JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. –
Mobility Airmen that answer the call to serve at the Department of Defense’s only tri-service base learn to make an ally of resiliency.
For Senior Airman Austin Sondergard, a crew chief with the 605th aircraft maintenance squadron, recovering from a life-threatening condition meant waging a war of attrition against his own mind and body. His journey on the road to recovery, while fraught with daily challenges, is paved with the support of friends, family, and a warrior heart’s passion.
The Texas native is the first and only from his family to serve in the Air Force. A proud American, he answered the call to serve to broaden his life experience and for the opportunity to maintain heavy machinery.
“You can ask any teacher I had in high school, and they will tell you that I’m not an academic, so going to college right out of high school wasn’t my priority,” said Sondergard. “I love to work with my hands. My grandfather and I bonded over working on our 1975 Chrysler together. To be an aircraft mechanic means I get to fulfill that passion every day on the job.”
Aside from aircraft maintenance, Sondergard is an avid weightlifter and credits his commitment to the gym as a literal source of strength in his life.
“I grew up in a home where unfortunately abuse was prevalent, and I would often lie or instigate so that abuse would be misdirected at me and not my younger siblings,” said Sondergard. “When that’s your environment growing up, you want to be able to develop the strength to defend yourself in life.”
During his last deployment in 2020, Sondergard began to experience crippling headaches and fatigue that interfered with both work and his passion for weightlifting.
“When I returned from deployment, I was having headaches every day, so I went to medical,” said Sondergard. “I was told that I was fine, and the headaches were only from being deployed in a desert environment. Months later in November of 2021, I managed to get an MRI and was told I needed to go to the emergency room immediately.”
Sondergard was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation, meaning an abnormal tangle of blood vessels. The condition can develop anywhere in the body but usually occurs in the brain or spinal cord, where symptoms like a hemorrhage can prove fatal.
“I received brain surgery the same month which resulted in a stroke. This caused the physicians to induce sleep for a period of six days,” said Sondergard. “They woke me up every day to perform tests and see if I could move or speak, and then they would put me back to sleep.”
This was a particularly frustrating time for the crew chief as he suffered from retrograde memory loss, impaired motor function, and an inability to speak as a direct result of the stroke. The malformation had been removed as well as the potential for a fatal brain hemorrhage, but at a cost.
“I was sent to a recovery facility for speech and physical therapy for a period of two months,” said Sondergard. “If they thought it was going to take me that long, I was going to prove them all wrong. I fought tooth and nail to regain what had been taken from me and was released after only one week of treatment.”
Following a miraculous recovery, Sondergard was able to speak and move as he did before the stroke. However, retrograde memory loss and a degraded physical state took away his ability to both work and weightlift.
“The memory loss wiped out almost everything I knew about my job, and physically I wasn't able to perform at the level I did before the surgery,” said Sondergard. “I fought to relearn everything I needed to know in order to excel at my job again. At the same time I made efforts to return to form physically so I could live out my passion for weightlifting and reverse my atrophy.”
Through his constant presence at the gym, Army Support Activity Fort Dix’s Griffith Field House, Sondergard built a home away from home with his surrogate family of gym staff.
“Austin is always the first to give a smile and ask about your day,” said Kim Lissner, Griffith Field House assistant director. “He’s the first to lend a helping hand, is always seen putting equipment back into its proper place, and he takes time to engage with our Retiree’s and other community members. He’s been through a lot, but you would never know it… Our Staff is honored that he makes the Field House his home and I am equally honored to be his gym Mom.”
Additionally, he’s made meaningful connections with those around the Joint Base and in deployed environments.
“I met Austin while I was deployed in Al Dhafra. He was on a number of jets I flew on. I distinctly remember him being very helpful, humble, and proactive with any maintenance issue we had,” said Tech. Sgt. Javier Garcia, 32nd Air Refueling Squadron boom operator. “I ran into him at the McGuire Gym one day and saw his surgery scar, he told me what happened and all I could think of was how close he came to a life altering medical emergency. I was inspired by his commitment to getting better, continuing to improve himself, and wanting to break his old lifting records. He could’ve easily given up and nobody would’ve said anything, but he didn’t, and that is a warrior's spirit.”
While physically taxing, the condition and recovery took a mental toll as well. Sondergard felt alone and isolated despite his support network. He’s committed to sharing his story so that others suffering from similar circumstances know they’re not alone in their struggles.
“This experience really changed me. It was extremely humbling, and I view life through a different lens as a result,” said Sondergard. “I had an attitude problem before and was easily provoked, but now I see the importance of having a positive frame of mind not just for myself, but especially for others. We take for granted the simple things we do every day, until one day you can’t.”
A new lease on life, Sondergard makes the most of each day and places value in doing the things he didn’t make time for before.
“Before the surgery I didn’t make time for the things I really wanted to, but now I have been doing more motorcycle riding, flying my brother and cousin out to visit, and attend my favorite concerts. There’s no certainty to life, so I live mine now the best I can and aspire to help others do the same.”