Sergeant thrives after overcoming health, image challenges

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- She couldn't stand to look at herself in the mirror, so she put on her makeup in the dark.

Even though every waking moment caused her pain, she would not accept the reality of who she had become.

It was late in 2012 and throughout the past 25 months, Staff Sgt. Yecenia Caban-Jimenez had failed four physical training tests.

Although her physical limitations had been trying to stifle her dreams since before she was born, there was something greater at risk now -- her Air Force career was on the ropes.

Born with a congenital hip defect that left her unable to walk until she was 4, Caban was denied many childhood experiences. Soccer, tag at recess, running through the forest ... for her, these were wishes instead of realities.

She had been segregated by her physical imperfections and stigmatized by peers to the point where she could no longer stand the sight of herself.

But at that moment in 2012, after returning from a vacation, Caban finally summoned the courage to stand in front of a mirror and reflect on what her cousin had just told her. Calling her by a childhood nickname, the cousin said, "Yeye, you are ugly and I do not love you anymore."

As the hurtful words sank in, something inside of her finally snapped.

"Looking at my body in the mirror ... there was no escaping from the truth," said Caban. "In that moment, it all sunk in. I had refused to accept how fat I was and how bad I looked. I needed help but until that moment, I was in major denial."

Her health struggles were crushing. In addition to the lifelong hip defect, she had been diagnosed with a thyroid problem. She had also been injured during a 2009 deployment to Afghanistan.

Such circumstances might lead a person to throw in the towel, and there was a time in her life when she would have done so.

She had gone to college to be an engineer, but she quit. Then she had started working at a casino, but she quit. So when family and friends heard in 2006 she had signed up for the Air Force, they knew what she would do -- she would quit.

But they were wrong.

She set off for Basic Military Training, knowing so little English she could not even give a reporting statement.

"I spent most of those six-and-a-half weeks following people around," said Caban. "I was scared, I was always in trouble and I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I knew BMT was a mind game, but it was exhausting and took every ounce of my energy and attention to make it through.

"My entire life, serving in the Air Force was always in the back of my mind, so I could not give up," she said. "They believed in me enough to let me into their Air Force family, and I was so honored. I vowed to always prove myself and do anything I needed to be successful. I didn't want to let my fellow American Airmen down."

In the three years that followed her completion of basic, she struggled to adapt to the rigors and strict expectations of military life while simultaneously striving to learn a new language.

In 2009, she eagerly left for a deployment to Afghanistan, where she worked as a communications specialist.

Just two weeks before heading home, the enemy struck.

One evening while headed back to her tent, the base was attacked. Although her legs had been strong enough to propel her through military training, they were weakened by her hip defect and failed her in this critical moment.

Chaos controlled her mind and adrenaline surged as she ran toward the bunkers. But her weakened legs gave out - her ankle snapped inward and she went down hard. The fall left her with torn Achilles and peroneal tendons, a pinched sciatic nerve, and four broken discs in her lower back.

"These injuries created a chaotic world and endangered my dream of serving my country," Caban said.

In early 2010, she received orders to Lajes Air Base, Portugal, and failed her first PT test just six weeks after arriving.

"The first failure was perhaps the hardest," said Caban. "I knew the standards and tried to meet them, but there was just too much going on. I felt like I had failed everyone who believed in me or gave me a chance, and things spiraled down from there."

During her re-test six weeks later, she failed again.

Without a passing PT score, she would not be allowed to attend Airman Leadership School, a requirement for promotion to staff sergeant. Motivated by the stripe, she managed to pass her next PT test.

"I was so close to losing my stripe, and that fear of my dream ending pushed me forward," said Caban.

She went to ALS and got the stripe, but her injuries flared up and began causing trouble. She started gaining weight rapidly and her medical problems began piling up.

She stayed active and maintained a healthy diet, so to her, the sudden influx of pounds was incredibly frustrating.

Almost 100 pounds later, she topped out at 265 pounds, and showed symptoms of pre-diabetes and anemia. She was in such bad shape that she got corneal damage and had to start wearing glasses again, despite a Lasik surgery just two years earlier.

In early 2011, six months after graduating ALS, she failed her third PT test with a 48-inch waist.

"Even my doctors weren't giving me the time of day," Caban said. "I was fat. I just needed to stop eating. That's what they told me, and I believed them."

Finally, medical tests revealed she had a severe thyroid problem, but treatment produced minimal results. With the medical problems continuing, her life kept heading in a career-ending direction and she increasingly isolated herself.

When she reported to Whiteman in late 2011, she kept to herself.

"I was so frustrated with everything that I didn't let anyone into my life," Caban said. "I even kept it from my leadership. All they saw was a fat person who couldn't control herself. I had stopped trying and I had stopped caring.

"I wasn't getting the answers I wanted from my doctor, so I got a second opinion," she added. "Finally, my new physician realized my medical problems were real. She looked me in the eyes and told me, 'I am going to help you through this.'"

Caban finally had someone on her side, so she again braced herself mentally and resolved to finally end this long chain of complications.

But her back problems steadily grew worse, forcing her to live with constant pain she could not escape.

She was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and since she didn't work to alleviate that problem, the pounds continued to pile on.

In April 2012, she failed another PT test, her fourth in 25 months. Air Force policy is to discharge any Airman who fails four tests in 24 months. Although she had been lucky with the timing, she had little hope for a future in the military.

"It was tough. There were so many nights I was concerned for what my future would hold, but the words of the Airman's Creed helped me through," she said.

But now, she had to figure out how to live up to that creed and overcome her faults, which seemed unlikely given all the hurdles she faced. Back surgery was presented as a solution which could cure many of her ailments, but her excess weight eliminated her potential candidacy.

That day in 2012 she returned from vacation was the day she faced the truth about how bad it had gotten.

"My loved ones didn't love me anymore because of what I had become," Caban said. "I didn't want to accept how fat I was. I couldn't move without pain, I was losing my career and every day just felt like I was in a bubble. I felt so alone."

She had a final surge of resiliency, and was determined to make it happen this time -- no excuses and no hiatus until she was healthy.

She teamed up with a friend from Puerto Rico who had managed to lose almost 240 pounds.

They developed a strategy of exercise, nutrition and education, and she dropped 47 pounds in six weeks. Her thyroid started functioning properly, and the signs of pre-diabetes disappeared. She felt optimistic now about her career opportunities. She managed to lose another 21 pounds and quit taking all medications.

She joined a support network of other people struggling with similar problems, which she credits for helping her through this tough time.

"They helped me see me for who I really am, not just someone who was so out of shape," Caban said. "If I needed someone to talk to, they were there. We kept each other going and if I needed an extra boost of confidence, I had the support I needed."

She went on to have back surgery in November 2012 to remove the four discs which had troubled her since her deployment.

"I was told I would be out of work for six months, but I wouldn't accept that," Caban said. "I had a lot of time to make up for and I love my job, so I challenged myself to get better faster. I had to prove to everyone how much I really loved serving my country, and I had to prove I belonged in the Air Force."

She pushed herself through multiple daily sessions of intense physical therapy, determined to get her life back on track. Every day she woke up sore and went to bed exhausted, but it paid off.

She returned to work only two months after surgery.

"I realized I had to accept responsibility for the condition I was in and deal with the cards dealt to me," she said. "More than anything, I had to keep fighting."

Since then, she has slimmed down to 172 pounds and has become a fitness and nutritionist specialist, a passion she said she plans on carrying with her for the rest of her Air Force career.

"If I can inspire even one person to not give up when they are going through a tough time, sharing all the embarrassing details about who I used to be will be worth it," Caban said. "Being in the military is not a tranquil choice, and it requires us to all bounce back from tough situations."