By Emily Bartlett, American Red Cross volunteer
In 1993, Tom Roepke was at the beginning of a promising career in the U.S. Air Force. Then, a near-fatal accident derailed his plans. 30 years later, he’s reflecting on how help from family, doctors, and American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces helped him overcome the frightening prospect of recovery and gain new focus in his life.
At 22 years old, Tom was an ambitious young man well on his way to a dream job in the armed forces. He had entered the Air Force out of high school, completed basic training, tech school, air base ground defense school, and a post at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska before moving to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. For over a year, the Orange County native had been enjoying his new home – exploring the beaches, surfing, and socializing with his fellow service members. Until one day, when his adventure suddenly turned into an emergency. Tom and a friend were swimming in the ocean when he dove into what he thought was deep water, but was actually an area only a few inches deep. Instantly, he knew something was wrong - he was paralyzed from the neck down. Tom described the experience as one that changed his perspective, immediately and completely.
“When it happened, I was in the best shape of my life. My best friend and I would talk about, ‘If I needed life support, pull the plug.’ But when I was laying in the water, my entire mindset changed. I remember thinking, ‘If this is the way it’s going to be for the rest of my life, I’m okay with that.’ You never really know how you’re going to react until you’re actually in that situation.”
Tom’s friend was able to drag him to shore, where lifeguards and medical professionals evaluated him, then an emergency flight airlifted him to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
At the hospital, doctors said Tom’s prognosis was uncertain. He had fractured his C5 vertebra, sending shards of bone through his neck and severely impacting his nervous system. Over the next few days, they placed Tom in traction and waited to see if he would improve, but ultimately, surgery was unavoidable. Although he was grateful for his friends, doctors, and survival, Tom was still daunted by the prospect of the operation. Doctors had warned him that it wasn’t a sure fix, and also that the incision could damage his vocal cords. In the best case scenario, he faced a painful recovery and months of physical therapy. And there was a risk he could be paralyzed and unable to talk. On top of all this, he was thousands of miles from home and family.
Upon awakening from surgery, the medical staff gave Tom good news. They were optimistic that, with therapy, he would regain his mobility and walk again. “I remember asking for ice, and it clicked that I could still talk,” he says. He also discovered that, without his knowledge, a Red Cross representative on base had reached out to his family through the Red Cross emergency communications program, helping to arrange travel and accommodations for his mother, who was present when he woke up.
Red Cross emergency communications messages are available 24/7, 365 days a year. This service helps reunite families and their service member during emergencies at home. It’s one of many resources available through Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces.
“When I found out what the Red Cross had done, it really made an impact on me. I was very moved and I still look back on that and am amazed and blown away by what the Red Cross proactively did. They weren’t even asked, but when they found out this had happened to this young airman, they got into high gear and made this all come together,” he recalled.
Though there were setbacks during his recovery, Tom never lost sight of his professional drive. He completed four years at Hickam before moving back to California for a final post at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Although his original plan was to go into federal or state law enforcement after his service, due to limitations from his injury, Tom transitioned to corporate security work. He has had a rewarding career encompassing investigations, supply chain security, crisis management, intelligence, business continuity, and more. He currently works as Head of Enterprise Physical Security & Safety for Pacific Life and lives in Garden Grove, Calif. with his wife.
Tom is extremely grateful for the opportunities he has had and help he has received from organizations like the Red Cross and Veterans Administration, which assisted him after his service. And he’s determined to pay it forward.
“I’m very involved in the veteran community and do a lot of volunteering with the American Legion. I want to have a positive effect on veterans’ lives and the families of veterans, especially families who have lost a family member in the service. The Red Cross has held a special place for me for many years - our local American Legion post in Cypress hosts a quarterly blood drive.”
He also encourages his family to pursue their own opportunities, dreams, and purpose, including service, sports, and the outdoors. He has three adult children and recently became a grandfather. In an eerie coincidence, his eldest son, at the time a 21-year-old student at UC San Diego, was seriously injured on his way to campus when he was run over by an SUV. Fortunately, Tom’s son also survived his ordeal, and is now an EMT in the Scripps Trauma Center, where medical staff saved his life.
Ultimately, Tom sees his survival as the result of divine intervention. “That has continued to inspire me to make my life as meaningful as I can possibly make it,” he explained. “And if I can help in some small way by sharing my story, then I’m happy to do so."