Being shot at in combat not as bad as mistreatment for Lyme disease
Col. Nicole Malachowski delivered the following public comment to the February 28, 2022, meeting of the federal Tick-borne Disease Working Group.
I’m Colonel Nicole Malachowski, United States Air Force, Retired.
Lyme disease & tick-borne illness pose a unique risk to military service members, their families, and our veterans. This cohort is high-risk, due to the unique exposures of global military service. This is a Military Readiness issue.
In 2017, after 21 years of honorable service as a fighter pilot, I was medically retired after being found “100% unfit for duty due to chronic systemic tick-borne illness.”
Since my retirement, I’ve served as a trained Air Force Wounded Warrior Program Mentor (no endorsement implied) to airmen facing medical discharge. Not a month goes by that I’m not working with someone dealing with Lyme disease.
Front line medical providers in the Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Administration (VA) are not properly trained to consider Lyme disease and global strains of Borrelia in their differential diagnosis.
We are medically retiring honorable service members that are undiagnosed and misdiagnosed.
Millions of dollars in training goes to waste
This is unacceptable. Our taxpayers have invested millions of dollars into the training of our military members, and in too many cases, the American public is not getting a proper return on their investment.
The CDC increased its Lyme disease case count to 476,000 annually. That number is low. Why? They choose not to include the medical records of the largest healthcare system in America: the DoD and the VA.
Even if they did, the case count would still be low because the DoD and VA rely heavily on serology and the 2-tier testing system meant for surveillance use only. Front line DoD and VA medical providers are untrained to, and uncomfortable with, making a clinical diagnosis.
It took me four years to get the VA disability system to recognize the very illness for which I was medically discharged. As part of this battle, they forced me to succumb to a psychological evaluation to ensure my chronic symptoms were not psychosomatic. The indignity of this insulting appointment was swept away by the psychiatrist’s findings, which concluded my chronic illness is, in fact, physical in nature.
Yet, she did diagnose me with “medically-induced PTSD.” She accurately pinpointed the damage done by years of struggle for diagnosis, access to care, treatment, disability benefits, and the appalling lack of support from both the DoD and VA.
Abandonment and betrayal
Think about it: I’ve been shot at in combat, but that is not what caused my PTSD. It was caused by the unnecessary controversy surrounding Lyme disease, years of gaslighting, abandonment and betrayal by the DoD, an abysmal lack of education & awareness by front line clinicians, poor diagnostics, therapeutic standards that did not cure me, and a VA disability system that fails to understand chronic tick-borne illness.
Our service members, military families, and veterans deserve better. This requires a whole of government approach, one that the DoD and VA are uniquely suited to positively impact.
This is, indeed, a military readiness issue. You want to thank me for my service? Fix this problem. Thank you.
Col. Nicole Malachowski was the first female Thunderbird pilot. In addition to commanding a fighter squadron, she served as a White House Fellow and an advisor to First Lady Michelle Obama. She is now a professional speaker and fierce advocate for the cause of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.