By Maj. John T. Stamm, 655th ISRG Public Affairs
/ Published February 26, 2018
WRIGHT PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- For one young lady from the Dayton area, the term “military” has taken on a special new meaning. Meet Tori, the newest member of the 655th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Group’s 71st Intelligence Squadron. Tori, who lives with a severe case of Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the digestive system, recently accepted the squadron’s offer to join their ranks.
“Tori is now an honorary member of our squadron,” said Lt. Col. Eric Bernkopf, 71 IS commander. “Tori may not be able to teach us anything about imagery exploitation, big-data analysis, or adversarial nation capabilities and intent, but she can teach every one of us something about grit, resiliency, and about preserving when things are tough! We are so fortunate to have her on the team.”
Tori's disease was diagnosed in October 2016. She had been sick for months and was in a great deal of pain. She lost weight rapidly, but somehow maintained a 4.0 grade average. By the time Tori’s disease was discovered it was attacking most of her body. Tori was put on a medicine and it seemed to work for a few months. However, in April of 2017, Tori became very ill and was hospitalized. She couldn’t keep food or water down and lost 36 pounds. She had to rely on intravenous nutrition, took steroids for several months, tried an all liquid diet for three months at one point, and tried several other medicinal therapies. Nothing worked.
Finally, in October of 2017, she went from Dayton Children's Hospital to the Cleveland Clinic and underwent a surgery on November 1st. During the surgery, she had a procedure done on her duodenum, had a resection of her ilium (lower part of small bowel), and her appendix was removed. Although Crohn's is a chronic illness with no known cure, Tori can now eat. She is on a new medicinal therapy that doctors hope keeps the Crohn's at bay now that all the diseased parts of her system have been fixed surgically.
During this time, the 71st was actively considering how to better connect to the community. The team decided that they wanted to work with a young man or woman battling an illness that has demonstrated a high level of resiliency. Fortunately, Colonel Bernkopf is close friends with a local physician at Dayton Children's Hospital and asked him if he knew of anyone who would benefit. The doctor recommended Tori.
Due to her illness, Tori had to give up being field commander of her marching band at Northwestern High School, which she had worked so hard for. Eventually, she became too sick to march and also had to give up playing her clarinet for the band, which is her passion. When she was told of the opportunity with the 71st, it made her feel that something good was coming to replace what she had so bravely surrendered.
“When I was diagnosed, I was sick,” Tori said. “I was scared. It’s been a very hard and scary journey. However, I always try to remind myself of all the positive things that came from this illness. I was able to learn a new instrument in band. I am now able to be an honorary member of the military. Without my illness, this opportunity would have never been there for me.”
“Eric Bernkopf first contacted me while Tori and I were in an ambulance on the way to Cleveland Clinic,” said Tori’s mother, Shelley. “His kindness and concern transported through the phone and gave Tori and I both something positive to think about on our journey to the clinic. We were so happy to know that someone that we had not even met was thinking of us. The call actually gave us hope and something to look forward to as Tori recovered.”
Tori and her mother were welcomed the unit on Sunday, December 17. Upon arrival, Tori was presented with a special coin and a unit t-shirt that made her feel part of their group. She loved meeting a young woman, who is about her size, who helped Tori get fitted for a uniform.
“She is generally a stoic teen,” Shelly said, “but she bubbled with enthusiasm the day of our meeting with the squadron. She was impressed with Wright Patterson and is so excited to see the squadron again.”
Tori then spoke to the 50-plus members of the unit on resiliency.
“Honestly, when they told me to speak and 50 adults walked in, all older than me, and they wanted me to speak about grit and resilience I was pretty intimidated,” Tori said. “But, after I was done speaking many of the members came to me and told me I was inspiring. I am so excited to meet with the squadron more and plan to attend almost all of the meetings I can go to.”
Tori claims that during her journey she has learned a lot about chronic pain and how people live with chronic pain everyday yet still push on and still live their lives. This realization made her think tremendously about others’ actions, and that no one has an idea what people are going through. Even though she is on the road to recovery after the intensive surgeries, and still has a long way to go, she remains positive and upbeat.
“I have learned so much from my disease,” Tori said. “If someone told me I could go back in time and never be diagnosed with this disease, I would decline. Even though this disease is a struggle, the struggle is what makes me who I am today.”
According to Shelley, this experience has impacted their lives in a many ways; it illustrated to them that even strangers can be there for each other in times of crisis and showed them how caring people in the military are. Tori now has another wonderful support group for living with a misunderstood and complicated disease, and her mother couldn’t be more thankful.
“I would like to add my sincerest gratitude to this squadron,” she said. “They made a bleak situation more bearable for us. They made Tori feel special and supported. Tori has new heroes in her life because of this experience. In general, I now feel better about society as a whole. When a group of strangers displays concern for a child in this way, it reminds us that good people are indeed everywhere. This experience could definitely benefit other children. Thank you all.”
The 655 Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group consists of a headquarters and three tenant squadrons in Ohio, and 11 geographically separated units in California, Texas, Nebraska, Virginia, Florida and Maryland. For exciting and rewarding career opportunities with the 655 ISRG, please contact your local Air Force Reserve recruiter or call 937-257-8117.