Games last year.

“She’s a little jokester, which is great because from what I understand, she was a little reserved last year,” said Capt. Ben Payne, first year track coach. “But Katie doesn’t have any reservations about being herself this year, either on the track or with the team. She makes it fun and goes out there and gives her all at everything she’s doing competition-wise and makes everyone feel comfortable. She’ll bring the butterfly wings out, and she’ll bring out some laughs on the track.”

The wings or the laughter don’t hide that Robinson still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from her injury while deployed as a combat camera videographer in Iraq in 2007. She only competed in her first Warrior Games in 2012 because of her friend and fellow wounded warrior, retired Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall.

Wounded Warrior Katie Robinson prepares to swim a lap at the U.S. Air Force Academy pool.

“Last year, I had a lot of meltdowns at the games,” Robinson said. “I had to leave a couple of the competitions I wasn’t in just because of the noise and the people. But I lost it when I saw the amputees swimming. They took me to my mother who was in the stands, and I cried uncontrollably for about five minutes. I told her, ‘It’s so sad. Everything is so sad.’”

Robinson’s almost 20 years of military service includes stints as a crane operator, truck driver and military police officer in the Arizona Army National Guard and as a cook and videographer in the Arizona Air National Guard before she joined the Air Force Reserve and the 4th Combat Camera Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, Calif. On her second deployment while documenting combat operations with the Army in Iraq, she was shot through her arm and lost the tip of her right thumb. Her Sony camera is in a combat camera exhibit at the U.S. Enlisted Heritage Hall at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex, Ala.

One thing that has changed is Robinson ability to recognize many of the triggers that can launch her into full-fledged depression. She compensates for the biggest one – winter – by travelling. The last place she wants to be when the weather turns cold is home in Detroit. So leading into this year’s Games, Robinson had back-to-back trips with friends in Costa Rica and Mexico. She calls it her “outrunning the crazy” tour or perhaps vacation therapy.

“It gets me through the winter, and I don’t think about giving up,” Robinson said. “Once the flowers and trees start blooming, it’s nice, and I can work in my yard, but winter is really hard for me. I plan on going (to Florida) for a month or two because I don’t want to get back in that dark place where I think about giving up. I’ve always maintained a sense of hope that things are going to get better, but the thing about relapse that is very frustrating is I will be doing great, then something will happen, and I will have a setback. So I’ve put together what I call my own little treatment plan and support system, but I haven’t really mastered it yet. Right now, I guess it’s still about survival. I’ll keep traveling until the money runs out, or I find a better solution.”

So until she masters her own PTSD treatment plan, Robinson plans to keep trying to find the figurative wings that will help her outrun the damage the trauma left in her psyche. Being around her fellow athletes and wounded warriors helps, because she doesn’t have the same support system at home in Detroit. But for right now, she’s focused on doing her best in track and swimming and the time with her teammates.

“To pinpoint exactly how this event has helped my recovery, I think I’m able to tolerate people more,” Robinson said. “I’m spending more time outside of my room and talking to people than I did last year. Stacy’s not here this year, so I had to make new friends. I think what’s important to me is having a connection to other people and to something bigger than yourself. When you’re not in the military anymore, you don’t have the same purpose, and it’s hard to find a new purpose. Being around people who are like me helps. Not everybody has the same injuries, but there are a lot of people who do, and that is enough.”

PHOTO: Katie Robinson checks her form before swimming a lap at the Academy indoor pool during the Wounded Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 17, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree Palacios)

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Warrior Games 2013: Track and field star has ‘wings on her back’