USAF Master Sergeant uses illness to shape her leadership

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. AJ Hyatt
  • 70th ISR Wing Public Affairs

In September 2003, Angel McKenzie was a healthy senior airman, who had a line number for staff sergeant. She was working on the flight line as an aircraft maintenance Airman at Fairchild Air Force Base, when all of sudden she was plagued with a weakness on one side of her body that could not be explained. A month later, she lost vision in one eye and was struggling to pick up a tool box. After seeing a few doctors, she received a diagnosis that would change her life forever.  

She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website, MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the body. The cause of MS is still unknown.  

The Louisiana-native, who is now a master sergeant with a line number for senior master sergeant, is the operations superintendent for 707th Communications Squadron at Fort George G. Meade, Md. Within her job, McKenzie is responsible for advising the commander and director of operations on the security and maintenance of more than ten thousand communication circuits. She also oversees operations for a 209-person unit executing information assurance monitoring, analysis, reporting and training for network configuration and sustainment.   

“I honestly thought my career was over and I would be separated [from the Air Force],” McKenzie said. “But to my surprise the Air Force elected to let me stay in.”  

When she received the results from the screening for MS, her first question was “What does that mean and what medicine do I take to cure it?”  

Her neurologist replied, “Well, there is no cure.”   

“Whenever you hear you have something, you quickly Google and start figuring out what ‘it’ is,” she said. “When you first look up MS, you see people in wheel chairs, people who have lost the ability to feed themselves or can’t see.”  

McKenzie began to picture herself in a wheel chair for the rest of her life.   

“There’s not a cure, but there are medicines we can give you to help slow down the progressions so you don’t have as many exacerbations,” the neurologist said.   

MS is considered a “snowflake disease,” because nobody’s symptoms are the same. Everyone’s can be completely different, according to McKenzie.  

“You have some people with MS who can go out and run marathons, while you have some people with MS who are in hospice needs,” she said. “Everyone’s different.” 

The first three years included an injection into her leg every Friday night.   

“The effects of the injection were flu-like. So every Saturday and Sunday, I was sick like I had the flu,” said McKenzie. “I was in pain and I used to wake up crying because everything hurt. After a few months of the medication, the pain started to calm down.”  

McKenzie stayed on this medicine until she had her first son, Kai. And a year later, the McKenzie’ welcomed their second son, Jayden.   

Today, her medication only includes two pills a day.   

“Luckily, treatments have progressed in MS therapy. The worst side effect of these pills are the itching and burning, which only last a couple of hours,” she said. “I have to take fatigue medicine every morning to help me get through the day. The fatigue is probably the worst side effect of MS for me.”  

As she got older and lived with MS, McKenzie learned what triggered her symptoms. Whether the temperature was too hot or too cold, she had to be cautious to what made her sick physically and internally.   

“There were days in Texas (Lackland Air Force Base) where the temperature reached 100-plus degrees outside and during walks to my car I had to stop and sit down to wait for feeling to come back to my legs,” she said.  

As time passed, McKenzie started participating in Walk MS, which are charity walk series’ that take place in over 550 locations with more than 330,000 people participating annually.  

“Sometimes I get the Squadron together to participate in the [MS] Walks, but they never know why I do it,” McKenzie said. “They just think I’m volunteering. I told one of my commanders ‘why I walked,’ and he replied ‘we are going to get everyone out there! I want max participation to be out there to support you even if they don’t know they are supporting you.’”   

For the first nine years of her diagnosis, McKenzie did not tell anyone.  

“I kept a close hold and only mentioned it to leadership simply because it was need-to-know information,” she said. “I looked at my diagnosis as a weakness that would not be understood.”  

Staying quiet created a persona that everything was perfect for McKenzie.  

“This caused my troops to be less forthcoming with me simply because they felt I did not understand trials or problems, which was the complete opposite,” she said.  

Everything that people go through shapes the way they lead and how they live. It’s impossible to determine what exactly will shape the way you lead, but McKenzie is using her illness to do just that.   

“I realized with the assistance from my husband, that my MS was not a weakness, but a mechanism that I can use to help others,” said McKenzie. “Now, after being in the military for 16 years, I no longer hide my MS, but am more forthcoming and willing to be the listening ear for anyone that has invisible situations.”  

As a leader, MS has helped McKenzie to be more empathetic with her troops.  

“I use this when dealing with everyone, regardless of rank, because I truly believe it helps me see the best in everyone,” McKenzie added. “Everyone is going through situations that you cannot see on the outside. Regardless of what you can see, never judge someone because of what they can or cannot do because you don’t know what struggles they have gone through or are going through.”  

McKenzie is scheduled to put on the rank of senior master sergeant in 2017, but in the meantime, she is focusing on staying active and living well with MS.  

“As long as I can physically do stuff – I’ll keep going,” she said. “As long as I can walk, I’ll walk as fast as I can.”