Darkest before dawn: Retired master sergeant, active duty wife share struggle of overcoming TBI

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Siuta B. Ika
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The worst day of his life was Aug. 13, 2011. He can't recall the details of that fateful afternoon, but Phillip Sisneros was riding his motorcycle in Las Vegas. Known by most as just 'Phil', the 33-year-old master sergeant was on his way home from celebrating a coworker's promotion the night before when his life was turned upside down.

"You know how they say most accidents happen within a mile of your house? Well it's true because all I had to do was go up the street, make a left and I was home," Phil said.

Phil, who at the time was in charge of the 99th Communications Squadron's comm focal point, was struck by a pickup truck which ran a stop sign and crossed into his path. Trying to avoid the truck, Phil laid his bike down but still skidded into the front end of the pickup. The driver of the truck, who was cited for failing to yield at the stop sign, and two unharmed passengers were back on the road and headed to their families following the accident.

Phil wouldn't get that chance on this day.

Bloody and unconscious, his motionless body was admitted to University Medical Center in critical condition. The man who once aspired to become a chief master sergeant would now be enthralled in a fight for his life.


The best day of his life was Aug. 1, 2011. Twelve days before the accident, Phil married his wife Angela on top of Spencer Glacier in Alaska.

The two met at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, after Phil was reassigned from Osan Air Base, South Korea, and Angela returned from a deployment to Al Udeid in 2008; but they didn't start dating until the summer of 2009.

"When we first met, I thought he was a big jerk, so I never really talked to him," Angela said. "Fast forward to April 2009, there was a going away for somebody in the squadron and that's really the first time we 'really' talked. He was funny, outgoing, sarcastic and smart. He was a lot of things."

In February 2010, Angela received orders to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, while Phil was deploying to Al Udeid but would return to Nellis AFB. The two enjoyed their limited time together, and talked every day during Phil's deployment and Angela's permanent change of station. After Phil returned from Al Udeid, he visited Angela in Alaska. The couple remained together through the summer of 2011, racking up frequent flyer miles traveling between Las Vegas and Anchorage nearly every month.

"It was the Fourth of July weekend. He flew up there to surprise me and that's when he asked me to marry him," Angela said. "Since it was 2011, I said let's get married on 11/11/11, but he didn't want to wait that long, so I said let's get married on Aug. 1 because it's my birthday. He didn't have much time because there was an inspection coming up, so we got married and he flew back the next day."


The worst day of her life was Aug. 13, 2011. It was a Saturday and Angela noticed a missed call from the command post. When she returned the call, they told her the first sergeant had a message for her. Right then, she instantly knew it had to do with Phil.

"(The first sergeant) said I needed to get there right away, so I asked him if Phil was alive and he said yes, so I was like what's wrong, and he said 'You just need to get here as fast as you can,'" Angela said. "The day before the accident, that Friday was the perfect day. Phillip just got his orders, so he was coming to Alaska to be with me, so everything was perfect in my life."

Unrelenting, the fickle middle finger of fate intervened the day after Phil, who was outranked by Angela by one month, received joint spouse orders, and seemed destined to claim Phil's life.

"That whole first week, I thought he was going to die, because that's what the doctors said," Angela said. "But he got better and better. And then the doctors said if he did wake up, he would basically be a vegetable. They said that a few times and I thought that's what they have to say but his neurologist asked me if I had any questions, and I said 'Well you know I've asked you if there's any chance he'll wake up out of this, and you've always told me no, but you just have to tell me that right?' And he was like 'No that only happens in the movies.'"

Phil teetered between life and death for 30 days. For 30 days, Angela remained at his side. For 30 days, the couple's will and bond was put to the ultimate test.


The day Phil entered the Air Force in 1999 as a financial management technician was indeed a happy one. After retraining into the comm world in 2004, he found his niche. But after serving in Korea, where he partied and drank heavily, Phil said he wanted to change and be more than "another tech sergeant."

Change came in the form of Angela.

"I didn't really want to be a senior NCO, but when I met my wife that's when everything kind of changed, and she motivated me to be more," Phil said.

Phil certainly became more. In 2010, he was named his squadron's NCO of the year; in 2011, he collected the 99th Air Base Wing's senior NCO of the quarter; NCO of the year for the comm career field's info dominance; and put on master sergeant stripes in 12 short years.

"My first impression of him was that he was a go getter. He wanted to be chief and he absolutely was on the right path for that. He was such a young person for the rank he had attained," said Christina Whatley, 99th CS deputy commander who supervised Phil for about a year-and-a-half in the infrastructure shop. "He was very motivated and always looked at how to better himself and become the leader we all want to be. He was taking a lot of training classes, and I know he had also been riding a motorcycle for about a year."


Phil won the battle for his life and awoke on Sept. 12, 2011, after being in a coma for 30 days.

"I had a traumatic brain injury, and my head was swollen like a light bulb," Phil said. "I had craniotomy, so they opened up my skull to get to the internal bleeding. Since I was out they gave me a tracheostomy, where they cut into your throat so you can breathe, and they operated on my sixth optic nerve because I had double vision on my right side."

With his health getting better each day and Angela remaining at his side, Phil would only stay at UMC for another month. After being transferred to an inpatient rehab center at the Center of Neuro Skills in Bakersfield, California, Angela would soon find out the extent of damage to Phil's brain.

"Physically, I couldn't believe how well he was doing. When he came out of his coma and went to his inpatient rehab, he had been in a bed and hadn't really done anything for like 60 days, but the first thing they did was have him do some pushups and sit-ups and he busted out 30 pushups and like 50 sit-ups," Angela said. "But they did this test where they would take a clip art picture of a fish and cut it in half. So they'd have these two pictures of half a fish and he wouldn't be able to tell you it was a fish if it was cut in half, but if it was together he could tell you it was a fish.

"His inpatient rehab had like an apartment complex where they all lived and they took a bus to get to the clinic, kind of like school, and they'd bus them all back to the complex. I would have to stay in a hotel because I couldn't stay on the facility, so I'd be there all day and at the apartment at night until they kicked me out," Angela said. "Being in the complex was the first time he was able to take a shower since his accident, so he would just stand under the water and tell me 'I don't know what to do,' so I helped him with the bottles and everything. (The patients) also had homework to go grocery shopping and he put 13 watermelons in his cart because that's what he wanted to buy. At the apartment he was going to microwave a dinner, but he put it in the dishwasher instead. Just little stuff like that."

After seven grueling months at the CNS, Phil was cleared to return home in May 2012. After using up all of her leave in addition to a temporary duty assignment she received from Phil's leadership to be with him, Angela was now back at the 99th CS after being approved for a humanitarian assignment to Nellis AFB.

In June 2012, Phil returned to work, but because of the TBI he suffered, he wasn't that same guy who was destined for chief.

"Just doing day-to-day stuff as a master sergeant was very difficult for him, because he might ask you the same question three times for three days in a row, so we could see he didn't necessarily have the short-term memory there," Whatley said. "Personality-wise, he was more withdrawn. My feeling was because he didn't have as much confidence in his memory, he wasn't as outgoing because he was afraid he might not remember someone's name. His sense of humor had changed as well."

Struggling to become the Airman he was before the accident, Phil would soon be put on a medical evaluation board.

"They wanted to medically retire me but I didn't want to get retired, because I wanted to be a chief," Phil said. "I didn't have many goals, but I wanted to be a chief and make a difference in people's lives."

Ever the dutiful wife, Angela fought the board all the way up to the office Secretary of the Air Force, and won.

"So Phil could stay in, but right after that I kept thinking I don't know if that was the right thing, because Phil was really struggling," Angela said. "There was a commander's call and he was going up to get an award and he walked up the stairs too early or too late, and I was sitting in the back and I saw some Airmen laughing at him and I wanted to kill them. It hurts to see other people not respect him, but I don't know if they knew he was in an accident or just thought he was dumb. And Phil would always come home and tell me 'everybody thinks I'm dumb,' and that's hard to hear."

Phil medically retired from the Air Force on Oct. 10, 2014.


During the days following Phil's accident, Angela was an emotional wreck. First there was shock, then uncontrollable bawling and hysteria that springs from bottomless doubt. She would not smile. She would not fake it 'til she makes it. When Phil awoke, her spirit was lifted. When she realized he was mentally no longer the man she married, it nose-dived back to the dark plateau it previously resided on.

"With TBI everybody's like, 'We're just trying to live our life and everything's happy,' but I know that's BS. Everyone tries to put a positive spin on it, which is great but that's not real life," Angela said. "I mean Phil's had the best possible outcome for everything he's been through. I would've never thought he'd come this far. He's had a really good recovery, but there's so much more I want for him. I'm afraid of dying, because who's going to take care of Phil, because he's kind of like a kid now; if he has appointments I have to make sure he goes to his appointments, and I usually have to take some time off to go, because if he goes by himself he might not explain what his issue really is."

Angela said she's moved past her tears and is finally going into the phase of acceptance now. She'll reach 20 years of service next year and plans on getting out of the Air Force, but remaining in Las Vegas to give Phil continuity.

"I just want to try to find something for Phil so he has some kind of passion, a good quality of life," Angela said. "Me, I want to do something to help TBI because you see so much of it being a spouse. So I want to go into something medical like physical therapy or occupational therapy, something like that. Just seeing a lot of the therapists that worked with Phil, the ones who had family members who had a TBI just seemed like they were much more dedicated."

Although Angela said leaving Phil was never an option, she would trade anything for him to have never been on his motorcycle on that fateful day in 2011.

"I wouldn't mind going through everything again, but I would totally sacrifice our relationship for Phil to have never have had this accident, because it's just so hard for him," Angela said. "If I could give up my life so he could have his brain back I would, because that's who you are, but he doesn't really understand that."


Today is just another day at the Sisneros household. Phil and Angela wake up at the same time. Angela comes to Nellis AFB where she is the NCO in charge of plans and projects in the 99th CS, and Phil heads to culinary school where he is a student.

Phil takes care of the little things around the house, like picking up after the dogs, making sure they are fed, and making sure all the dishes are clean after cooking so Angela doesn't have to worry about it when she gets home from work. Phil is also an avid volunteer at the USO and military/veteran functions around town.

Phil might not remember some important dates, like the month or year he met his wife, but he knows that without her, he wouldn't be alive today.

"I just try to be a better person now, because I came back for a reason - to be with my wife," Phil said. "You try to marry up, which I definitely did. I drag her down a little bit, but hey she signed on for it."

For Angela, when she's feeling any doubts about anything, she looks at what she calls a 'cute' picture of Phil after his accident that she keeps on her desk at work to remind her that everything's going to be alright.

"It seems like everything has stood still for the last three years, while we were waiting on the med board to see if he's going to get out or not. So recently in the last two months, that's when I made the decision that I was going to get out, keep Phil here, we're purchasing a house and we're putting in roots," Angela said. "It seems like we're finally moving forward with something."