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Resilient And Relentless: Recruiter Faces Death, Heals Through Desire to Serve

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bobby Pilch

After nearly losing his life and being out of uniform for the past 22 months, an Air Force Reserve recruiter used his time among his teammates at the annual recruiting training event at St. Charles Illinois, in November to fuel his continued recovery and to reflect on why he serves.

Master Sgt. Manuel Salinas was preparing for a big move to Hawaii from Travis Air Force Base, California, in March of 2022 to advance up the recruiting ladder as an in-service recruiter just before suffering from life-threatening acute pancreatitis due to hypertriglyceridemia, a condition that causes high levels of triglycerides – a type of fat – in the blood.

“I was supposed to go to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii,” Salinas said. “I had my house up for sale with an offer pending. Life was good and then this happened.”

Salinas initially thought he just had stomach pain. However, he would go on to face death while in a month-long coma and undergo a dozen surgeries to bring him back from the brink.

“All of my organs began to shut down due to the pancreatitis, including my heart,” Salinas said. “Thank God the base emergency medical team at David Grant Medical Center had the wherewithal to realize they didn’t have the capacity to take care of what was happening to me and made the decision to life flight me to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, nearly an hour away by car.”

As Salinas described what few details he could remember leading up to and during his medevac flight to UC Davis Medical Center, he somehow found humor in portraying his life-saving trip.

“So they intubate me and place me on what I will call a vessel,” said Salinas, as he could not recall how he was being transported. “The last thing I remember was that there was a guy with a big helmet on, with his visor down, who lifted a plastic flap to hit a red button. I was like, ‘holy crap … what’s going on?’ I honestly thought I was on the space shuttle due to the medication I was administered before the flight.”

Holding back tears, Salinas described the next 24 hours as told to him later by his family and Dr. Rachel Russo, who was the on-call emergency surgeon at UC Davis Medical Center the night of his ordeal and a major in the U.S. Air Force assigned to the 60th Medical Group at Travis AFB, California.

“Russo, who oversaw me that night, had called my family and one of my best friends, Senior Master Sgt. Cassandra Casul, a fellow Airman stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, at the time, and told them they needed to get to the hospital because I was not going to make it through the night,” said Salinas, with wet eyes and his voice shaking. “Typically, a doctor doesn’t get that wrong.”

A month would pass before Salinas would regain consciousness and realize what happened during his trip aboard the space shuttle.

“I opened my eyes to a huge window and saw stars. It was dark,” Salinas said. “As I looked to my right, I noticed individuals wearing long, white lab coats. My initial thought was that I had been abducted by aliens and I am somewhere in outer space. I was tied up with all sorts of tubes and thought they were running tests on me. Once I fully regained my bearings, I became cognizant of what was going on and looked down to see my stomach open and a colostomy bag attached to my side.”

As Salinas’ recovery progressed, he began to engage with friends, family and recruiting leadership, with his mind set on his passion for recruiting.

“The first thing I asked leadership when I saw them was, ‘Did you give my assignment away? Because I still want to go to Hawaii,’” Salinas said.

Prior to his donning the Air Force uniform, Salinas served in the Army for 10 years, five as a recruiter. Recruiting and service to his country run deep in his blood.

“I was coming up on my 10-year mark with the Army when things were going on in my life that prompted me to get out of uniform,” Salinas said. “I ended up getting a great civilian job at an oil refinery. However, it just wasn’t me. I needed to get back to ‘boots.’ So I joined the Reserve as a traditional Reservist, serving one weekend a month, and followed a path to becoming a recruiter full-time.”

During his three weeks of continued recovery at UC Davis, Salinas’ recruiting instincts and tenacity resurfaced.

“I was trying to recruit the nurses,” Salinas said. “I was asking them, ‘Hey, do you have student loans? We have great repayment programs.’ I am not a healthcare professions recruiter, but I was thinking of how I can help connect these medical professionals to HP recruiters and serve this great nation.”

Despite a tough road of recovery ahead, Salinas never questioned whether or not he would continue to serve and recruit tomorrow’s Airmen.

“I can honestly answer that question with one word – ‘Never!’” Salinas said emphatically. “I’m here because I love serving this nation and being able to put on the uniform is a blessing to me.”

Integral to Salinas’ recovery, his leadership and fellow squadron teammates stood by him every step of the way to ensure his rehabilitation and that he could continue to perform his recruiting duties.

“He is someone I have known for a long time and a recruiter who has done so much for everyone else and epitomizes selflessness,” said Chief Master Sgt. Adam D. Eldard, senior enlisted leader with the 353rd Recruiting Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, California. “Once I was initially alerted to what was going on with Manny, I drove over to the intensive care unit. After realizing the gravity of his situation, I contacted the members of our recruiting flight and we prayed for him and made sure his family was taken care of. Several first sergeants, some from other squadrons, flew out to take shifts at the hospital to watch over him and meet with the family. If there’s anything I know about this guy, no matter what condition he was in, he was going to push through and get better.”

Lt. Col. Harold A. Tongson, 353rd RCS commander, had just taken command of his squadron several months after Salinas’ brush with death and ultimately had to make key decisions that could greatly impact Salinas’ future.

“My biggest concern was his overall health,” Tongson said. “I loved the fact that Manny wanted to get back to his recruiting mission. He’s very determined, but sometimes we had to tell him to slow down and throttle back a little bit. However, the overall decision for me to help him retain his role as an Airman and a recruiter was obvious and clear. He is dedicated to his craft and bleeds Air Force. So, let’s do what we can to get him there.”

Fast forward to Nov. 8, 2023, when Salinas, with more than 17 years of service, reenlisted in front of his fellow recruiters and leadership for the last time by raising his right hand for the Oath of Enlistment administered by Tongson.

“I am beyond blessed to have the leadership I have,” Salinas said. “They saved me and my career. I adapt and overcome whatever I do. I am alive. My recovery now is definitely fueled by not just the need, but also by the desire, to put the uniform on and do what I feel I do best in the military – recruiting … relentlessly.”

(Pilch is assigned to the 367th Recruiting Group.)