“As soon as we hit,” recalls Chief Warrant Officer Tad Stuart, “it was catastrophic.”
His routine maintenance test flight of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior became a struggle for survival as the helicopter failed over an airfield in Iraq at Baghdad International.
“I knew we were going to crash. I was trying to limit the damage and pilot the aircraft to the ground. But you just felt the entire aircraft crumble.”
The hard landing destroyed the helicopter, and first responders desperately worked to extricate Tad out of the cockpit.
“I never lost consciousness. I told them I couldn’t move. I knew my back was messed up, but I didn’t know to
Doctors at the hospital in Baghdad discovered Tad suffered complete spinal canal obliteration. During the 12-hour surgery, surgeons inserted titanium rods to realign Tad’s spine. The procedure went better than anyone had expected – especially on a man whose back was broken in five places.
“I was taken to Germany for further evaluation. The neurosurgeons all agreed that the surgeon in Baghdad did the most perfect job ever, so they sent me to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.”
But after a week in the intensive care unit, no one knew if Tad would ever walk again.
“I could move my feet a little bit, but that was about it. I was in severe pain, and I really had no sensation from the
The rehabilitation doctors encouraged Tad when they said he simply lost sensory, not motor skills. They challenged Tad to get his muscles back working again.
“I started doing some walking exercises with all the straps,” says Tad. “I called them torture devices. I started full pressure walking, holding myself up between two balance beams. I had to watch in a mirror to show my brain that my feet were on the ground because I couldn’t feel them.”
It was a long hard road, but after nearly three months, Tad could walk around his house and do every day activities without a wheelchair.
“When I left the hospital, I told myself ‘I’ll never use that wheelchair.’ And I haven’t. I put it in my garage. I wanted to maintain a positive attitude like the other veterans who I met at Walter Reed from Wounded Warrior Project®. When I saw how they overcame their challenges, I was inspired to overcome mine. Seeing their success proved I can accomplish anything.”
Tad retired from active duty in May 2010 – more than two years after his injury. Today, he manages the day-to-day operations of Michael Army Airfield at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
“I try not to let the injury impact my daily life. I do have pain every day, but I manage it well. I have some limitations walking long distances. I plan on continuing to live life as if there was never an injury. My inspiration comes from success stories of fellow veterans and the encouragement of my family – especially my wife