Airman seeks to rejoin pararescue team despite loss of leg

Staff Sgt. August O’Neil, Air Force Wounded Warrior, and fellow pararescueman and Wounded Warrior, Staff Sgt. Nick Robillard, prepare to deliver the Care Beyond Duty flag during the opening ceremony of the 2016 U.S. Air Force Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb. 26, 2016. The Air Force Trials are an adaptive sports event designed to promote the mental and physical well-being of seriously wounded, ill and injured military members and veterans. More than 100 wounded, ill or injured service men and women from around the country will compete for a spot on the 2016 Warrior Games Team which will represent the Air Force at the US Military Academy at West Point in June. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Curry/Released)

Staff Sgt. August O’Neil, Air Force Wounded Warrior, and fellow pararescueman and Wounded Warrior, Staff Sgt. Nick Robillard, prepare to deliver the Care Beyond Duty flag during the opening ceremony of the 2016 U.S. Air Force Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb. 26, 2016. | U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Curry

In July 2011, Air Force Staff Sgt. August O’Neill, a pararescueman, was sent to rescue a group of Marines pinned down in Afghanistan when enemy insurgents opened fire on his team’s helicopter.

A round bounced off the helicopter’s door, tearing through both of O’Neill’s lower legs and critically wounding his left, resulting in 20 surgeries over the next three-and-a-half years as doctors tried to save the limb.

O’Neill finally told doctors to remove his left leg last year, but he remains determined to continue his career as a pararescueman.

Determined to Resume Career

“I haven’t looked back since,” said O’Neill, who’s training with the 342nd Training Squadron here, as he prepares to requalify for assignment to a pararescue team.

“I knew I wasn’t done doing this job,” he added.

Pararescue isn’t an easy job for any airman, let alone one who’s had their leg amputated just above the knee, but O’Neill believes he’s still up to the task.

“There are going to be issues that come up here and there,” O’Neill said. “But I’m sure I’ll make it back on a team. Just like anybody who hasn’t been in their job for a long time … I basically need to make sure everybody else knows that I’m capable of doing the job, and … I need to make sure I haven’t lost anything that I need.”

Pararescumen serve in one of the most physically demanding fields in the armed forces, with the journey from basic training to joining an operational unit spanning almost two years, according to the technical training course guide.

Seeking a ‘New Normal’

O’Neill said he isn’t expecting any special treatment as he trains over the next few months to demonstrate his mission readiness.

160226-F-NB144-165

Wounded warriors and Air Force pararescuemen Staff Sgt. August O’Neill, right, and Staff Sgt. Nick Robillard pose for a portrait with the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program flag at the 2016 U.S. Air Force Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb. 26, 2016. | Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Curry

“I wouldn’t want to do this job if I couldn’t meet the same qualifications as everybody else, because that would put the people on my team at risk,” he explained. “You’re only as strong as your weakest member, so if I can’t keep up with them, that means they’re carrying me and that’s not something that I want.”

Living with a prosthetic is a minor annoyance in terms of his daily routine, O’Neill said. He doesn’t sleep with the leg on, for example, so he has to hop to the bathroom or the refrigerator when he wakes in the middle of the night.

“It’s just finding a ‘new normal’ for all the things I was able to do with two legs before,” he explained. “I’ve just been finding ways to get everything done.”

That minor annoyance turns into a bigger challenge during pararescue training, where O’Neill will have to depend on his ingenuity and adaptability to meet the other demands to the job.

“Anything from picking up a patient — where I can’t just roll down on a knee and lift them up — I have to find a different way to brace myself to get people up and move out,” he noted. “Everything is challenging, but it’s just a matter of finding out how to do it.”

As if navigating this “new normal” wasn’t enough, O’Neill said his training has been grueling.

“It’s tough mentally and physically,” he said. “You aren’t pushed to your limit — you’re pushed beyond that — to the limits that the instructors know you can reach. There are so many qualifications that you need to keep up with that you … can’t do so without being mentally prepared.”

One thing, at least, hasn’t changed for O’Neill since returning from his injury.

“I don’t like running,” he chuckled. “I’ve never been a distance runner and after four years of not running … that’s still difficult, but I can still run. It’s not as pretty as it was before, but I’m able to at least get the job done.”

TOP ARTICLES
SpaceX launching a third top-secret satellite

SpaceX is launching a secretive mission this month. The mission, shrouded in secrecy, has some considering it may be for the CIA or the NSA.

This is how the Air Force will use prop planes on high-tech battlefields

The Air Force is looking toward a light-attack aircraft program, known as OA-X, to produce a plane that meets its needs and gets the job done.

A retired SEAL commander on how to stop thinking and 'get after it' every day

This former Navy commander has some excellent advice on how to jump start your day, and "get some" in order to make it as productive as possible.

Marines return to battle in 'old stomping grounds'

The Marines recall their "old stomping grounds" as they return to Fallujah and the surround areas of Al Anbar Province to battle a new enemy.

How Chinese drones are set to swarm the global market

China has stepped up it's drone game, and even though United States technology can still compete, China's drones are kind of really in demand.

That time two countries' Special Forces squared off in combat

In an area the size of the Falkland Islands, British and Argentine special operators were bound to run into each other at some point – a lot.

5 times pilots got in trouble for having fun in the sky

When pilots decide to do some fancy flying in their high-performance fighters, it can land them in trouble once they're back on the ground.

This is why Nazis dubbed these paratroopers 'devils in baggy pants'

"American paratroopers – devils in baggy pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night," wrote one German commander.

9 ISIS weapon fails that you have to see to believe

Many bad guys just want record themselves laying rounds down range for social media purposes — and we're glad they did. Laugh away, America!

US Army recruitment campaigns, ranked from worst to best

Advertising can really impact recruitment for the military. For better or for worse, here are some of the Army's most memorable slogans...