Injured cadet finds support close to home

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. J. Paul Croxon
  • Defense Media Activity
It's been almost one year since Air Force ROTC Cadet Matthew Pirrello lost his leg in a parachuting accident that left him fighting for his life. One thing that has remained the same though is the dedication and graciousness of his two older sisters who have put their own lives on hold to help their brother get his life back.

Last summer, Cadet Pirrello came to the U.S. Air Force Academy here for the basic parachuting course. On the second of five scheduled jumps, he was unable to correct for the crosswinds that sent him crashing into a windsock, severing his right leg at mid-thigh and breaking his left leg. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital where doctors fought to save his life.

"We were together in Phoenix when we found out he got hurt," said Alicia Pirrello, the middle sister. "The only thing we heard was that there had been an accident, he lost at least one leg. Then we waited for six hours to find out if he had even survived. "

Alicia said when the call came, the sisters made plans to fly here to be with their younger brother.

"At that point, I just remember thinking, 'He's alive, legs or no legs," Alicia said. "I think that that immediately put things in perspective for us. I remember going into my office and telling my boss, 'I don't know if I'm going to a funeral or going to the hospital, but I'm going.'"

What awaited the sisters in Colorado was their brother, body broken, but cheerful and joking. In fact, the overlying emotion at the time was excitement rather than depression.

"I just remember being so happy," said Cara Pirrello. "I couldn't help it. I just had a smile on my face from ear-to-ear just to see his face and his eyes open. I was just so excited."

"Those days are a little fuzzy, but (the sisters) were there for that first time and then going down to San Antonio, as well," Cadet Pirrello said. "I'm glad they were just able to make it out."

Though he had just been though the most frightening experience of his life, Alicia and Cara said Cadet Pirrello already had accepted the situation, even joking about it, and was focusing on the future.

"I remember he asked me, he was still pretty drugged up at the time, but he was like, 'Cara, would you help me pick out cool colors for my prosthesis?' I was teasing him. I said, 'Yeah, sure Matt. How about black?' And he said, 'Yeah I like that.' Then I was like, 'How about chrome?' He's like, 'No, too flashy.'"

After more than three weeks in the hospital, Cadet Pirrello was flown to the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. His sisters followed.

"Cara immediately offered to move out to San Antonio," Alicia said. "After six months, her time was up, and it was my shift. It's just what you do: step up and be the family that I think we always knew we were. It has really brought us much closer than we were before."

Through the accident and recovery, the sisters learned an even greater appreciation for their brother's "can't quit" attitude. When a friend mentioned the Warrior Games, Cadet Pirrello immediately set the goal to compete on the Air Force team.

"A friend of ours told us about the Warrior Games, and it's something he's looked forward to even before he got out of the hospital," Alicia said.

Like most of his goals -- ROTC, business school and parachuting -- Cadet Pirrello made the Warrior Games team. It has proven to be a therapeutic experience for the entire family.

"It's a unique way to allow us, as a family, to come full circle," Cara said. "Because this is the place of the accident, I think each of us carried a certain amount of anxiety because the place had a lot of weight to it. It's just kind of a feeling of, OK, new phase."

For Cadet Pirrello, the Warrior Games has allowed him the chance to interact with the Airmen he hopes to one day serve beside.

"It's been a great experience," he said. "It's definitely pushed me further in terms of wanting to be in the Air Force. Seeing their careers and seeing what they've been able to accomplish is definitely inspiring."

In turn, Cadet Pirrello inspires his sisters.

"It's incredible to me," Alicia said. "It's surreal for me to think that the last time I got off the plane in Colorado Springs I was seeing my brother on a ventilator, and I didn't know how many days he had left, or if he'd survive. Now, I'm here, and he's playing basketball and volleyball and swimming, walking around on his prosthesis, walking up to me, no cane, no wheelchair, no crutch, no nothing.  He's just our brother."