FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - Less than a year after a helicopter crash in Iraq that left one soldier dead and several others, including himself, critically injured, Sgt. Justin LaFountain has returned to his unit.
"It's awesome to be back at work," said the Peru native, who serves with A Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade. The incident happened Sept. 19, 2009, in Balad, Iraq, when the Black Hawk helicopter he was riding in was returning to base in bad weather. The crash, LaFountain recalled, happened during the landing. They were flying about 100 to 150 feet above the ground at a "pretty good clip," he said.
LaFountain said he was in the back, watching what he thought was heat lightning, and remembered thinking "Oh, we got this, we are gonna make that." When they got closer he said he "started to feel uncomfortable. A couple of seconds later..."
The details get a little fuzzy after that. LaFountain remembers the left side of the aircraft came to the ground first. He remembers seeing some sparks and hearing a metal scraping noise.
"It was all really pretty quick. We kind of bounced and came back up," LaFountain said. "I thought 'go-around'... Go-arounds are free as we say."
"Then the right side of the aircraft hit," LaFountain said. "I remember the starting of the rolling action, the dynamic, and one second later I lost consciousness. I believe it is because my head contacted the ceiling of the aircraft. I don't know."
"My next memories were of waking up and seeing a dust cloud around me. At that point it really wasn't coming to me. I was having the impression that I was having a bad dream," he continued.
When he came to again, he remembered being triaged by a female medic on the accident site. He had no idea of the extent of his injuries and told her to go over and help the others who were on the aircraft. He told her they needed her and all he needed was some Icy-Hot for his back. He would come to find out that he needed more than Icy-Hot.
LaFountain was treated at Balad Hospital that night and medically evacuated to the U.S. Army Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, the next day. He recalled joking with the captain who was putting him on the aircraft that "only in the Army would I be in a Black Hawk crash last night and today you would put me on another aircraft."
LaFountain was at Landstuhl for only a day before being put on another aircraft and sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center [in Washington, D.C.], where he was met by his father and his grandmother. His wife, Raechel, arrived a few days later.
LaFountain spent the next several weeks at Walter Reed undergoing surgery and physical therapy. He was treated for a burst fracture in the L-5 vertebrae, a skull fracture, a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury and a corneal abrasion on his left eye.
"It wasn't until I got into physical therapy that I really started nailing down details. I had my surgery on a Thursday afternoon; on Friday morning my physical therapist and occupational therapist came in, they were amazed," said LaFountain, referring to when he could stand up using a walker and stand on one leg and then the next.
LaFountain remembers being disappointed they wouldn't let him try to walk but that just that little bit of movement "took a lot out of me," he said. He still didn't understand their excitement when the next day he walked to the door and back.
"What's the big deal, I am supposed to be able to walk," he said, recalling a conversation with his physical therapist, after becoming an outpatient. "I don't understand what you guys are so excited about, I'm up, I'm walking. This is what people do, this is what soldiers do."
It was then he finally understood the extent of his injuries.
"She told me 'No, I don't think you understand. On paper you look a lot worse than you do in person. They didn't expect you to walk again. Your spinal canal is 60 percent compromised and with the loss of feeling that you have in your legs, it wasn't looking good,'" he recalled.
LaFountain was released from the Walter Reed Warrior Transition Battalion in early December and returned to Alaska where he was attached to B Company Warrior Transition Battalion. He continued to heal, qualified and competed in the inaugural Warrior Games in May at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., along with Sgt. Allen Marley, also from Fort Wainwright's WTB, who won a silver medal in the air pistol contest.
"It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Being able to go to the training center and live and train there for a week. It is something most anyone in the world would want to be able to experience and I got to do that," LaFountain said. "Being able to participate in the first Warrior Games was extremely inspiring. One of the best parts of these games is showing soldiers that they still have the opportunity to do things that they loved to do before."
LaFountain, a platoon sergeant and crew chief, returned to work June 1.
"Before I was a squad leader and before I got injured I was an assistant platoon sergeant. I'm doing my job," LaFountain said. "I don't get up so much on aircraft, fixing as I did before, because I have other responsibilities. I managed to receive a temporary up slip so that I can fly. We are waiting for word back from Fort Rucker..." about the permanent clearance."
"I've had two flights so far," LaFountain said. "It was good."
He said it wasn't scary getting back on a helicopter, but it was exciting.
"It came back amazingly well, it was like second nature. The unit has always supported me. I kept in contact with them while I was in Walter Reed," LaFountain said. "They would send me e-mails. It was a good morale booster. I would send pictures. They would print them and post them."
His goal was always to come back to his unit, but he had to sell the idea to his platoon sergeant, his first sergeant and commander who had their doubts because of his injuries.
"To me, it never really entered my mind, hey I am not going to walk again or hey I am not going to fly again," LaFountain said.
"Once the accident happened, the morale of the company went down, but he stepped up," said 1st Sgt. Gary Sanders, A/1-52nd, 16th CAB. "He sent us a picture of him standing up, on a walker, moving around. As soon as we posted that, morale of the troops went straight through the roof."
"He won't take credit, he won't say 'I did something', but he did," Sanders said. "He said, 'Look team; I'm still here in the fight. I am trying to get back in the fight.' He inspired us."
Needless to say, things are looking up for LaFountain.
"It's good to be home," he said.
(Editor's Note: Trish Muntean is a reporter with the Fort Wainwright Public Affairs Office, from which this story is reprinted with permission.)