By Courtesy Writer: Abigail Kinder, Northern Sentry, Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
/ Published June 17, 2021
On the surface, TSgt. Nicole Albritton is your typical Airman. She works as a Fleet Management and Analysis Noncommissioned Officer in Charge for the 5th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. She enjoys running in her free time, and she is a hard-working, dedicated individual. But underneath all of that, Albritton is a Wounded Warrior who battles daily with a medical mystery that has turned her life upside down.
In the summer of 2019, Albritton was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “It took a lot of testing. It took four hospitals and eight MRIs to find the tumor—that’s how tiny it is, and it caused a lot of issues,” she said. While her Air Force career was able to continue, Albritton found herself with an entirely new set of challenges to navigate.
After being diagnosed with the tumor, medical professionals immediately referred Albritton to a recovery care coordinator for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. “I had no idea what the program was. Everybody hears wounded warrior and they think Wounded Warrior Project, and this is not that,” she explained.
The Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, or AFW2, is a Congressionally-mandated program that focuses on care and recovery for wounded, ill, and injured Airmen, Veterans, and their families. The program offers a variety of opportunities and resources to help participants navigate their difficult life changes through adaptive sports, ambassador programs, care events, caregiver training, and wellness and resiliency classes.
“They want us to be returned to duty, so when we’re going through this, they’re another avenue to help us through the legal and medical system and help us get some of the care we need because a lot of people don’t understand what it is to be sick,” Albritton said. She decided to pursue two different tracks in AFW2: adaptive sports and becoming an ambassador.
“I became an ambassador in order to tell my story because my story is so wild. I dealt with bullying because of it being invisible. I would never want to see somebody else in my position, so I can use my platform to make sure that nobody else has to go through what I did.”
Albritton is open about her medical journey and hopes that her story will encourage others to find a new perspective on not only being sick but properly handling situations with the Wounded Warriors around them. “People just don’t know, because we’re trying to function as active duty members,” she said. “We understand that you’re probably frustrated, because we have a lot of doctor’s appointments or maybe our performance is slipping, but just imagine how frustrated we are. We have to relearn a completely different way of life and it’s frustrating and tempers are going to flare, so just be patient, be kind, and realize you’re not the subject matter expert. All we’re asking for people to do is understand that we’re going through massive life changes and we need somebody to sit by us and be like ‘it’s okay, we’re here.’ No judgement, just be here for us.”
For Albritton, her illness affected more than just her work life. “Everything I had worked hard for and everything I had loved was stripped away from me. Previous to me getting sick, I was a runner. I haven’t been able to run since I got sick, which is massive,” she said. But Albritton didn’t let the illness stop her from pursuing her passion. Through AFW2, she was able to join the adaptive sports program and is now one of 45 Airmen who will be participating in the Department of Defense Warrior Games in September 2021.
The DoD Warrior Games is an annual adaptive sports competition that celebrates the resiliency and dedication of America’s Wounded Warriors. Teams from each service branch compete in events such as wheelchair basketball, cycling, indoor rowing, wheelchair track, powerlifting and more. 2021’s event will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort, Fla.
This year’s Warrior Games will be Albritton’s true comeback story. “The last race that I participated in was the 2018 Wine and Dine Half Marathon Series at Walt Disney World. I saw the announcement that [the Warrior Games were] going to be at Disney and it was a sign. But I didn’t know it I was going to make the team this year because it’s very competitive.”
Through her persistence and with the support of her leadership here at Minot AFB, Albritton was able to qualify for the Air Force’s Warrior Games team and will be competing in wheelchair track, cycling and shooting. “I was blown away and in tears when I found out,” she said. “I didn’t even think I would get this far. I shocked myself that I made it this year; this was my first year!”
“There are so many sports and it’s so cool to see the athletes overcoming their physical, mental, and health barriers to compete in all of these things. They take everybody down to this common factor to make sure that everybody can play.”
AFW2’s adaptive sports program offers world class coaches, some of whom have competed in the multi-national Invictus Games, to their recovering Airmen in preparation for the Warrior Games. While Albritton can’t be sure about what her future holds, she plans to continue in adaptive sports and hopes to one day make it to the Invictus Games to represent Team US.
Albritton’s indomitable spirit and passion for the Wounded Warrior Program keeps her going through the highs and lows of her life battling an invisible illness. “You would look at me and you would never know what I deal with on a daily basis. I, from the outside, look like a normal human being. You don’t know that I have a brain tumor or that I’m half blind in one of my eyes. There are a plethora of other issues. I’ve worked my [butt] off to be healing, but I’m still a medical mystery. I’m still stumping doctors left and right, but at the same time I’m still putting in the work to try to get healthy. It’s just a matter of staying on top of it because it’s what I have to do; there are no other options.”
“[AFW2] saved my life, and I can’t thank this program enough and that’s why I became an ambassador for them. It’s a wonderful program on every aspect of healing and having a team that completely understands what you’re going through.”
Each and every day, Wounded Warriors walk among us. Whether they are a member of your squadron, one of your leaders, your neighbor, or even yourself, every Warrior plays an integral role in the community and the mission. They continually represent the strength and resilience of the USAF.
To learn more about AFW2, visit www.woundedwarrior.af.mil. For more information on the DoD Warrior Games, go to www.dodwarriorgames.com.