JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas– Air Force Instruction 90-506, which establishes the requirements for Comprehensive Airman Fitness to enhance the resilience of individuals, families and communities, defines resilience as “the ability to withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors and changing demands.”
Overcoming their trials and tribulations of the past 15 years, Maj. Thomas Lessner, who serves the 39th Flying Training Squadron reserve unit as assistant director of operations, and his wife, Kathleen, a Michigan State University ROTC graduate and former Air Force pilot, serve as models of resilience.
Lessner, an Air Force Academy graduate who piloted three different weapons systems while on active duty during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, was shot down in his MH-53 helicopter on an OIF mission in April 2004, sustaining shrapnel wounds to his legs, left shoulder, neck and face, and subsequently fought the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kathleen faced two battles with cancer early in their relationship: thyroid cancer in 2002 and a tumor in the back of her head in late 2003. Following the birth of their daughter, Dottie, last year, she suffered from post-partum depression.
Despite their personal struggles, their marriage has strengthened and endured.
“I really think we’re both just extremely stubborn and I think we work really hard,” Lessner said. “We have pretty good communication between the two of us and we constantly talk about priorities.”
Kathleen and Lessner met in 2000 during pilot training at Fort Rucker, Ala., and were married three years later. But while they were stationed at two different bases in 2002, Kathleen was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“Once I was actually able to comprehend what was going on, I would kind of share with Thomas that I was scared and that I was sad,” she said. “We’d kind of spend a lot of time just holding each other. I was fortunate. It was thyroid cancer, so it’s a very curable cancer.”
When she received her second cancer diagnosis, Kathleen initially decided not to tell her husband, who was deployed at the time.
“I didn’t want to burden him, so I wasn’t going to even tell him I was getting treated,” she said.
Her support structure at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., where she was stationed, helped sustain her during this time, Kathleen said.
“You know you’re not alone in anything,” she said. “As soon as you know you’re not by yourself, it helps.”
Lessner’s brush with death occurred April 12, 2004, near Fallujah, Iraq, when the MH-53 helicopter he was piloting was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during the first of his crew’s three missions that night.
Lessner felt the concussion of the grenade’s explosion in the middle of the instrument panel, describing the feeling as “getting hit in the face with a baseball bat and being covered with mud.” His co-pilot was struck in the arms and legs, and the engineer suffered a severe injury when a huge piece of shrapnel punctured the globe of his left eye.
Lessner managed to accomplish an emergency landing, which helped to save the aircrew and six special forces members. The team then hurried to a location about 100 yards from the aircraft before the crew of another MH-53 rescued them while battling small arms fire and dodging RPGs.
Lessner was ordered to undergo therapy for PTSD after his hospital stay, but he only went to a few appointments, which he viewed in retrospect as a mistake.
“I was physically broken and mentally broken,” he said. “I developed a lot of really negative life choices and I had to rebuild my life.”
Both Lessner and Kathleen have worked to build resilience with a combination of diet, exercise and counseling, as well as their support of each other. Their marriage is characterized by constant communication and the ability to reach consensus on the decisions they face.
As group exercise instructors, physical activity plays an important role for them.
“We physically exert ourselves, and that’s a huge stress reliever,” Lessner said. “That really does wonders for our relationship because we are physically and mentally better because of our physical activity.”
Despite their many comebacks, the Lessners’ resilience is being tested again.
In a matter of days, Dottie, who is just shy of her first birthday, will undergo surgery in a Dallas hospital for coronal craniosynostosis, the premature fusion of the bones on the front left side of her skull.
Kathleen knew early on something was wrong because of the shape of her daughter’s head. Her suspicion led to weeks of research.
“The doctors wouldn’t listen to me right away, and so I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing,” she said. “Finally, at her three-month appointment I said, ‘Look, I want her evaluated,’ and they humored me and evaluated her.”
Kathleen said she panicked, fearing her daughter’s condition would affect her developmentally, but the doctor they chose for the procedure to repair and reconstruct her skull told her to calm down and reassured her.
“He looked at me and said find something else to obsess about, because this is not it,” she said. “This is fixable, and most of the kids that had delays, they had delays before surgery, and once the surgery happened, their delays went away, which was encouraging.”
Having a good support structure has enabled them to open up, cry and talk through it, Kathleen said.
But as they face their latest trial, the Lessners will again depend on their resilience and family.
“We’ve been lucky that we have great family support and the support of each other,” Lessner said.