Army helicopter pilot presses on after catastrophic crash

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tens of thousands of our military members have returned from war injured. David Ortiz is one of them. He was an Army helicopter pilot, on a mission in Afghanistan when his chopper crashed. He survived, but he was paralyzed from the waist down. He came to Craig Hospital nearly a year ago and says that is when he got his second chance at life.

Ortiz said he always wanted to be a pilot, following in his dad’s footsteps. After college, he decided to join the US Army. He said, “It’s a very high powered .. high stress.. high intensity kind of job.. most of the time you loved it. best job I ever had.” It was a job that took him halfway around the world, to fight for his country in Afghanistan. On June 21st, 2012, during his first deployment, David’s helicopter crashed.

He described the crash: “I remember everything up until the last 20 minutes of the maneuver and I remember thinking, we are coming in too fast. I don’t remember the impact, I don’t remember anything.. I do remember is waking up with dust everywhere and metal on top of me. and thought this is what it is like to be on the ground in Afghanistan, it stinks. Once he got all the metal off me, I looked down at my feet, I noticed they were snapped 90 degrees perpendicular to my shin bone, I didn’t feel that. I thought this is bad, this is a problem.”

That would be a problem for most people, but not for someone with the heart and drive and discipline of a fighter like David.

He said, “You don’t get to choose everything you go through, you can only chose how you react to it.. another cliché..it’s true though, you can rise up to it or let you crush you.”  The crash left the 32 year old paralyzed from the waist down, but it didn’t crush his spirit.

He said, “I don’t want to say I wasn’t afraid, but  I was ready to meet the challenge right away because I was alive. Every day you wake up is a possibility.”

He woke up many days and months in military hospitals.. and finally got permission to come to Craig. He says THAT is when he came back to life.

David told us, “My real recovery happened when I came here, before it was all about staying alive and making it, fighting a path, but my real recovery started when I came here.”

At Craig, David says the therapists push him, but also help him re-define everything he used to do.

He said, “They were like oh by the way, with leg orthotics, we can help get you back on your feet again. To think about being on my feet again, as a runner, that was like gold. I couldn’t believe it. where nothing was possible where I came from, everything was possible here.”

He is realistic, and says there are tough days. Sept. 5 was one of the toughest days of all. That is when he got the call from Afghanistan. He knew it was serious. One of his best friends and supporters was killed just days before he was supposed to come home. It hit David hard, but it inspired him to fight harder.

David said, “Not everybody gets to come home. Very few of us come back unmarked.. in some way. So to be able to come back at all is a huge opportunity, that’s how I look at it. He didn’t get to even have what I have .. I’m doing this for him, for talia, for everyone who didn’t get to come home. I have to how can I sit here and complain, I can’t.”

Now, on top of everything else he is tackling, he is studying for the LSAT, the test to get into law school. He said, “I figure you can still be a jerk from a wheelchair. So it’s a natural transition. I am looking at this as an opportunity to continue to give back and making this place better.. so I want to go to law school. I don’t want to be a lawyer, I do want to go into advocate or public service.”

He will take the test next month so he can fight for others who cannot fight for themselves. After serving our country, David's finding a new way to serve. And his fighting sprint is serving him well.

David urges people who want to help wounded soldiers to support Semper Fi/America’s Fund and Fisher House.

For more information about Craig Hospital, visit http://craighospital.org/