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Back pedaling: Command Chief's road to recovery after tragedy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kristen Pittman
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

“No one is immune to the challenges of life,” said Chief Master Sgt. Barbara J. Gilmore, 403rd Wing command chief. “And those challenges will most often come unexpectedly.”

Gilmore knows all too well the rigors of overcoming challenges; she has endured plenty over her 30-year career in the Air Force including being one of the first women to complete the Security Forces’ Phoenix Raven course.

She also pushes her limits outside of her office hours, conquering physical trials like the occasional 5K run or half-marathon, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane to skydive, and participating in the 26-mile Bataan Memorial Death March through desert terrain and conditions.

But like she said, challenges often come unexpectedly, and all of her military and life experience couldn’t prepare her for February 28, 2021, and the hurdles that she would have to figure out how to overcome over the next two years and beyond.

Gilmore, along with two of her friends, were participating as a team in a 72-hour expedition race called “Sea-to-Sea”. The race’s route took participants from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Spring Hill, Florida, to the Atlantic coastline in St. Augustine and was completed by a combination of biking and either kayaking or canoeing.

Gilmore had never done anything like this race before, so when Dr. (Capt.) Troy Manz, a fellow Airman serving in the Air National Guard at the time and a civilian doctor in his first year of residency, put the idea out on a group social media page inviting people to join him to participate in the race as a team, she scrolled past it.

“It wasn’t until later that Troy reached out to me directly asking me to join him and his fiancée,” she recalled. “They both had a certain perception of me and a confidence that I would be an asset to the team, so eventually I signed up.”

Living in Illinois at the time, the harsh mid-western winter did not allow much opportunity for Gilmore to work up her cycling endurance, so she said she was struggling out of the gate.

In addition to the physical struggle of willing her legs to continue pedaling, there were other factors that contributed to the challenge of completing the race.

“There were no lodging checkpoints or anything like that, you slept wherever you could find,” she explained. “The first night we decided to stop at a church that had some picnic tables on the grounds that we figured would be better than sleeping on the ground.”

Despite the exhaustion of a day’s worth of biking, sleep would not find Gilmore, and this became a trend throughout the race.

While the physical exhaustion and the sleep deprivation and the trials of maintaining team cohesiveness were prevalent throughout the race, she said that overall, it was still a good experience.

“We all had our moments of weakness, but each of us did really well in being there for each other, picking each other up and encouraging each other to keep moving forward,” she said.

While it was a worthwhile experience, by the time the final day rolled around, Gilmore was anxious to be finished. She still couldn’t sleep, and she wanted a shower and maybe a nap in a real bed before she had to catch her flight back home later that afternoon, so she woke up her teammates at the previously agreed upon time of 1:15 a.m.

Understandably, it took them a considerable amount of effort and time to rouse themselves from their slumber, but after a little over an hour later, they were back on the road.

In the cool, stillness of that Sunday morning, with around 16 miles left to go out of the nearly 300 they had pedaled and rowed already, the trio’s journey was ruptured as a vehicle collided with all three unsuspecting bicyclists.

“I laid on the side of the road after dragging myself from the middle white line, unable to move my legs,” she recalled. “I sized up the scene and tried to understand what had just happened.”

Immobilized, in shock, and bleeding, Gilmore could only watch as a bystander performed CPR on one of her teammates; her friend; her fellow service member. She felt she had escaped death when she shouldn’t have. Manz was not so lucky.

In an instant, what was supposed to be a fun, challenging, rewarding race weekend, turned into devastation and years of physical and mental anguish. Gilmore would start a new race that day on the road to recovery.

Physically, Gilmore was relatively unscathed. She would need physical therapy for the impact to her hip, and she suffered a mild traumatic brain injury resulting in persistent post-concussion syndrome which caused difficulties with memory loss, dizziness, brain fog, trouble falling asleep, noise sensitivity and headaches, but both of these injuries would improve over time.

Mentally, there was trauma, survivor’s guilt, constant fear that “death would come back to finish the job.”

As a senior noncommissioned officer 25-plus years into her career at this point, Gilmore said she had always emphasized to her Airmen and her peers that “it’s okay to not be okay” and that help was available to those who needed it. It was time she listened to her own advice.

“I struggled at first to find a mental health provider,” she said. “Everyone I would reach out to would be booked for months. Luckily the Director of Psychological Health at my unit at the time was able to see me and was able to refer me and get me in at a place where I could get the care I needed.”

Through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, Gilmore was able to build her coping skills and look forward to what her next chapter in life would read like.

“I had initially planned to retire after my time as command chief of the 932nd (Airlift Wing) came to an end,” she said. “But after losing Troy who I had served alongside, who had such a heart for service and was so proud of what he did, I wanted to continue in his honor.”

So, Gilmore searched for opportunities, putting her name in the hat for the command chief position with the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base.

As command chief, Gilmore is an advisor to the wing commander acting on behalf of the 403rd Wing’s enlisted force while also ensuring implementation of the commander’s priorities and expectations within the enlisted ranks.

“In her time here, she has been the epitome of a wingman and has been outstanding in leading our enlisted force and really our entire wing,” said Col. Stuart Rubio, 403rd Wing commander. “She’s been a great voice to advocate on behalf of the Airmen.”

Rubio commended her willingness and desire to continue serving despite all of the physical and mental health hurdles she undoubtedly faced. 

“She is an outstanding example of understanding where your limits are and being willing and confident enough to get help when needed,” he said. “That is what allowed her to come back and continue serving as opposed to other people who might have, understandably, called it quits.”

Two years later, the events of that February morning still impact Gilmore’s life, but she has persevered, sought help when she needed it, balancing the need to make sure she is okay and seeing to the needs of her unit’s enlisted force.  

She finally willed herself to purchase a new bike in October 2022, a process that proved to be quite emotionally taxing, only for the bike to sit unused. A couple months later, she took the next step by buying a new helmet. It collected dust with the bike for a time.

“On the second anniversary of the incident, I faced my fear,” she said. “I strapped on my helmet and got back on that bike. It was a lot emotionally, but also it was freeing. This was one thing that incident wouldn’t take from me.”

Gilmore was wary of cycling on a road, but with the support of two of her fellow wingmen, she was empowered to complete six miles on the quiet neighborhood streets of Bay St. Louis.

She credits the military resources available to her, her family, and her military family for leading her to that milestone of getting on the bike.

“Take time to get to know your teammates,” she urged. “Find a mentor, become a mentor and never underestimate your impact and influence on someone else, you could be the reason they don’t quit. As I near the end of my time with the 403rd Wing, I want to thank you for being my reason.”