“Call me when you quit”

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
He’s met queens and princes, presidents and movie stars.  He’s won multiple gold medals, carried the American Flag to center field during the opening ceremonies of Super Bowl LI, and has been in the company of some of the U.S. military’s most senior officers.
And yet, he remains grounded, humble, and grateful for the opportunity to live another day, even without his left leg.
Tech. Sgt. August O’Niell, an Air Force pararescueman, visited the Air Force Technical Applications Center Oct. 20 to tell his story of resilience, courage, fortitude, and determination to a rapt crowd in the center’s Northrup Auditorium. 
Accompanied by his father, Danny, and stepmother, Toni Kinsch, O’Niell described the day that ultimately led to the amputation of his leg above the knee.
“We were on a rescue mission in Afghanistan when our helicopter came under fire from enemy insurgents,” he said.  “Several rounds pierced our helo and one of the rounds bounced off the door, came through my left knee, out the right side of it, down through my right calf, and then out again. Believe it or not, at first I wasn’t sure if I was hit, but once I moved my leg into a different position, that’s when the pain set in.”
Once stabilized enough to be transported, O’Niell’s lengthy medical evacuation took him from Helmand Province in southwest Afghanistan to Bagram Air Base, 60 kilometers north of the capital city, Kabul. He ultimately landed at the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, to get the initial medical attention needed to repair the significant damage he incurred before being airlifted back to the States to receive care at San Antonio Military Medical Center.
His brother was the first family member to be at his side through the ordeal.
“My brother is my best friend,” said O’Niell, “and we’re also both extremely competitive. Since both of us hate to lose, it keeps our relationship interesting!  He joined the Air Force before I did as a Combat Rescue Officer, and when I told him I was looking at becoming a PJ, he laughed and said, ‘OK, call me when you quit.’ That’s all it took to solidify my choice to join the PJs!”
When an injured servicemember needs saving from a hostile or otherwise unreachable area, pararescuemen, or PJs as they are better known, jump into action to their aid.  These highly trained experts are skilled parachutists, scuba divers, rock climbers, swimmers, runners, and medics.  They conduct missions in some of the most extreme and hostile places on the planet, holding true to their motto:  That Others May Live.
O’Niell certainly took that motto to heart, especially when he talks about his own life and the struggles he’s faced. 
“I underwent 20 surgeries in three and a half years, had my leg amputated (making that 21 surgeries in total), been in a state of depression, and fought a tremendous uphill battle to remain on active duty after my amputation,” he said.  “But you know what?  My life is great.  I get to do really cool things and I have no regrets.  I love the adventure of not knowing where the next path will take me because you just have to make the best of it.”
And make the best of it he has.  O’Niell married his beautiful wife, Chelsea, in 2020, and together they’re raising their 6-year-old daughter, Marianna, who O’Niell calls his “Fireball.”
“She’s got every bit of my goofy personality, and thankfully she inherited my wife’s beauty!” O’Niell gushed.  “Marianna only knows me as being an amputee, so when her curious friends ask about my prosthetic, she casually refers to it as ‘Daddy’s hard leg’ and that pretty much ends the conversation.  Kids are resilient that way.”
O’Niell’s father Danny, a retired Air Force officer, could barely contain his pride – and tears – when asked how he got the news about the attack his son endured.
“We were in Puerto Rico at a family reunion,” he said, choking back his emotions as he recalled that fateful day.  “August’s wife at the time called us to break the news, and my first question was, ‘Is he alive?’  I could barely breathe waiting to hear the answer to that question.”
But Danny was also the first person to support his son’s decision to fight to stay on active duty and to remain a pararescueman.
“This was his dream and he always told us he felt free when he was airborne in a helicopter, so as a parent, you always want your children to follow their heart,” the elder O’Niell said. “I am a very lucky parent, and I am so proud of him and all he’s achieved.”
His stepmother echoed her husband’s sentiment.
“Auggy has amazed me ever since he was a little boy, and after his accident he amazed me even more,” Toni said.  “If he was in pain, he never presented it or acted like he was sad or struggling. All our relatives in Spain always ask about him – he’s like a celebrity to them!”
O’Niell keeps a close cadre of friends on speed dial if and when he needs to talk, and relies on a select few professional mentors to encourage and motivate him through any rough patches.  But the thing that motivates him most is knowing he’s impacted others.
“There have been times when I’ve been a guest speaker or been at a public event or something like that, and someone will come up to me to say the know me.  Once I was at the Center for the Intrepid (the rehabilitation facility at SAMMC that serves military personnel suffering from amputations, trauma and severe burns) and this guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re Sergeant O’Niell, aren’t you?  I know you.  You saved my life in Afghanistan.’ That’s when it makes it all worthwhile.  That others may live.”
The Invictus Games gold medalist credited one mentor in particular who’s played a pivotal role in pulling him out of some tough times when the pressure seemed insurmountable.
“Without a doubt, I will forever be indebted to Chief Master Sgt. John Chacon for being such a powerful role model,” O’Niell said.  “The impact he has had on me – not just as an Airman, but as a human being – is immeasurable.  Everyone should be as fortunate to have that kind of presence and mentorship in their lives.  I’m blessed.”
Kevin Callan, AFTAC’s Chief of Manpower and Organization Division, is a close family friend of the O’Niells, and was the catalyst in getting the Purple Heart recipient to visit the center for a second time – the first was in 2017.  His presentation was so well received that he agreed to speak to the workforce again.
“I first met Sergeant O’Niell in 2001 when he was in high school,” said Callan.  “When I think back to when I saw him after one of his many surgeries before his amputation, those were some pretty dark days for him.  He was feeling down, missed his teammates, and struggled to do simple things that he previously did without any difficulty.  Then in the next breath, he said he was not done fighting and was not a quitter.  This is just one example of the tenacity, dedication and untiring characteristics that makes Auggy Auggy.  I consider him to be an American hero and an inspiration for others to follow and learn from.  I can’t thank him – and his parents – enough for taking the time to speak to us at AFTAC.”