Amputation couldn't keep these pilots out of the skies
More than 1500 service members have lost limbs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
For those faced with this traumatic injury, the Department of Defense medical system has adapted in the last 20 years to speed up the recovery process and improve prosthetics.
“Our patients have challenged us by wanting more,” said Col. (Dr.) Mark Mavity, Air Force Surgeon General special assistant for Invisible Wounds and Wounded Warrior Program. “One of the unfortunate truths of war is that medicine does advance based on the large numbers of our service members who become injured.”
About 1.8 million Americans are living with amputations. The psychological challenges patients battle every day can be harsh. For most people, losing a limb profoundly impacts every aspect of their life: mentally, physically and spiritually. A strong support system can be vital to recovery and returning to duty.
Capts. Christy Wise and Ryan McGuire can attest to this. Both Wise, a C-130 pilot, and McGuire, a C-17 pilot, lost a limb and credited their support systems with helping them continuing their service and remain flying.
“In April of 2015, I was stationed at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. I had been flying for a couple years and had just got back from a deployment,” Wise said. “I was in Florida … out on my paddle board, just behind my best friend’s house, and I was hit by a hit-and-run boat driver. My boyfriend at the time used his t-shirt and made a tourniquet to save my life.”
A couple on a fishing boat saw it all happen and transported Wise to medical care. She lost 70 percent of her blood in approximately three minutes.
Lucky to be alive, Wise said she thought about McGuire, who in 2009, while in pilot training at Laughlin AFB, Texas, lost his leg returned to flying C-17s. She remembered him because he was only a year ahead of her in pilot training.
It was Labor Day weekend when McGuire’s accident happened. He and some friends from pilot training were out tubing.
“There was no place to tie the tube into the boat, so we had the tube in the back of the boat, and I was holding the rope,” McGuire said. “The tube caught some air and flew out the back of the boat, and then the rope unraveled, cinched around my leg and pulled me out of the boat, slammed me into the side of the boat on the way out.”
McGuire said he flew over his friends’ heads and landed in the water. The rope then unraveled around his leg and caused traumatic rope-burn damage from his right knee down to his foot.
“I was able to get back into the back ledge of the boat that’s level with the water, and then the pain started setting in, I knew something was really wrong,” he said. “My pelvis had popped open, or fractured, and my hip had dislocated, so I was in an incredible amount of pain.”
After multiple attempts to save his foot and leg, doctors were forced to amputate below the knee.
“That was probably the lowest point of my life, just going through the amputation surgery, and losing my leg for something that seemed like it was so trivial, and not that big of an accident,” McGuire said.
Even at this low point, McGuire never doubted he wanted to return to flying. But for service members to return to duty after accidents such as these, they must be able to prove they can continue to function, while maintaining the safety of those they support.
McGuire’s unit and leadership backed the idea and began the process of returning him to duty.
“One of the things that I insisted on from the beginning, and all the commanders below me and above me insisted on, is if we’re going to do this, this isn’t a [publicity] stunt,” said Brig. Gen. Craig Wills, director of strategy, plans and programs for Pacific Air Forces.
Wills was the operations group commander at Laughlin AFB when the accident happened. He believes McGuire’s character, and the support he received, was the key to his recovery and return to duty.
“I think this story shows that we have great squadron commanders out there, and in my mind, the squadron commanders involved were the key to this thing,” he said. “Because they never stopped believing in [McGuire], they never stopped for one minute trying to think of a way to help this Airman succeed.”
One of the things McGuire had to prove was that he could stop the airplane with a prosthetic leg and that he could control it without any additional risk.
McGuire also appeared before a board. But even here he wasn’t alone. His squadron commanders and some classmates also flew to San Antonio to testify on his behalf.
“It was amazing for me as the group commander to just look around see all these gentlemen that were lining up to support Ryan,” Wills said.
In 2010, McGuire received word from the medical board that he was cleared to return to pilot training.
Now, several years later, Wise was in the back of an ambulance worrying about her Air Force career.
“I remember laying in the back of an ambulance thinking, ‘I can’t feel my leg, this is not good,’” Wise said. “But worst-case scenario, ‘Ryan did it, I can do it.’”
Wise’s injuries were so severe her leg had to be amputated above the knee.
But before she even left the hospital Wise said the support from her unit and other Airmen had already commenced. She even received phone calls from other amputees wanting to help.
“They would say, ‘Hey, when you’re ready to talk, I got back to flying, we’ll tell you the steps, you can do it, don’t doubt it,’” Wise said.
So, like McGuire, Wise put in the work and proved she could still fly.
“And now I’m here, I’m at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base [Arizona] back on flying status, back to my job and loving it,” she said.
McGuire’s injury may have paved the way for Wise to return to duty, but it is not what helped her regain her flying status.
“That’s when I realized how much support I really had from my unit, from the Air Force, from my family, from my friends,” she said. “I mean, half of my base showed up in the hospital room the next day in Florida. So it’s weird, because it’s such a dark chapter, but such a good chapter too.”