One of the greatest strengths of a talented musician is often their memory, but for retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Bill Bjornes – who served nearly 25 years as a trumpet player in both the Army and Air Force – the onset of a rare autoimmune disease in 2006 put that strength, along with his goals and passions, in jeopardy.
Bill began to notice severe memory problems, as well as trouble with his vision and balance, causing him to be misdiagnosed with everything from Dementia to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). But after moving to Offutt Air Force Base in 2009, Bill was put under the care of not only a top-notch medical team but the vice commander of the hospital, all of whom committed to nailing down a diagnosis.
In 2009, with his symptoms progressing to the point where he could not lift his right leg or keep his right arm steady, Bill was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Encephalitis Type II, a rare neuroendocrine disease characterized by high levels of antithyroid antibodies in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid.
“The memory issues have been horrific, and I have lost complete sense of time; I have no idea what day it is or how long I’ve been sitting somewhere,” Bill says. “But thanks to excellent care in the Air Force and at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, I’m able to live somewhat independently.”
Still, while the medical care has been an important pillar in Bill’s recovery, it’s sports that he says have brought real impact, particularly in helping him to interact socially, deal with change and take care of everyday tasks. In 2012, after starting as a volunteer for Paralyzed Veterans of America, Bill learned of the range of sports available, including one he has always been passionate about – rifles and pistols.
“The Paralyzed Veterans of America sports programs are incredible because they take people who haven’t tried a sport and drop them right in the middle of it,” Bill says. “I can’t give enough credit to the VA and Paralyzed Veterans for all the opportunities I may not have pursued if I didn’t have the subtle nudge to go out and try it.”
Bill has not allowed his disease – even though it often causes intense shaking in his right arm – to limit his passion for or success in shooting. In April, he was the overall leader in the SH1 division at an air rifle tournament at Camp Pendleton, CA, sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Wounded Warrior Battalion. He also was named a Distinguished Expert in semi-automatic pistols through the National Rifle Association in 2013, and holds a rifleman certification in adaptive shooting.
Bill also has discovered passions for other adaptive sports, including archery, kayaking, pistol shooting, volleyball and recumbent bike. In May, he took home the gold medal in the rowing competition at the Southeast Valor Games.
For Bill, it’s not about winning; it’s about the camaraderie and mental and social benefits sports have brought to help him cope and adapt to his disease. It’s also about inspiring other veterans who may be faced with a new diagnosis or injury. While sports may not provide a cure, they can help veterans live a full and active life, and adaptive technology and even 3-D printing breakthroughs are making those opportunities even more possible, Bill says.
“If there’s a sport out there, there’s an adaptive way to do it,” Bill says. “Nobody should give up just because they got hurt. I couldn’t cross that line in the beginning, and I was staying inside and wasn’t communicative. My life has greatly improved from sports, and others’ lives will too if they give it a chance.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.