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Air Force family supports wingman during recovery

Lt. Col. Greg Russell, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron optometrist, gestures while speaking to the Development and Training Flight at Duke Field, Florida, March 7, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

Lt. Col. Greg Russell, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron optometrist, gestures while speaking to the Development and Training Flight at Duke Field, Florida, March 7, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

Lt. Col. Greg Russell, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron optometrist, speaks to students from the Development and Training Flight at Duke Field, Florida, March 7, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

Lt. Col. Greg Russell, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron optometrist, speaks to students from the Development and Training Flight at Duke Field, Florida, March 7, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

From left, BreAnna Sewell, 919th Special Operations Wing Development and Training Flight student, shakes hands with Lt. Col. Greg Russell, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron optometrist at Duke Field, Florida, March 7, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

From left, BreAnna Sewell, 919th Special Operations Wing Development and Training Flight student, shakes hands with Lt. Col. Greg Russell, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron optometrist at Duke Field, Florida, March 7, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dylan Gentile)

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- When someone is in crisis, many times families and friends are the ones that help them bounce back. For Lt. Col. Gregg Russell, an optometrist for the 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron, his Air Force family was part of that support system after he fell into a coma last year.

Russell had contracted viral encephalitis, bacterial meningitis, was in respiratory failure with pneumonia and did not realize it. 

“He was not acting himself at work,” said Master Sgt. Melissa Hill, Russell’s coworker and the Development and Training Flight chief for the 919th Special Operations Wing. “He was slurring words and not comprehending much.”

After he slipped into a comatose state, his wingmen and leadership at the 919th SOMDS coordinated with his family to get him proper care and were there to offer support to him and his loved ones.

“I didn’t realize I was going down neurologically,” said Russell. “I’m lucky to be alive. All I knew was to fight through what was happening.”

He was in a coma for three weeks.

“When I woke up, the first thing I asked for was my uniform,” said Russell. “That feeling of being a part of something larger than myself is what would give me the strength to go through the physical rehabilitation process.” 

Russell spent more than 7 months in the hospital. During his time going through physical therapy, some of his fellow Airmen paid Russell a visit.

“I was fortunate enough to visit him where he received his recovery services,” said Hill. “ It was a relief to finally see his face!”

The encouragement, assistance and support of his teammates helped him push through the rehabilitation process.

“It’s hard to be a patient and submit to care when you’re used to taking care of patients and family members like I had done much of my adult life,” said Russell. “I’ll admit to being overwhelmed not knowing my phone number or how to tie my shoes. I felt broken.”

While he’s still not fully recovered, Russell is making strides with the help of his friends at the 919th SOMDS. 

“My squadron and my family never let me forget I was someone to them even when I didn’t know what was happening to me,” said Russell. “For that, I will be forever grateful.”