MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala— --
Unloading his gear before sunrise, a cool breeze whistles across the calm lake water welcoming the hopeful fisherman before his hunt. Birds are beginning their morning songs, anticipating their catch, as does the driver of the boat, who calmly releases his vessel from its trailer’s captivity.
The vessel’s release from its trailer is the only sound interrupting the chorus of birds and breeze-blown leaves.
“When I was a kid fishing with my dad, I remember reeling in my first fish. It was a rush of excitement, and I was hooked since then,” explained Staff Sgt. Alex Stojadinovic, Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development finance technician. “It frees me. I cast and reel, focusing on my goal, and there is a peace for me in this.”
Finding peace has been a process for the Alabama native. To ascend to that place, Sto had to get his bait hung on a few branches before the "keeper" took the bait.
“I had just started riding motorcycles and someone ran a stop sign and hit me at 45 miles per hour,” he said as his eyes squinted, remembering the traumatic event from almost six years ago. “I had a compound fracture in my femur, losing about 17 centimeters of bone, a shattered knee cap, both lungs collapsed, a traumatic brain injury, heavily lacerated lungs and heart, torn up kidneys along with a fractured liver.”
Despite several months of hospitalized recovery, Sto was still confined to a wheelchair for several months. He had to re-learn how to walk and talk. Most importantly, he had to figure out who he was inside as the incident continued in his thoughts as the incident replayed in his mind like repeating lyrics on a scratched record.
“After my accident, they took 13 blood clots off of my heart,” Stojadinovic said. “During a checkup, they found a hole in my heart, and they did another surgery to repair it. Had they not found it, I wouldn’t be here today.”
As he continued casting his line and dancing the lure back to the boat, he added that the hole in his heart possibly ending his life wasn’t the only obstacle to him living still today.
Roughly two months after getting home from the hospital, Stojadinovic’s battle started shifting from physical to mental.
"It seemed to be doctor appointments and grueling physical therapy sessions all the time,” he said. “On top of losing feeling in both of my legs being replaced with constant sharp pain, mixed with the docs not certain where the pain was coming from, all of which dragged me to a dark place,” he said. “The pain meds weren’t helping the agony of the sandpaper-feeling sheets on my bed. I was extremely irritable and moody and eventually I contemplated taking my life to escape the torment.”
Eerily close to becoming one of the reported 200-plus service members who commit suicide annually, Stojadinovic leaned on the support of his brethren, along with a familiar outlet to which he drew in his youth to conquer his inner demons.
“I credit my recovery to my family: biological and Air Force family,” he said. “I had wingmen that would check up on my daily. They did more than wheel me over to fish in my wheelchair. They made sure I was taken care of, and just knowing they had my back and I could count on them helped me push through the pain and get back to being in the right frame of mind. I did go speak with mental health, which was very helpful and not a career ender like people assume, but without my wingmen, I would not be here today.”
Recovered physically and mentally from his accident, Stojadinovic deployed in 2015 with the Army. Working with a Special Forces unit proved to be an eye-opening experience for him, one that took a bit of adjustment once he returned.
“Many guys have had deployment impact them in worse ways than I,” he said. “It took some time to adjust once I got back to being around people again and sort of gather myself from the experiences I had while away.”
Leaning on a familiar remedy, Stojadinovic took his R-and-R to the boat and fished for two weeks straight.
“I don’t know if there is some magic healing that goes with fishing,” he said. “With my wreck, my deployment or just a stressful few days at work, I just seem to be able to find myself out here. I may not always find the fish, but I can bounce back and be at my best when I get back to work afterward.”
When he isn’t ensuring finances are in order for Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, Stojadinovic can be found fishing out on an Alabama lake, where he continues to find peace.
“Anytime you face a traumatic experience, you can either let it rule your life, or you can acknowledge that ‘this sucks’, and push through it,” Stojadinovic said. “Surround yourself with wingmen and good friends and find the outlet for you to replace those thoughts with. No obstacle can be too big if you have good wingmen, and maybe a good fishing hole.”