JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
Air Force pilots play a vital role in supporting wartime operations by delivering supplies and flying wounded troops to hospitals in hopes of saving their lives. Rarely do they find themselves looking down a scope firing at enemy combatants.
However, 1st Lt. Kevin Summerbell has felt the recoil of his rifle and heard the thunderous roars of a firefight well before feeling the thrust of an aircraft or hearing its jet engines hum as they pulled air through their metal frames.
"I had three close friends in high school and we all saw what was happening on the news with the war and decided to do our part," the 15th Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III pilot said. "We each joined separate services, I wanted to be boots on the ground, and so Army it was."
It was 2003, Sumerbell was 18 years old, having only graduated high school three weeks prior when he raised his right hand in defense of the U.S.
"Just seeing my father wearing an Air Force uniform growing up played a huge role in my decision to join," Summerbell said.
Summerbell deployed to Iraq twice as an infantryman during his time in the Army.
"We were doing a lot of the kicking in the doors, searching for intel and leading the operations my first time over," Summerbell said. "When I went back for my second tour, we were training the Iraqi army in preparation for them to defend their homeland."
According to Summerbell, the mission was different and he was focusing more on intel gathering than engaging the enemy face-to-face, so firefights were not as common as when he first deployed, but that would change near the end of his deployment.
"Our sister unit was taking heavy casualties in their area of operations, so we took their place to offer relief," Summerbell said. "Our mission was to capture a high-valued target connected with suicide bombings, so we expected to face some sort of resistance."
The Blackhawks swooped down from the night sky and sergeant Summerbell, the team leader, and his unit dismounted from the helicopter and made their approach toward the known location of the suspected terrorist.
"We found and detained our target and began heading back to the Blackhawks, everything was going smoothly," Summerbell said. "Not far from the helicopters a call came over the radio that a large group of people were converging toward our location, but the unmanned aerial vehicle could not discern if these individuals had weapons or not."
A translator within Summerbell's unit said "come out with your hands up," speaking in the native tongue, but as soon as his voice cut off, the group began firing upon the American Soldiers.
"We moved toward the contact in a horizontal line laying down fire, but as we came closer I had unknowingly flanked the enemy from the left side," Summerbell said. "The enemy quickly realized the change in direction of fire and responded by focusing their fire at my position."
A shower of bullets rained down upon Summerbells position, but he continued to return fire.
"After emptying my clip on the enemy and killing two of them, I reached for a new clip," Summerbell said. "I grabbed a fresh clip and before I knew it I was on the ground with extreme pain in my left arm."
Traveling at more than 1,000 feet per second, the bullet tore through the muscle, ligaments and bone knocking Summerbell to the ground.
Summerbell spotted the clip he dropped and began to reach for it, but his left arm lay motionless.
Blood covered fingers somehow still able to move, he gripped the magazine and attempted to force it into his rifle.
Unsuccessful and frustrated, he resorted to banging his weapon and magazine into the dirt covered ground, but that too was futile.
"I tried everything possible to reload my weapon, but I was combat ineffective and knew I needed to treat my wound no matter how much I wanted to help my fellow Soldiers," Summerbell said.
Grabbing a tourniquet from his shoulder he wrapped it around his arm where the bullet went through his arm as well as he could with just his right arm.
"When the fire died down, I lifted my left arm up and braced it as close to me as possible and made my way to a Soldier I was good friends with," Summerbell said. "I remember tapping my friend on the shoulder telling him I had been shot, but each time I told him he would turn and look at me with these bulky night vision goggles on his head and nod."
After telling his friend three times he had been shot and needed help with no response, he pulled him toward him and showed him the wound.
"What I didn't realize is that my friend couldn't hear because helicopters providing air cover had just dropped a hell-fire missile on the enemy combatant's position," Summerbell said. "We could feel the heat from the flames and it looked like a 'Star Wars' movie with all the flashing lights."
The enemy combatants were eliminated and Summerbell was the only Soldier wounded during the firefight. He was medically evacuated and received medical care to stop the bleeding.
"I was transferred to different bases in the area to have different surgeries performed before being flown to Germany and eventually back to the United States to recover," Summerbell said.
Summerbell received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his wounds and courage on the battlefield that day in Iraq.
"Since the bone in my arm was severed, it took several surgeries to repair it and months to rehabilitate it," Summerbell said. "My parents visited me when I returned to the states and stayed with me during the beginning of my recovery."
Even though Summerbell had made it home and was not going to lose his arm, all he could think about was how he left the fight early.
"I only had a few months left on my deployment, but I was a team leader and those were my brothers that were still over there fighting," Summerbell said. "Time is something you're not short on while lying in a hospital, and all that time I thought about my brothers."
Doctors told Summerbell he would most likely never be able to do pushups or pullups again, which was hard for him to hear. He continued with therapy to rehabilitate his arm and eventually regained mobility as well as strength.
"When I recovered I separated from the Army and went back to college," Summerbell said. "It was during college that I started to really test how much strength I had in my arm by lifting weights and doing exercises gradually. Eventually I was back to doing pushups and pullups even though I was not ever expected to do it again."
Time passed and Summerbell continued with school, but said he still felt like he could serve his country and wanted to rejoin the military, but this time he would commission instead of enlist.
"When I thought about commissioning I remembered flying back after being shot and lying in the back of a C-17," Summerbell said. "Ever since that day I knew if I was going to return I would return as a C-17 pilot."
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, attending ROTC and completing flight school, Summerbell made his way to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, where he would become a C-17 pilot with the 437th Airlift Wing.
"It has been an interesting life so far in the military and where at one point I found myself in the back of a C-17, I now sit at the front and fly the aircraft that brought me home safely after being shot," Summerbell said.
Summerbell recently returned to Iraq to drop off supplies and has even been a part of aircrews that take Soldiers back to the states from the war.
"It's a great feeling knowing I'm able to bring back my fellow Soldiers from the war while executing the Air Force mission as a pilot," Summerbell said.