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Air Force amputee returns to flight status

By Staff Sgt. April Lapetoda | 89th Airlift Wing Public Affairs | August 22, 2006

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. -- An Airman here who had his leg amputated above the knee will soon fly an Air Force aircraft again.

Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, the Commander's Action Group chief, has been medically cleared to return to flight status.

The Air Force surgeon general, Lt. Gen. George Peach Taylor, medically cleared Colonel Lourake on June 18. This came after a battery of medical and mobility tests in San Antonio and hours of testing in a flight simulator in Wilmington, Del.

The only thing standing between Colonel Lourake and a pilot seat now is the wait for a formal training slot to open so he can get requalified to fly.

"(This will set a) great precedence for the Air Force," said Brig. Gen. Scott Gray, 89th Airlift Wing commander. "It shows how well the Air Force takes care of their own and how far technology has come to enable this to happen."

While a lost limb used to mean a discharge for U.S. servicemembers, breakthroughs in high-tech prosthetics are allowing servicemembers to fight their way back to active duty.

"Americans would be surprised to learn that a grievous injury, such as the loss of a limb, no longer means forced discharge," President George W. Bush said. "In other words, the medical care is so good, and the recovery process is so technologically advanced that people are no longer forced out of the military."

Colonel Lourake's tenure as a pilot ended Oct. 31, 1998, because of a motocross bike accident. He was thrown approximately 15 feet into the air and fractured his left leg when he landed.

While in the hospital, he caught a hospital-borne staph infection, which eventually seeped into the bone. During the next three and a half year's, Colonel Lourake received 18 surgeries to repair his infected leg; however, nothing could stop the pain, and his leg was fused straight with a steel rod.

"At first I didn't want to have my leg amputated," Colonel Lourake said. "But after years of being in pain, I knew there wasn't any other choice."

Colonel Lourake researched prosthetics and discovered the C-Leg. It is a computerized artificial limb that can analyze movement at the rate of 50 messages per second and is able to adjust to changes in terrain the wearer is walking on.

The C-Leg made the decision to have his leg amputated a lot easier, Colonel Lourake said.

"Simply knowing the technology was out there that could enable me to transition back to the cockpit helped me make my decision," he said.

In 2002, he became the first U.S. servicemember to be fitted with a C-Leg.

After the surgery, he underwent more than 500 hours of physical therapy.

"There have been a lot of challenges," Colonel Lourake said. "Having all your limbs then going to missing one creates a learning curve. You have to start over."

Once he felt he was able to accomplish the physical therapy tasks on his own, Colonel Lourake was permitted to do so.

Now that he has finished physical therapy and been medically cleared to return to the flight deck, Colonel Lourake said it feels as though "a long road is coming to an end. ... I am getting back to where I was pre-amputation."

After Colonel Lourake became an amputee, he began trips to nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center two to three times per week to visit with and encourage servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost limbs.

"I feel as though I have been thrust into being a role model for other people with disabilities," Colonel Lourake said. "I am able to show them they can achieve what they want, if they put their mind to it."

Before his accident, Colonel Lourake served as a special-air missions pilot for the 99th Airlift Squadron. During this time, he logged more than 1,000 hours flying U.S. leaders, foreign dignitaries and various heads of state. After he completes formal training, he will return to the role.

"(I am) 100-percent confident that Colonel Lourake will be as great of a pilot as he was before his injury and will strengthen our crew force," General Gray said.

Now that Colonel Lourake's goal of returning to the flight deck is nearly met, he said his next goal is to be the best pilot he can possibly be.

Colonel Lourake said he is thankful to Air Force and to those who have supported him.

"I've had a huge amount of support from my commanders, squadron members and doctors," he said. "I didn't get to this point without the team effort. To me, this whole experience solidifies the Air Force is one big family."