Amputee returned to duty

  • Published
  • By Samuel King Jr.
  • 96th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
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) means a lot to me."

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 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 said. "I actually kicked myself in the face."

Flowers also incurred a broken right arm and permanently damaged hearing. He said he believes his fellow EOD techs, Staff Sgt. Gene Tschida and Tech. Sgt. Lilly Smith, saved his life that day.

After the blast, Tschida 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," Flowers said. "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.

In September 2010, Flowers said he felt he was ready to move on to outside treatment.

"(The medical staff members at WRAMC) 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.

Before leaving Walter Reed, medical officials created a narrative summary of Flowers' health status. The summary initiated the medical board process and included a full breakdown of his injuries, capabilities and mobility. The medical board would determine if Flowers was fit enough for continued duty, or if he should be separated from the military.

Flowers was reassigned here, where the Eglin AFB hospital and a local-area prosthetics lab could meet his medical needs and the Navy EOD School lent the opportunity to become an instructor.

"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, from the 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, Fla. The board determined Flowers was indeed fit for duty in a limited capacity.

"His resiliency and exceptional work effort in his rehab plan has been inspirational," said his doctor.

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.

"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 killed in the line of duty and 90 have been awarded purple hearts for their efforts in the areas of responsibility, said Chief Master Sgt. Al Schneider, the 336th Training Squadron, Det. 3 superintendent.

"Since the beginning of the wars (on terrorism), the battlefield has evolved and it puts Air Force EOD on the front line," said Schneider, who has deployed four times. "Though the drawdown is beginning to happen, EOD Airmen will remain in harm's way for the foreseeable future."

Flowers faced another obstacle in February 2011 when Air Force Personnel Center officials recommended a 40 percent medical retirement.

"I did not expect that after all I'd been through," he said.

Flowers said constant talks with Schneider kept him cool and focused through two months of waiting.

In May, Flowers met with a lawyer at Lackland AFB, Texas, to review his options, with plans for an appeal. Instead of an appeal, the lawyer advised Flowers to apply for limited assignment status.

According to Air Force Instruction 36-3212, Physical Evaluation for Retention, Retirement and Separation, the LAS program conserves Air Force manpower by retaining needed Airmen of experience and skills. Flowers took the chance and applied.

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," he said. "I just wanted to be an asset to the Air Force and give something back to the next generation of our EOD Airmen."

Flowers is scheduled to attend EOD instructor training at Keesler AFB, Miss., 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.