In the military, breaking a leg could seem rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things, although still quite painful. And yet on October 31, 1998, Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake broke his after a freak motocross accident, and is now making the world a better place for so many of this nation’s bravest returning wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan.
How? By the eloquence of his example. Soon after his spill, a hospital-borne staph infection seeped into the bone, doing considerable damage.
After enduring 18 surgeries and long periods of side-effects from his medications, Lourake, 43, chose to have his leg amputated nearly four years later. And now armed with a microprocessor-assisted prosthetic leg, and jokingly equipped with a handicapped parking sticker in his cockpit, he has returned to duties as a special air missions pilot for the 99th Airlift Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base. He’ll be flying the First Lady, the Vice President and other dignitaries around the globe.
"If you’re wounded in battle, your military career is no longer over, and I’m proof," Lourake said at a celebration late last month after landing at Andrews Air Force Base.
Medical advancements over the years have changed the perception that serious injury--even amputation--means a forced discharge. Gains in medicine, technology and rehabilitation techniques help ensure a sense of contribution, higher quality of life, and a job in areas which once were closed to a returning Vet.
Lourake goes through physical therapy with his C-Leg, a $43,000, first-of-its-kind, computer-aided prosthetic. "It’s like wearing a pair of shoes that sort of bothers you a little, but you can’t do anything about it, so you just don’t let it bother you. You can’t," he says of the device.
Lourake and his wife Lisa spend a lot of their time at the Walter Reed Medical Center in the D.C. area inspiring others about life after injury while giving them the humility that comes with serving others.
"I am truly a proud American to be able to go and talk to the wounded that have come back. It gives me a lot more than I’m sure it gives them. It means a lot for me as an American, as a DOD employee, a fellow soldier so to speak, to go there and show them that life is not over, that life is very normal as soon as they get out of that pain and away from those drugs," he said.
Joining forces with his wife has helped provide a unique form of combination therapy, guiding soldiers through the family & emotional issues which stretch above and beyond the physical & military comeback. For instance, many young men worry about losing their wives or girlfriends, or whether or not they can find someone to marry someday.
"We talk about the more intimate things that a lot of them want to ask, but don’t know who to ask," Lisa told Airman Magazine. "We become friends, and they’re able to ask me all [kinds of] questions."
"He’s got the biggest heart anyone ever had," said Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Metzdorf, who lost a leg in a roadside bombing in Iraq this year. Metzdorf said Lourake’s visits made a huge difference at Walter Reed. "He gave us inspiration and support and made us want to get back to active duty."
Airman 1st Class Anthony Pizzifred, whose left leg fell victim to a landmine at Baghram Air Base, Afghanistan, shared similar sentiments: "I was determined to stay in the Air Force. When Colonel Lourake came to visit me here [Walter Reed], he gave me the push. This is going to happen."
Lourake, the first U.S. Service member fitted with this unique form of "C-Leg," also chooses to focus on the human dimension:
"I feel as though I have been thrust into being a role model for other people with disabilities," Lourake said. "I am able to show them they can achieve what they want, if they put their mind to it."
Image credit: http://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/136563/air-force-amputee-returns-to-flight-status/