Fearlessness is not really about the absence of fear. It is more about respecting fear’s presence and then kicking its ass. That’s how Nicole Condrey faces all the things in life that could cripple her with fear if she let them.
It’s how she didn’t blink at traveling to new places to perform her duties as a Foreign Services Officer. It’s how she learned to leap out of planes, and then to strap fireworks to her leg, and explode them out into the sky while sailing to the ground. She met the love of her life as she learned the latter, and for a brief moment in time they lit up the sky together. Then her husband began to suffer from a deadly disease that took Nicole right along with him on a rollercoaster of tumultuous times.
Ron spent years in the Navy. He worked as an Explosive Ordnance Technician (EOD Tech). He also survived a helicopter crash, a Humvee rollover and, as Nicole says – “…like every good special ops guy,” he got himself into plenty of trouble on a motorcycle.
The combination of all those experiences caused repeated trauma to Ron’s brain. Traumatic brain injuries are no joke, and too many people live with their aftermath. Symptoms resemble PTSD and are often mistaken for such. Meantime, undiagnosed and untreated TBI can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can lead to behavioral changes, mood changes, cognitive challenges, and dementia.
Ron, like so many others, was diagnosed with PTSD by VA doctors. He threw himself into whatever treatment he was prescribed, well aware that he needed help and committed to living a long and healthy life with Nicole.
It tore Nicole Condrey up to see her husband struggling so much.
Little by little, the man she knew was slipping away from her. In his place was a man prone to anger, rage, and depression. They stopped doing things they loved, like hiking, when basic cognitive functions like understanding he needed only a water bottle for a quick hike became too much for Ron.
Nicole knew in her heart that her husband was facing something other than PTSD. Not that he wasn’t affected in some way by the things he saw on deployments, she says. But the symptoms he was experiencing were far beyond that.
“I think he might have CTE, and there’s more to his condition,” she told the VA Neuropsychologist. But her concerns were brushed off, and her husband continued to be told he had PTSD.
As Nicole pushed harder to help her husband, he began pushing back. He pushed everyone away from him. He became more withdrawn, more angry, more depressed and frustrated.
It wasn’t easy to deal with. At first Nicole thought Ron was just being a jerk. But as things progressed and she gained a clearer understanding of the real issue, she knew better.
As terrible and terrifying as it was to watch her strong husband disappear into himself, Nicole pushed her own pain and fear aside to be there for him.
She knew her husband, and she knew the real Ron would never want to hurt her or upset her. “It was the disease controlling him,” she knows. It was her love for him that gave her the strength to double down on helping him. “You have to feel that love sometimes because without it you would think, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy!”
She learned to hold on to him for those ever-dwindling moments in time when he would return to himself, and they could reconnect before he was taken away on another round of mental anguish.
Even when he was hurting, says Nicole, he would find a way to talk to other veterans at the VA and encourage them. “If only you could listen to yourself,” she would think, as her own frustration mounted.
Things went from bad to worse, and Nicole left her job to focus on Ron. He’d been diagnosed with brain injuries and was waging his strongest battle against them. She’d been calling out of work to take care of him, but the time came when she knew he had to be her only priority. Her voice does not waver when she talks about leaving the job she’d had for 17 years. Any sadness she may feel about giving that up seems almost inconsequential to her, as the love of a career paled in comparison to the love for her husband. “He wasn’t getting better and he deserved all of my love and attention, for sure,” she says.
The couple found an outlet for their energy and their relationship to be nurtured.
Team Fastrax is known as “America’s skydiving team.”
Together, Nicole and Ron joined the team and became part of events around the world jumping out of planes and putting on shows with our nation’s colors.
Nicole loves everything about it, from the rush of jumping, to the rush of patriotism felt when the flag is unfurled and flapping in the wind, often accompanied by fireworks exploding around them as the team soars through the sky, and down to the ground.
Not only does it inspire patriotism for the crowds, Team Fastrax has programs for veterans to take them outside their comfort zone and help them reconnect with life.
For small windows of time, with Ron jumping alongside her, all their problems floated away. In the sky it was just them and their team, and everything good about life. The physical activity helped Ron reengage his brain and function again. But on the ground, Ron’s symptoms would reemerge, and his spiral accelerated.
Finally, in September of 2018, Ron ended his own life. It’s hard for Nicole to talk about. It’s still raw and terrifying. She had her first true anxiety attack recently, and it caught her off guard. She knows it will likely happen again as the trauma trickles through her protective wall she’s built around her heart.
Fortunately, Nicole Condrey has a warrior’s heart of her own and an extended family in her Fastrax team.
She’s built a close network of family and friends and that, she says, is critical for any level of success. One of those friends is Jason Redman, a former Navy SEAL who told Nicole and Ron about the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The foundation is determined to end CTE by researching it and thus learning how to combat it. The catch is, effective research requires exploring human brains, and that can only be done post mortem. So people have begun donating their own brains and the brains of loved ones to this foundation, so it can better research healthy and impacted brains and develop a plan to treat this disease.
Within two days of Ron’s death. Jason had helped her coordinate with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Forty-eight hours after his death, Ron’s brain was being studied to help researchers learn about what CTE had done to him, and how to help others suffering from the same disease.
“It feels like Ron is still giving back,” says Nicole. Literally. And now she does too, as she continues Ron’s legacy by supporting this research.
Most people do not know that a general commitment to donate their organs after death excludes the brain. A separate, specific pledge to do so must be made. Those interested in learning about pledging their brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation may do so here, or donate funds here.
Some people may think Nicole Condrey gave up everything for the man she loves. But Nicole doesn’t see it that way. She continues to jump with Team Fastrax and loves how it makes her feel close to Ron again. Back on the ground after each jump, she is inspired by the impact the performance has on crowds. She also pitches in to help veterans and Gold Star Families have special experiences.
It is not easy, but Nicole Condrey found a new purpose in life because of Ron. If Ron were able to tell people one more thing, she says, it would be to encourage people to be the kind of American worth fighting for.