News: EOD amputee returned to duty
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - After months of surgeries and rehabilitation, continuous physical therapy sessions and a full medical evaluation board an explosive ordnance technician gets to remain an airman.
"It's exactly what I've been working so hard for," said Staff Sgt. David Flowers, a seven-year veteran who lost his right and most of his left leg to a land mine in the mountains of Afghanistan. "I didn't want to leave, [EOD] it means a lot to me."
The path Flowers traveled from that horrific incident in Afghanistan back to duty status with Detachment 3, 366th Training Squadron was arduous and at times in jeopardy. The NCO said there were moments when he thought his days as an airman were over, but he remained solely focused on his goal to return.
May 11, 2009, was Flowers' last day as a completely qualified EOD tech, but he didn't know it then.
While securing and disposing of a weapons cache, Flowers stepped on a land mine. The blast took off his right leg at the knee and shattered his left. Even though the horrendous incident changed his life forever, the sergeant can joke about it two years later.
"My foot flew up and hit me in the face," he remembered. "I actually kicked myself in the face."
Flowers also suffered a broken right arm and permanently damaged hearing. He believes his fellow EOD techs, Staff Sgt. Gene Tschida and Tech. Sgt. Lilly Smith, saved his life that day.
After the blast, Tschida, regardless of the threat, still sprinted across the field to begin medical treatment on Flowers. Smith rushed to call in the medical evacuation from a satellite phone.
"They did the impossible," said the grateful and visibly emotional NCO. "It's easy to lie on the ground and bleed. The hard part is to mustering up the courage to race across a minefield and save somebody's life."
After arriving at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the sergeant underwent 29 different surgeries. Muscles were removed from his stomach and back and placed on his left leg. Skin was also removed from the side of his thigh and placed on his calf. By putting his wife, Elizabeth, in the non-medical attendant program, the Air Force allowed her to be with him through it all.
In September 2010, Flowers felt he was ready to move on to outside treatment.
"They were great at getting you back on your feet and even keeping you there, but I felt I could get help somewhere else and not take time from others who were still on their backs," said the Airman.
Medical treatment and prosthetics were the first priority when choosing his next duty location. Eglin hospital and a local area prosthetics lab met his needs and the opportunity to return to the Navy EOD School as an instructor made for a perfect match.
"I felt the students here needed to see what was really going on in this career field," said the Mississippi native. "You can talk all day [to students] about someone who was hurt or died, but until they see it firsthand, they have no connection to it. I can show them what it's really like."
Since 2006, 18 EOD operators have been lost and 90 have been awarded purple hearts for their efforts in the areas of responsibility, according to Chief Master Sgt. Al Schneider, superintendent of Det. 3
"Since the beginning of the wars [on terrorism] the battlefield has evolved and it puts Air Force EOD on the front line," the four-time deployer said. "Though the drawdown is beginning to happen, EOD Airmen will remain in harm's way for the foreseeable future."
Before leaving Walter Reed, medical officials created a narrative summary of Flowers' health status. The summary initiates the medical board process and includes a full breakdown of injuries, capabilities and mobility. A medical board determines if a military member is fit enough for continued duty or should be separated from the military.
Upon arrival here, he met with his new doctor and began his road back to duty.
"When we discussed his return to duty and the attached limitations, his first question to me was if he would be allowed to deploy as an EOD expert," said Dr. Jeff Schievenin, 96th Medical Operations Squadron. "I don't think I've ever met an airman so dedicated to his specialty and his EOD troops."
In December 2010, Schievenin drafted a new summary and a local medical evaluation board convened at Hurlburt Field. The board determined Flowers was indeed fit for duty in a limited capacity.
Flowers said he was ecstatic after hearing the news and it was exactly what he'd hoped for. He said he never expected there was a chance he'd have to separate from the Air Force.
In the meantime, the 30-year-old fashioned a zipper to the right leg of his ABU pants to help with removing or adjusting his prosthetic limb. He also began crossfit exercises and participating in physical training with the Air Force EOD students.
"His resiliency and exceptional work effort in his rehab plan has been inspirational," said his doctor.
Another obstacle stalled his recovery path when the Air Force Personnel Center recommended a 40 percent medical retirement in February.
"I did not expect that after all I'd been through," he said remembering the frustration and anxiety he felt of potentially leaving the Air Force.
Flowers said constant talks with his Chief [Schneider] kept him cool and focused through two months of waiting.
In May, Flowers met with a lawyer at Lackland AFB to review his options with plans for an appeal. Instead of an appeal, the lawyer advised the best option for Flowers was to apply for limited assignment status.
According to AFI 36-3212, the LAS program conserves Air Force manpower by retaining needed Airmen of experience and skills. Flowers took the chance and applied hoping AFPC would approve his change in status.
Within two weeks of submitting the application, Flowers got the good news. His physical evaluation board liaison officer informed him he could to return to duty under the LAS program.
"This was my end goal of the entire process," said the relieved airman. "I just wanted to be an asset to the Air Force and give something back to the next generation of our EOD Airmen."
That is exactly what he'll do after he completes EOD instructor training at Keesler AFB, Miss. His class begins in August.
"If I can't be out there kicking down doors or disarming explosives, I want to do something beneficial to the EOD community. I just want to help," he said.
Although Flowers said his ordeal was distressing and the process to return to duty was wearisome at times, the end result was all that mattered. He remained a service-before-self airman by returning to the service he loved to create a path for others wanting to follow in his footsteps as a military EOD technician.
Date Posted:08.08.2011 16:42
Location:EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, FL, US
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