CHANNEL ISLANDS AIR NATIONAL GUARD STATION, Port Hueneme, Calif. --
Senior Airman Todd Senff from the 146th Civil Engineer Squadron (146 CES) has spent the better half of a decade testing the limits of his physical and mental boundaries in pursuit of fulfilling his passion, military service.
As the first feature story and interview in a series of features covering resilient airmen, we highlight Senff, a modern day minute-man from the California Air National Guard.
Since 2009, Senff has been working inside the 146 CES project management office, examining all of the bases contracted service provided projects from outside vendors. Everything from replacing a building’s roof to repairing the base roads, projects under Senff’s meticulous examination are monitored to completion and ensured to meet the contractual agreement to the base.
Project management work suits Senff well as he enjoys working outside and walking around the small installation, always trying to get his “steps in,” as he says.
On a good day Senff is already close to finishing his 10-mile goal after his daily morning walk. Whatever is left over is easily made up walking around at work and usually done by the time the sun is starting to rise above the Santa Monica mountains behind the base.
Senff has an admirable drive, accomplishing more in a morning than most do in an entire day. His hard-earned drive is the direct product of a challenging path of life he’s walked to be where he is today. As active as Senff is now, life wasn’t always a walk in the park.
In his young adulthood he faced the challenges of obesity and combated depression shortly after graduating from high school. Weighing 320 pounds at his largest, Senff found himself like a lot of kids who graduated high school and looking for other options besides college. Unsure.
However, there was always one career path he felt certain about.
Senff dreamed of joining the military and following in his family’s long tradition of military service behind his father, uncle, grandfather, and great grandfather, who had all served honorably in the U.S. Army.
Then something horrible happened, something that pushed Senff over the edge of uncertainty and sent him rushing to his pathway towards military service. On September 11, 2001, Senff had decided to enlist. There was only one problem.
“I just wanted to serve like a lot of people did after 9/11; the problem was I had just gotten so big that it turned into something that would preventing me from joining. It was really frustrating because I was tired of being big, and I was trying to join, but I couldn’t even get into the fat class or whatever you call it,” said Senff.
After being deemed unable to serve, a motivated Senff began exercising with the intent to enlist soon. During his time training, an unexpected opportunity presented itself in the form of working for the Navy. Working as a civilian at Naval Base Ventura County -Point Mugu, he began fulfilling his second passion, photography.
In his earlier youth Senff developed his avid passion and skill set for photography, which was passed down from his father, who mentored Senff in the early days of speed film photography.
“With my enlistment being on hold; I kept focusing on losing weight and training, I eventually become certified to fly in the backseat of all kinds of different military aircraft and take photos for the Navy. I found myself all of a sudden, making a living from one of my passions while still kind of fulfilling my first passion,” said Senff.
Continuing his diet and exercise program that he maintains to this day, Senff would lose his heavy body weight in two years by conquering a healthy mindset and lifestyle, which he attributes the key to his success.
“The hardest part about losing weight is getting your mind right because you can do all the things you need to do to lose weight momentarily for a week or two, really anyone can,” said Senff. “Staying on it and maintaining that lifestyle is what really takes the work, it’s very difficult.”
Unfortunately, soon after achieving his drastic weight loss, he would eventually lose his job with the Navy due to budget constraints. Senff still looks back and remembers his time as a photographer for the Navy fondly.
“I had a really fun time working for the Navy with some nice camera equipment,” said a laughing Senff. “We’d be out on Navy ships, and get sea spray all over us, which made it hard to take care of the equipment due to corrosion but we worked hard to take care of the cameras and were able to document the Navy’s flying mission.”
With his Navy civilian job behind him, Senff decided it was time to revisit the option of military service and enlist next door to the Navy base with the 146th Airlift Wing (146 AW).
Initially, intending to become a loadmaster, a duty position responsible for properly loading, securing, and escorting cargo and passengers before each flight with the wing’s C-130 J Super Hercules aircraft, he ended up deciding to join the 146 CES after careful consideration.
“I thought I would want to be a loadmaster; I still think it’s a cool job, but I wanted something I could use after the military and use in the private sector, and I’m glad I did,” said Senff.
Physically and mentally conquering his obesity while opening the door to his military career with the 146 CES, Senff would close the door towards his photography position with the Navy with happiness, finally achieving both his goals at last. Continuing to maintain his weight loss regiment and serve in the California Air National Guard, Senff was reaping the fruits of his hard labor.
Then out of nowhere, his life unexpectedly changed forever.
It was a hot day in the summer of 2012, Senff and a buddy of his were doing a 10-mile run that they would do on a regular basis when Senff fell down and began having a seizure.
Doctor’s would initially misdiagnose Senff and attribute the seizure to poor hydration, but an unconvinced Senff found his way into the care of a specialist.
After getting an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of his brain, doctors informed him they found a golf-ball-sized tumor on his right frontal lobe.
Devastated, Senff waited for the results from the biopsy of the tumor, which would reveal the tumor to be non-cancerous.
Relief would be brief as doctors would examine his next course down the realm of life-altering medical procedure possibilities.
“I remember the doctor from the University of California Los Angeles saying this isn’t cancerous, but if you leave it in there, it could turn to cancer because the tumor was just cells, and cells do whatever they want,” said Senff.
“I decided I was 32, I’m young, and I got to get it out of there now. I was going to remove that tumor, I just got that feeling and kept saying to myself just get it done. That’s just how I am very motivated,” said Senff.
The first operation would prove to be a semi-success, as the doctors removed most but failed to remove all of the tumor on the first try.
Shortly after Senff’s head would swell due to a staph infection related to the initial surgery, during this time his family had taken pictures of the effects of the infection, which he reviews from time to time to remind him of that moment.
“The infection made my head swell up so much, and I was so sick it made my head look like Sloth from the Goonies, it’s pretty entertaining to me,” said Senff.
Returning to surgery, they cleaned the infection from his head; however, the amount of trauma amassed to his brain in such a short amount of time would leave him paralyzed on his left side. Waking up from surgery, Senff recalls the exact day his life changed forever.
“January 5, 2013, a UCLA doctor told me, most likely, you will never walk again, live unassisted, or work again,” said Senff.
Terrified from the doctor’s news, something in Senff kept telling him the doctor was wrong.
“I was crushed, it crushed me, but at the same time the doctor was telling me this, there was something in the back of my head that said you can make it past this. I didn’t know to what extent it’s going to be, but that isn’t going to be my life,” said Senff.
Mentally tapping into the same will power that would drive him from the shallows of his depression with his weight and ineligibility to serve, Senff began physical therapy and occupational therapy with the determination of relearning how to walk.
“I was initially using slide boards that I used to get in and out of bed, then eventually started using a wheelchair. I got tired of that, so then I was learning how to walk on a three-point cane, which then left me to eventually create small goals that I would set for myself once I mastered my balance,” said Senff.
“When my balance was good, then the cane was history. After that, I started walking from my bed to the couch, then moving on to traveling from my couch to the mailbox, and so on,” said Senff.
Senff started moving around a lot, regaining much of his mobility in a short amount of time. Astounded, his doctors praised Senff for his willful determination. However, their enthusiasm would become more perplexed due to Senff’s sooner than expected returns to their office for yet another medical issue.
“These doctors gave me these plastic leg braces to help me walk, these things that they gave me were made for old guys who had strokes and are walking around their house. They aren’t meant for guys like me who were walking 10 miles a day, said Senff.
Senff, who wasn’t about to let the results of his surgery get in the way of his conquest of getting his steps in, continued to keep walking long distances until he no longer needed the braces to walk.
“I was blowing out the joints of the cast where the ankle comes together, and they had to build them out of stainless steel for me, which I blew out twice,” said Senff.
Recently during a move to his new home, he found the old braces and debated on whether he should throw them away.
“I thought about it, but I decided to still keep the braces as a reminder of a place I have come from, and all the miracles God has worked through me,” said Senff.
Senff attributes his extra-ordinary mental fortitude with a strongly founded connection in his faith, which he credits as the best tool in his resiliency toolkit— Always referring to his favorite biblical verse in times of struggle.
“My favorite verse is from Philippians; I can do all things for Christ who strengthens me. I would say, ok, let’s test this verse, and it would push me, so I would never give up. For me having faith is important; even if you’re not religious, even if your faith is yourself, it’s critical to helping tread through whatever you’re dealing with,” said Senff.
Utilizing exercise, strength in his faith, and his avid passion for photography, Senff continues to strengthen his resiliency as he currently waits for the decision of a medical board on whether or not he can continue his first passion, serving in the military.
“Right now, I’m non-deployable, which makes me feel like less of an asset at times. But I can still do a lot of things in my job based on the knowledge and skills I have gained while working in the California National Guard at Channel Islands,” said Senff.
During a recent 146 CES deployment, Senff was employed full time as a temporary technician and began thriving in his duties. However, Senff’s job as a temporary technician requires a current military service affiliation to remain hired. With his medical board decision looming, it’s a possibility Senff could lose his job again. This time due to a medical discharge.
Commander of the 146 CES, Major Shane Patty, relies heavily on Senff to assist with all contracted projects on base. Patty thinks Senff is a benchmark to study for those who struggle with keeping their resilience strong, believing Senff isn’t finished showing everyone what he has got to offer just yet.
“He’s the epitome of resiliency, and he’s been a Senior Airman since his surgery before even I got here while knowing that he could be medically retired at any moment. He’s watched his peers he joined with a move up and promote in their military careers, one would think his morale would be down, but that’s not the case at all. He comes in every day with that same excitement of just wanting to serve,” said Patty.
“Witnessing Senff’s enthusiasm to serve while serving alongside him has been incredible,” said Patty.
Patty says Senff’s possible departure would personally affect him and his airmen from the squadron but understands the reality of the situation, he and Senff continue to remain positive and focus on the many benefits Senff has created in his time as a technician.
“He is in an intense job position, it’s a deputy BCE’s (Base Civil Engineer) job, and for him to come in with zero background and excel is a God-send as far as I’m concerned. It’s helped us out a lot. It’s definitely going to hurt if he leaves. My biggest job is to take care of my airmen, so It’s frustrating because there is only so much in my control to keep him, and the reality is, he’s one of my strongest performers,” said Patty.
Patty says until the day comes when Senff receives his discharge date, he vows to do anything and everything in his power to try and keep him citing the detrimental loss they will infer from his departure.
“This is a guy who wants to serve, we are a volunteer force, and he is a selfless individual who gives hours and hours of his personal time to make the base better, like getting the food trucks to come out to the base before drill. That’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time, but it got people to come out and meet each other during the week, connect, and raise morale,” said Patty.
Patty also believes the untold story of Senff is a good place to revisit for airmen struggling to remain positive.
“I think everyone needs to hear his story,” said Patty. “If you are ever having doubts about yourself, after listening to his story, it would help connect you to the hope you’re fighting for. He’s never stopped fighting, and he’ll never stop fighting.”
Senff feels good about what it took for him to get where he is now, and even knowing that it could all possibly come to an end, he’s happy to be still a part of it all.
“It’s tough and I don’t like to think about leaving here, I really don’t. Right now, I’m here, and until the day they tell me to turn in my CAC (Common Access Card), I’m going to stay just as focused as the day that I got here,” said Senff.
“I joke with my wife that serving in the Guard was my longest relationship before I met her,” said Senff.
If and when the time comes to turn the page on his military career, Senff says he will miss his military family the most. Continuing to find new opportunities through a new door, he’s confident he’ll find one just like before.
Similar to when he closed the door on his photography career with the Navy, he attributes his resiliency is the key to open the next door when the time is right.
“After this door closes, another one will open, and I know that for a fact. I just have to roll with it, and I’m ready for whatever comes,” said Senff.