A good day for reflection. What was and what is now. It’s been ten years now and some days it feels like it all happened yesterday. So much has happened since then and I’m greatful to be here today. This is a long read, but please do so if you like. Writing it all down is therapy of sorts.
I dread this day. I dread it every year. It’s been coming every year now for ten years. Today at approximately 4pm CST (Midnight Baghdad) will mark ten years since I last walked unassisted on this earth. I would like to have used those last steps playing with my kids, running with the dog or carrying my wife to bed, but I used them running to my helicopter to launch on that last mission.
The last mission…would I have done things differently had I known it was to be the “last mission”? Had I known what was to come, would I have still gone? Knowing me and knowing our type in the 160th…Yes. I probably would have still gone and just tried to figure out a way to change the outcome. But, we don’t get second chances at life and things are the way they are.
That last mission was really no different, other than the outcome, from hundreds of missions just like it that I had run. 31 May 2008. We had been at war for seven years and I had been in the thick of it from the beginning. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was doing exactly what I had trained to do for many years. I had been on one combat rotation to Afghanistan as we dealt the first blows of the war to an enemy perverted by hate, and this was my 20th combat rotation to Iraq. Since early 2003 my life consisted of one rotation after another. Thirty to ninety days down range, then back home for the same amount of time, then back to the “show”. When I was deployed, all I thought about was getting home and when home, all I thought about was going back.
That last mission. We flew down to Baghdad from Balad as a flight of two AH-6s and landed at Weeks HLZ. A HLZ named after my friend CW5 Jamie weeks, located at MSS (Mission Support Site) Frenandez named after MSG Fernandez. As we entered the building that night we stopped and looked at a wall with the pictures of all SOCOM members who had been killed in the war. We took time to reflect and shared some memories of the guys we knew on that wall and then continued on to the brief.
We were supporting our British friends that night. Two people separated by a common language. Although difficult to understand at times, we made it through the brief and got a quick translation from English to American where needed. I won’t go into the details of the mission as it was nothing really different from what we normally did. After the brief, we went to the planning room and put together some products and planned for the mission. As we walked out to the aircraft with plenty of time before we had to crank and take off, our crew chief, SPC George, came running up to us out of breath with a message that the ground force was at the VDO (Vehicle Drop Off) and proceeding to the Objective. Crap! Something changed and we didn’t get the word, now we were late. We were supposed to be in holding within two minutes of the Objective when they arrived at the VDO.
We sprinted to the aircraft, strapped in, cranked up, commo checked and then departed in a haste. On the downwind leg at Baghdad airport we heard a strange sound from the rear of our aircraft. A blowing sound of sorts is how I would describe it. My co-pilot, CW3 Greg Cooper, noticed the sound as well. We discussed it internally, checked all our instruments and the flight characteristics of the aircraft. Everything was in the Green and no unusual vibrations. We decided to continue the mission. The strange noise would be the only indication we would receive of an impending failure of the K-Flex coupling connecting the engine to transmission drive shaft. The stage was set for a catastrophic mechanical failure.
Approximately 15 minutes after departure we arrived in holding and attempted to contact the ground force. No radio contact, however the F-18 overhead heard us and notified us that the ground force had just departed the FOB (Forward Operating Base) and were en-route to the VDO. Remember that game of Telephone you played as a kid? That’s what happened to us. The message sent was different by the time we received it and launched prematurely. I did the math in my head and decided it was better to stay in holding and wait than it would be to return to the MSS, gas up again and then return to holding. So, we entered holding at a reduced power setting and airspeed in order to conserve gas and to await the Ground Force’s arrival. We were at 300’ AGL (Above Ground Level), 60 KIAS (Knots Indicated Air Speed) and headed 180 degrees. We were getting a lot of feedback over one radio and I asked Greg to switch radios for us. He turned his attention inside the cockpit and began to change frequencies.
The time was approximately midnight and we had been flying for a mere 15 minutes. The aircraft weighed approximately 4500 lbs. Still very heavy and loaded with a full complement of rockets, mini-gun ammo and gas. Winds were out of the north at 25 knots, visibility was about 5 miles with dust, illumination was Zero.
There came a muffled explosion of sorts from the rear of the helicopter and immediately we dropped from the sky and yawed to the left. The driveshaft had failed and there was no power to the rotor system. I entered an autorotation, turned hard left towards a landing area, checked the rotor RPM as it climbed and sent out a Mayday call. We were coming out of the sky fast and I could only get in a 90 degree turn as I spotted what I hoped would be a suitable landing area. Then things really sped up. As we neared the ground all I could see was the rush of green through the NVGs coming up. I decelerated and then pulled what is called Initial with the collective control. I told Greg to get ready for impact. I last remembered looking down and seeing our rotor RPM drop into the red and Bitching Betty telling that the rotor was low. Then impact!
I don’t recall, ever in my life, hitting the ground as hard. If you have ever been in a high-speed automobile collision, then you can relate to the sound. That crushing sound! The sound of crushing metal as the wind leaves your lungs and then the eerie silence once everything has stopped moving. Upon impact, I felt the bone explode in my lower back as if I had been hit by a sledge hammer. Not knowing exactly what had happened, weather we had been hit by ground fire or suffered a mechanical failure, I completed an emergency shutdown and yelled to Greg that we had to get out of the bird. I could smell gas. Were we on fire? Were we surrounded by the enemy? Greg, suffering a concussion and broken back, exited the aircraft and as I grabbed the handle to my right and attempting to step out of the aircraft, it was then that I realized that I could not move my legs.
F*ck! I was stuck in the helicopter. Was this bitch on fire? Am I going to burn to death? My family won’t have remains to see in the casket. It will have to be closed with what was left of me inside. I assessed the situation. We weren’t on fire! Thank You Jesus! Who is around us? The Mujh? I pulled out my M4 and fired several shots into what was a dirt berm to the right of the aircraft to warn anyone nearby to stay away. As soon as I did that I regretted my decision to do so. Would my sister bird overhead think we were in a fire fight? Then from the front of the aircraft, lying on the ground in agony, Greg yelled out “Gary! They’re shooting at us!” I told Greg it was only me. I pulled out my MBTR radio and attempted to make contact with my other aircraft. No luck. Greg tried with the same results. Our secure fills had both dropped, so we attempted to make contact in the Red (unsecure). No comms. Both pilots down with broken backs. I sat and waited. Help would be here soon. Then the pain kicked in. I checked my legs, hoping to find they were both broken and it was just shock preventing me from moving them. Both legs were intact. It was then I confirmed what I already knew. I had a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed. Many thoughts raced through my mind there alone in the dark and they all said the same thing. This was going to suck.
Suddenly a friendly face appeared right next to me. CW2 Steve Redd, the co-pilot flying with CW4 Jerry Blackwell, my Dash-2, my sister ship, my friend, was here to get me out. He asked what happened. Were we shot down, what? I told him it was mechanical and that my legs wouldn’t move and that Greg’s back was broken. He quickly triaged me and then moved to Greg. I don’t remember exactly what happened next. Everything was such a blur. But, somehow a flight of 2 MH-60s loaded with Rangers headed to another target, heard the call that Varmint (our call sign) was down. The Flight Lead, hearing the call immediately headed towards our location. The Cavalry was coming!
As Steve was tending Greg, suddenly Rangers surrounded my aircraft grabbed me by the arm and said “Don’t worry Sir! We’ll get you out of here!” God bless them. I yelled out and Steve was there. I told Steve to not let them move me, or I would never walk again. Steve coordinated with the Rangers securing the crash site and soon Greg was packaged up and evacuated on board our MH-60s. I would not see Greg again for many days.
Steve was by my side again and I was telling him to call CSAR and that they would have to cut me out. All this I’m sure he already knew and had already been done when the Medic on board the MH-60 learned of my injury. Soon the Airforce PJs were at the crash site and cutting away the frame of the cockpit. As they cut away the cyclic control between my legs, I felt my legs drop, lifelessly, to the side. The PJs lifted me from the crushed bird and strapped me to a back board and rushed me to the awaiting MH-60 Pave Hawk. On board, our 160th Medic, Doc Dobbins, worked on me. As we lifted into the night, leaving the carnage below, I felt a sense of relief. Doc gave me a fentanyl lollipop for the pain. I spit it out and told him I wanted to be lucid and remember what was happening. Doc yelled over the whining of the Pave Hawks transmission and engines and told me we were going to the CSH (Combat Support Hospital, pronounced “Cash”) in Balad. Okay, that should be about a 30-minute flight I thought. After what seemed a lifetime, we were landing.
When we landed at the pad I was trans loaded to an ambulance. I remember Doc asking where were we. He said he was just here, thinking we were at Balad, and the CSH was right there. Pointing in a general direction. The driver shrugged his shoulders and off we went. It seemed like a ten-minute drive and we hit every pothole in the road, I’m sure. Once in the hospital a Doctor came in the room and asked, pointing to me, what I was doing here and that obviously, I had a spinal cord injury. Doc asked “Just where are we?” The Doctor then told us we were at Camp Sather on the outskirts of Baghdad. The Air Force took us to the wrong hospital! Critical treatment during the “golden hour” had been delayed. The doctor then turned and shouted at someone to call the bird back.
I was once again loaded onto the ambulance and we made the bumpy ride back to the LZ. At one point, I told Doc to tell the driver to turn around as I was sure he had missed a pot hole.
On board the Air Force bird again, we made the long flight to Balad.
Arriving at the CSH in Balad, I was rushed in and the work began. I remember a cute nurse having to catheterize me with pitty in her eyes as another doctor gave me a rectal exam, checking for tone in my anus. Great. So much fun. Rolling me onto my back, another doctor cut into the vein on my right clavicle and inserted some kind of probe into my heart. He came back and had to readjust it because he said it was tickling my heart. Several scans later and the cutting away of my uniform, a woman asked me if I had talked to my wife. She asked me for her number, dialed the phone and handed it to me.
Mari’s voice came over the satellite phone. “Hello”
“Hey Babe. It’s me. Has anyone from the Unit contacted you?”
“No. Why?” with concern in her voice.
“I’m okay. I’ve been in a bad crash and my back is broken.” There was a pause.
“I can’t move my legs.”
Mari had the frame of mind to have me talk to the kids. It was the beginning of a very long night for her and it wasn’t about to get any easier. She immediately went into crisis management mode making arrangements for the kids, contacting the unit and arranging transportation to whichever hospital I was going.
The morning of 1 June I was flown to Germany where I would have surgery to stabilize my spine. The next day I was flown to Walter Reed in Washington DC where Mari awaited me.
At night, alone I would think “What am I going to do now? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. What am I going to do now?”
I could write a book on the recovery process and what we experienced as a family, and maybe one day I will. But, for now I’ll move on.
We lost a great deal as a family and suffered great loss. But, I was alive and we moved on, trying to rebuild as we went along. After three months in various hospitals and recovery centers, I came home.
Life with this new “normal” was difficult and frustrating. I concentrated on getting stronger and coordination with various doctors and Mari coordinated modifications to our home. We moved forward, the two of us. Together we made a good team.
I went back to work that winter of 2009 as the Officer in Charge of the aquatics facility and was medically retired in 2010. In August of that year, I went to work as a contractor in the flight simulator. I would end up staying there for seven years.
Several years after the accident and after my retirement, I was wearing down. I had lost my job, my career and life as I knew it. I went from being an apex predator on the battlefield, a leader among men and a part of the greatest special operations force the world had ever known, to someone that had no control of his bowels and bladder. I now needed help doing some of the simplest of tasks. I was so ashamed of what I had become and I felt so isolated and exiled.
A spinal cord injury is a very cruel injury. It takes so much away. In my case, it had taken my legs, bowel and bladder function, sexual function and left me debilitated and in constant pain. The isolation and loneliness is overwhelming. I tried to pretend it all away. I went to work, I worked out, I kept a smile on my face and tried to remain hopeful and maintain a good attitude. But, this injury was beating me. It was death by a thousand cuts.
I entered a dark time of my life. A time where I could not see a future for myself or my family. What I did see, was heartbreaking. I began to believe that it would have been better if I had died that night. I had ruined everything. It wasn’t fair for my wife. She didn’t deserve this, nor did my kids. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
It didn’t happen all at once, but rather over time. It began with a thought, like a small seed, and then continued to grow. The thoughts creep into everyday day life and if nourished, will consume you. How could I get out? A bullet to the head? No, too messy. I wouldn’t want my family to find me that way or have to clean up after me. How much Ambien would it take to do the job? I had plenty of that. Maybe mixed with something else, it would do the job. Hell, I don’t even know if Ambien can kill you. What if it didn’t and I ended up worse than I already was. A knife wound to the femoral artery would certainly do the job. Painless really. But, again the mess. I could drive my truck into a tree or concrete overpass, but again, that wasn’t certain.
I think it happened quite innocently really. A conversation with my son one evening. We were talking about someone who had taken their own life, the pain it caused and the selfishness of it all. How selfish. Did he sense what I had been feeling? Was he telling me something? Was God working through him and telling me something? I was so hopeless and I prayed and prayed for God to take it all away. I just wanted out and I didn’t care how. I told Him that I couldn’t do it.
The saying that God won’t give you more than you can handle is a lie and is incorrect. It took me some time to realize that. It did not come as a sudden epiphany or moment of clarity, but over time and it started with that innocent conversation with my son. I came to understand that I could not go it alone and that I was not supposed to. God had given me a wonderful wife and children, loyal and caring friends, a grateful nation, and Him. Where I thought there was no purpose left in life, I once again saw purpose. God was not done with me and there was something else. Maybe it was not what I had thought it would be, but there was something.
I have been very fortunate since that night that changed my life and the lives of my family and friends. I have meet so many people that have helped us along. A simple question from Col Hutmacher in September of 2008, “Do you want an iBOT wheelchair?” has led to so much good in my life and for my family. That one question and the resulting “Yes” from me has led to lifelong friends and connections. That question led the way for an iBOT, which led to an exoskeleton, which led the way for a relationship with the Infinite Hero Foundation, which led to the ability to walk my daughter down the aisle on her wedding day, which has led to so much joy and happiness in my life. I still have one more to make that same walk with. I think of my dog Justice, of the land we found and were able to purchase, a relationship with Gary Sinise and the resulting home his foundation is building for us. I think of the many friends we have made along the way, Jim, Gary, Laurie our friends with the NHRA, and many more and I am so grateful to still be in this world. Especially, when so many did not make it home.
Today, Mari and I attended the annual Night Stalker memorial. This is the first time it has landed on the same date as the anniversary of my accident. As the names of those memorialized on the wall were read off, many of them I knew and were friends, Steve Redd’s name included. I thought how my name was almost there. I’m still here. There is still purpose for me. God’s not done yet. I’m still here and dedicated to live a life worthy of their sacrifice. I owe that to them. I owe that to my family. I owe that to myself and my Creator.
I still dread this day and probably always will.