|Charonda Taylor worked as an intelligence analyst in Qatar and Iraq.|
When Charonda Taylor was in the Air Force, she received numerous awards and decorations for outstanding performance. But when she returned to civilian life, she faced several unexpected challenges with her health and well-being.
In 1999, Taylor enlisted in the Air Force because she wanted to give back to her country.
She was deployed twice, working as an intelligence analyst in Qatar and Iraq. “Once we deployed, it was game face on. We didn’t have time to think much about home. I had to keep my aircrew alive and that was my focus,” she explained.
When she returned home, Taylor’s readjustment to civilian life was difficult. “My family was the first to recognize that I was not the same person. I was flying off the handle, yelling at the TV or crying over silly things,” she said.
Her back and joint pain, which began when she was deployed in Iraq, continued to get worse. Once an avid basketball and volleyball player, she was now having difficulty walking and required a cane. Acknowledging her problems was not easy at first. “I was feeling helpless, hopeless and like my life would never improve. But it occurred to me that I needed to do whatever it takes to get better.”
Taylor made the decision to reach out and ask for the help she needed. With the support of her family, she contacted the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom coordinator at the Wilmington, Del., VA Medical Center. She started therapy and medication, which helped with her symptoms, but she knew there was still a long road ahead.
|Charonda regularly participates in aqua aerobics as part of her WRIISC roadmap to recovery from injuries.|
Putting the Puzzle Back Together
She received a referral to the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) in East Orange, N.J., where she was hoping to get some of the answers she needed and learn what she could do to help herself. Taylor was struck by the comprehensiveness of her evaluation at the WRIISC, and that the team of clinicians looked at “the whole picture,” by asking questions about her entire medical history. Taylor appreciated getting specific recommendations on what she could do to improve her quality of life.
Taylor met with a team of clinicians who kept her from feeling overwhelmed and helped her better understand the plan she received. She recalled, “I really liked getting the WRIISC ‘roadmap,’ which included tips on exercise including aqua aerobics, along with healthy eating and stress reduction techniques. I felt like I was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
That roadmap has also helped Taylor follow through and implement a number of changes that have helped improve her overall quality of life.
Lisa Pickett, a WRIISC social worker, spoke with Taylor periodically to check on her progress after her visit to the WRIISC. “A year ago, when I met with Charonda, her goal was to make it through the day. It is remarkable how this young woman has worked so hard to achieve her goal in all aspects of her psychosocial well-being.”
Enjoying Life Again
Today, Taylor still has her good days and bad days, but her health is much improved. She is no longer walking with a cane and finds enjoyment in her day-to-day activities. She’s active in her church, loves to sing and feels like her family has grown closer. She even has a role in helping other returning Veterans cope with the readjustment process.
She now serves as a military and Veteran constituent advocate for U.S. Senator Ted Kaufmann of Delaware and is responsible for addressing constituent concerns. Taylor believes her own military experience has given her a unique perspective, enabling her to better relate to and advocate for other Veterans in need.
“I feel grateful and honored to be in this position,” she says. “I can talk to Veterans as a Veteran who understands the system, which enables me to better advocate and assist them.”
When asked what advice she would give to Veterans about life after deployment, she advises, “Deal with whatever issues you have, no matter how difficult they are to confront. There are resources out there, and it’s up to you to take advantage of them. Do whatever you have to do to advocate for yourself. Approach the mission to be healthy with the same energy you approached your military life and combat.”
By Megan Tyson, VA Staff Writer and Melissa Blatt, WRIISC