Colonel's medical challenge fosters resiliency, activism

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Heather Heiney
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Wires without insulation are unpredictable threads of electricity; they can short out, cross signals or spark a fire. Col. Glen Downing, 81st Training Wing vice commander, uses the analogy of uninsulated wires to describe multiple sclerosis because the nerves in the body are like those wires -- if the fatty insulation is gone, then the nerves can't function properly.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Web site, "Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another."

"It's a very individualized disease. It can go from not a big deal to very debilitating," Colonel Downing said.

The colonel was diagnosed with MS in 2003, but it has far from defeated him.

For Colonel Downing, the first sign of MS disguised itself as too much time playing video games. He said it was Christmas break in 2002 and he was playing with his two boys when he noticed a blurry spot on the television.

"Of course I ignored it after that, but it never really went away," Colonel Downing said.

He said the next indication that something wasn't right came when he was on temporary duty in Florida and decided to go for a run. He discovered that the further he ran, the more difficult it became to read the street signs. The colonel knew for sure that he needed to see someone about the problem when he swiped his finger across what looked like dirty hotel wallpaper and nothing came off. He covered his "bad eye" with one hand and saw that the wallpaper was vibrantly colored.

"Over the next six months, I experienced clumsiness, numbness, and at times, minimal control over one of my arms. My balance worsened slightly. Eventually, I received the shocking news that I had MS," Colonel Downing said.

The colonel said that because of the quality of health care he continues to receive from the Air Force, he was able to nearly stop the MS in its tracks and is able to keep it in check today.

"They took me from zero, all the way to diagnoses then to medication in 12 months," he said. "People I met in Kansas who were civilians and who had nothing to do with the military were going through similar experiences and it was taking two to five years."

Because of his diagnosis, Colonel Downing faced a medical evaluation board to determine his future in the Air Force. If an MEB determines that service members have less than 30 percent occupational disability, they are separated from the Air Force. If they have greater than 30 percent disability, they are given a medical retirement.

"There's a lot of fear and uncertainty involved with that process," Colonel Downing said, "Part of that fear and uncertainty is wondering how to provide for my family, and then what the quality of life for my family is going to be like over time."

Colonel Downing said that the MEB allowed him to remain in the Air Force, but decided that he would be removed from flight status as a navigator and barred from most types of deployments. He said that he had to re-evaluate his life, but after doing that, he continued to push forward and be resilient.

"It's your ability to bounce back...I almost don't like 'bounce back' because sometimes you don't bounce back. I didn't bounce back -- I changed." Colonel Downing said, "It forced me to adapt, it forced me to bend, and that doesn't mean cave in -- it just moved me off course a little bit and gave me a new course."

"There are a lot of times I feel like I'm not able to contribute in the ways others are, but don't think that I don't want to be in the fight," Colonel Downing said.

After his diagnosis, Colonel Downing decided to complete two years of professional military education not only to further his knowledge, but to give him a chance to come to terms with his MS. By the time he completed that schooling, he decided that a leadership role was where he needed to be. He said that a leadership role was important to him because it allowed him the opportunity to share his knowledge and experiences, as well as to teach and inspire other people.

"To me the true legacy is ideas. Changing ideas and getting people to think differently, is a much more difficult task," Colonel Downing said.

His personal goals fit into Keesler's mission, because tech school students learn more than just the skills required by their specific career fields. He said that his goal is to continue to challenge Keesler and provide the resources, support and vision necessary for the people of Keesler to shine.

"I think it's easy to get comfortable with things when you know they work. So I want to challenge people to become engaged and to want to continue to grow and continue to make it better," Colonel Downing said.

As vice commander, Downing's leadership philosophy delves into the three Air Force core values -- integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.

To Colonel Downing, "integrity first" means doing what is right even when no one is looking. "Service before self" means that professional duties take precedence over personal desires. "Excellence in all we do" is a sustained passion for continuous improvement. He also urges people to have respect for everyone, celebrate diversity, be a wingman, be involved, realize that time is precious, maintain balance and have fun.

When Colonel Downing first started teaching and leading others, he was frustrated because he couldn't see the results of his effort right away like when he was on flying status. That changed over time because he began to run into people he had taught and who let him know that he had made a difference.

Colonel Downing also wanted to make a difference at home and in his local community so he began by signing up to learn Tae Kwon Do with his family. This practice became a priority in his life, even if he had to go to a meeting in his Tae Kwon Do uniform, because it gave him time with his family, it was a physical activity and it gave him interaction with people in the local community.

"I reprioritized my family with my work," Colonel Downing said, "I realized that I spent a lot of my time as an adult focused on my work and not enough focused on my family. So I worked a lot harder to balance the two."

The colonel said that his favorite way to give back to the local community is by working with Boy Scouts because it's something he can do with his family. He was involved in Scouting when he was young and has carried that tradition from base to base for several years.

His role as vice commander also gives him an automatic role in the local area through numerous community relations events.

"Colonel Downing is an avid supporter of the chambers of commerce along the Gulf Coast," said YoLanda Wallace, 81st TRW public affairs chief of community relations. "It's important for him to participate in chamber activities because it fosters good relations between Keesler and the Gulf Coast."

Colonel Downing has taken a diagnosis that would have many people curling up in submission and turned it into an inspiration. He has not only pushed his own life forward, but teaches those around him that resiliency is all it takes to do so.