By Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 24, 2016
RAF MILDENHALL, England --
“I grew up in Texas, on the farm and on the football field. I was a high-energy kid, played football pretty well, and made good grades,” recalled Lt. Col. Brandon Sokora, 100th Civil Engineer Squadron commander, as he opened up about his story and how his life drastically changed when confronted with “disabilities” – not once, but twice.
As his story unfolded, he focused on how his perspective evolved to grant him a more inclusive and healthy approach to leadership and Airmanship. With his abilities and opportunities, Sokora described how in no way, shape or form would anyone have predicted his future to include the word, ‘disability.’ He just assumed, “that will never happen to me.”
“My high school was very small and we didn’t have anyone that I remember being ‘disabled,’ so I wasn’t familiar with it,” he said, explaining his early narrow perspective. “Then I attended the Air Force Academy, and my perspective narrowed even more with regard to disabilities; I just thought to myself that disabilities didn’t apply to me.
“When you enlist or commission, there’s certain physical traits you have to possess,” he remarked. “‘Disabled’ was not a word that’s discussed at the Academy or early in my Air Force career.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Sokora shared his story at a lunch celebrating the many varied contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. The 100th CES commander commissioned in 2000 and joined what he described as “the world’s greatest Air Force.”
Sokora continued to describe the evolution of his perspective.
“The Air Force has changed a lot in those 16 years, but nevertheless, I would say if you had a disability, you probably weren’t going to be a part of the world’s greatest Air Force,” he said, “and if you were, you’d probably be ‘put in the corner’ and have limited duties. I just don’t think it was necessarily in our thought process as an Air Force, but the world has now changed and our view on ‘disability’ has changed.”
In 2011, with six assignments and four deployments under his belt, he was enjoying and progressing along his career path with a growing family. Then, with a wife and young daughter in tow, his world was flipped upside down shortly after returning from his fourth deployment.
“I was struggling at the end of my deployment; I couldn’t feel anything from my waist down, and thought I’d pinched a nerve in my back,” he said.
He chalked it up to physical training and sitting in meetings, and was advised to rest and attend physical therapy, but neither helped.
“I had a really bad day in September 2011, and ended up in the emergency room. Forty-eight hours later, I got the news that I had multiple sclerosis,” Sokora said.
As he talked, an MRI scan photo appeared on the screen. It was Sokora’s brain and showed several large white spots over it, with red arrows pointing out lesions.
Sclerosis is Latin for “scars,” and MS literally means multiple scars; the disease is an auto-immune disorder that affects the central nervous system.
“My immune system attacks the myelin – the insulation on my nerve ports,” he explained, breaking it into simple terms. “If you think of your nerves as electrical wires, as we often do at Christmas time, we bundle extension cords together. Just think if insulation starts to fray and the electrical wires touch each other – it just goes haywire and catches fire.
“Basically, that’s what’s going on in my nervous system when my lesions start to happen – the nerves start to fray and the signals that travel along the nerves which enable you to speak, feel, and think, get lost… so it impacts everything in my nervous system whenever those lesions kick off.”
Yet, despite this world-shattering news, Sokora said he still feels he has been fortunate.
“My treatment has gone very well; I’ve changed my lifestyle; I can still do what I want to do and I still have the ability to stand up here and lead the world’s greatest civil engineer squadron! But that got me thinking, ‘oh my goodness – am I disabled? The Air Force says I am,’” he exclaimed.
From there he faced a medical evaluation board, but he was adamant that he shouldn’t leave his beloved military.
“I just kept thinking, ‘No! No, I’m not disabled!’ I knew I could still do this. Even though the Air Force was telling me I can’t, I just kept saying, ‘you don’t know what I can do! Just because that’s on paper or maybe that’s what you see, you don’t know what I can do!” said Sokora, describing how he had to fight back.
Finally, he convinced the Air Force he was indeed more than capable of doing his job and leading his people. He returned to active duty in November 2012 and was ready, with his wife Lindsay and daughter Ava by his side, to continue their journey and military life.
Little did he know that life hadn’t finished providing him opportunities to broaden his perspective.
As Sokora began to share with the audience what happened next, his voice started to break with emotion. His second daughter, Aliya, was born a congenital amputee, without her left, lower arm.
“She’s labelled disabled. I can walk out the door and nobody knows about my disability, but when she walks out the door, everybody sees that and automatically assumes she’s disabled and she can’t do certain things – but Aliya will prove them wrong. She shows me every day; she’s almost 4, and she’s amazing,” he said proudly.
The commander continued, adding he now had a new outlook as he and his family started a new chapter.
“I can honestly say I now have a better perspective; through my own medical evaluation board, and what I see from my daughter every day – what she brings to my life – I see it every day. It’s not just Brandon and Aliya who have value – everyone has value.
“It’s not just disabilities I’m talking about – you can go into what make us different, and you can automatically make assumptions about people. We’re not all the same, because we all bring unique skills and abilities with who we are and the way we think, and that’s the most important piece of this,” he said.
The audience was silent as Sokora continued to share his story; they listened intently as he spoke of the obstacles he and his family had faced, and overcome.
“Listening to Lt. Col. Sokora speak, I was moved at not only his personal story, but those other individuals’ stories that he shared, and the willpower and resiliency they all displayed,” said Staff Sgt. Jessica Gervais, 100th CES Requirements and Optimization production control craftsman, and organizer of the event.
“Disability, to me, means a label – a diagnosis or term that doctors and society give to people who have a physical, mental or psychological condition that they say ‘limits a person’s abilities or functions,’ but disability to me means finding an innovative way to live your life the same as everyone else,” she said.
“My great-grandfather served in the Army in World War II, and was injured when his tank was fired upon. He lost his eye and sustained several injuries,” added Gervais. “My stepfather, who also served in the Army, was injured when he jumped out of a helicopter – his rope malfunctioned and he broke his back. I grew up with ‘disabilities’ in my family, but I knew the full potential of the individual and that their disability didn’t stop them from the day-to-day tasks and living their life to the fullest, just as I hope to every day.”
Sokora explained that although people can be labelled as many things, what matters at the end of the day is the diversity between our ears, and that’s the perspective which is most important. He then referred to a quote by Mother Theresa, which means a lot to him:
“‘You can do what I cannot do; I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things’ – that’s what truly makes the Air Force great,” he said. “We embrace those differences and work together as a team because we all bring value. I think in your mind if you really embrace that everyone has value, it makes it very quick and easy to mark out the prefix ‘dis’ in front of ‘disability,’ knowing that we all have value and we all have ability.
“There’s no disability – we all have abilities; they’re just different. That’s the perspective that I have and that’s what I try to bring as a husband, father, Airman and commander. It took my life’s story to truly get that,” Sokora said.