Unique program keeps Special Operators healthy at Kentucky Air Guard

  • Published
  • By Tech. Vicky Spesard
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Pararecuemen from the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Special Tactics Squadron spend their deployments evacuating troops wounded in combat, but what happens when one of them gets injured?

Master Sgt. Jeff Gantt, a pararescueman with the 123rd STS, thought his career as a special operations Airman was over as he was being medevaced out of Afghanistan.

"In my mind, I knew it was over," Gantt said. "There would be no way that I could recover from basically a broken back, and expect to jump, dive and carry a load of gear across rugged terrain."

That was two and a half years ago. Today, Gantt is on full combat status and an active member of the squadron thanks to the development of the 123rd STS Human Performance Program.

The HPP is a holistic approach to caring for the health of special operators here, using strength and conditioning programs, performance testing, injury assessments, physical therapy, corrective exercise and nutrition education. The objective of the program is to prevent injuries with screening and proper exercise, rehabilitate existing injuries, and develop well-rounded fitness.

"The mind-set that working out is all about how hard you hit the gym and how fast your run can be was one of the major hurdles we had to overcome when the program began here at the base," said Jake Kilbride, facility manager and a soft-tissue expert.

"Breaking that mold and have us come in and show them how to do correct movements, along with injury prevention and rehabilitative techniques, we have seen chronic injuries go way down and performance levels go way up."

Performance level was a major factor to Gantt as he began using the individualized workout and rehabilitation program created for him by the HPP staff.

"It was hard coming in every day when I first started the program," Gantt explained. "I wasn't used to slowing down and working out in the way the staff wanted me to. It really was a new way of doing things for me.

"There were some dark days for sure," Gantt said. "But every day I came in, and the guys here would never let me quit. They encouraged me, taught me better techniques, monitored my progress and made adjustments to my plan."

"The guys" mentioned by Gantt are Kilbride, Rich Moravec and Will Lawhorn, all certified strength and conditioning coaches, each with additional skills and certifications dedicated to the physical well-being of STS operators.

Gantt and other STS operators say they have experienced positive results and progress, and they attribute that progress to HPP.

While the program grew in participants, it also expanded in its different capabilities. New workout apparatuses and new physical testing and evaluation equipment were added.

"One of my goals for this program is the education aspect," explained Lt. Col. Sean McLane, commander of the 123rd STS, who was instrumental in bringing HPP to the squadron. "Teach our guys how to work out intelligently, avoid and recognize an injury; step back and get help for that injury and not just push through it.

"They're doing a variety of techniques that teach them how to jump and absorb the force better, land better, climb better, run better," McLane continued. "The HPP develops the operators and helps them sustain a usable career, longer."

Having a longer career as a special operations Airman was the driving force for Gantt, whose steadfast commitment to HPP helped him get back into the physical condition that he is in today. He also credits the dedication of the staff who built a personal connection to him and many of the STS operators.

"I could walk into the facility and just by my walk or attitude I was portraying, the guys would know what my body could do that day and make adjustments to my work out on the spot," Gantt said. "I know that I am a viable special operator because of what we're doing here.

"I think this program adds literally years to a special operator's operational life, which is substantial to the military. Having my health back is everything to me."