That Others May Live: Crash Survivor Returns to Flight Status

Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera, right, assists the only other survivor of the crash, his co-pilot, Capt. Anthony Simone, during the torch relay ceremony at the start of the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, May 1.

Two years of pain, frustration and hard work has finally paid off for Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Aguilera.

Known as “Aggie” by his personal trainer and close friends because of his affinity for Texas A&M, he was one of only two survivors of a deadly helicopter crash during a combat rescue mission in Afghanistan in June 2010.

On Friday, he received some good news:

“Due to MSgt Aguilera’s tremendous efforts in recovery and rehabilitation, he has received waivers to return to unconditional flying status.” – Air Force Capt. H. Leo Tanaka, M.D.

Just two summers ago the 35-year-old, El Paso, Texas native was a gunner aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter scrambled to evacuate a critically wounded British Royal Marine outside Forward Operating Base Jackson in southern Afghanistan.

It was the third combat rescue within 24 hours for his crew of the 563rd Rescue Group, and since the sun had come up it would be their first of the day without the cover of darkness.

“It smelled of a really bad situation,” Aggie said. “But when you are doing combat rescues you have to go in no matter what your gut says. Someone is dying and it’s our job to save them. These things I do, that others may live—that is our motto.”

The two airships raced into the heart of one of the most hostile territories of Helmand Province—Sangin—where the British had already lost nearly 100 Marines that summer.

As the two rescue choppers (known as Pedros) convened above FOB Jackson, the “two-ship” began its descent while Aggie’s bird circled to provide combat support. Everything was going according to plan until he heard the gut-wrenching ting ting ting of machine gun fire impacting the tail rotor of his helicopter.

The pilots and crew reacted quickly to maneuver the aircraft away from the base and the other bird before they lost what little lift they had and plummeted to the earth at nearly 140 mph. The helicopter burst into flames.

Flight Engineer David Smith, Combat Rescue Officer Capt. Joel Gents, Pararescueman Tech. Sgt. Michael Flores and Senior Airman Benjamin White all perished.

Six-foot-two, 225-pound Aggie found himself in a heap of shredded metal, fire and blood.

The violent crash broke his ankle in two places and his back in five. It fractured his femur, hip and tailbone. It broke four ribs, his jaw, sternum and collar bone, and it punctured his lung. His seat tore through his upper-left hamstring all the way up to his hip. On top of all that, he was on fire.

“I was sitting there basically waiting to die,” he said. “I could hear the enemy closing in, but I wasn’t scared. It was time to join my brothers.”

The British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported that a company of 90 Commandos immediately “crashed out” of their base in a desperate race against the insurgents to get to the wreckage first.

“When we got to it, the whole of the [helicopter] was in flames,” said Royal Marine Sgt. Rick Angove, one of the first on-scene.

After setting up a perimeter, the Marines—assisted by the crew of the second bird—pulled the two unconscious pilots from the burning aircraft just as armor-piercing ammunition began exploding. Five more Marines fought the fires in the fuselage and worked to free the severely wounded and badly burned Aguilera.

The pilot, Capt. David Wisniewski, died 23 days later with his family and his fiancé by his side. Co-Pilot Capt. Anthony (Tony) Simone eventually woke from his coma and is steadily recovering from severe traumatic brain injuries that have paralyzed the left side of his body.

“At first I was in denial,” said Aguilera upon hearing details of the crash. “I didn’t want to accept that I’d lost so many friends that day. About a week later I was watching TV in my hospital bed and it all hit me. They were talking about another round of amputations and it finally started to sink in that everything in my life had changed. I had lost my friends forever and I didn’t know what would become of me. I was crippled—both in body and mind.”

He endured more than 25 surgeries to repair his shattered body. A large portion of his left calf was amputated due to severe burns and he was finally released back to duty in a wheelchair five months after the crash. Life in a chair, however, was unacceptable for him.

“The military got me to the point where I could effectively transition from my wheelchair to a toilet,” he said. “But that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to get kicked out of the military. I wanted to get back to my job—to get back to combat.”

After his final surgery in June 2011, he met with Mel Batterman, a civilian personal trainer at his local gym outside Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

“He was just out of his wheelchair—using a cane—and he barely had any balance,” said Batterman, a 15-year veteran of the fitness industry. She knew she had the ability to help him recover so she offered her assistance pro-bono.

“He’s a true hero—a personal and professional inspiration to me,” Batterman said. “He says he does it so others may live—and I can get on board with that.

“There’s no question his goals were ambitious considering where he started,” she added, “but Aggie has a tremendous amount of inner drive and a huge heart. More-so than I’ve ever seen. The guys who didn’t make it through that accident—he carries them with him every day.”

At the start of their training just one year ago, Aggie weighed in at a meager 180 pounds. The lack of muscle tissue and nerve endings in his calf meant re-training the body to tell what little muscle he had left to take over and function as if it were all there.

“Many people in his situation would give up or let their wounds define them,” Batterman said. “He never did that. He said to me, ‘This is my life, and this is my job—get me there.’ So I did.”

“If it wasn’t for her, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d still be in a wheelchair today,” Aguilera said. “She took me from wheelchair to running. She saved my life. She changed my life. She did it so I could live.”

The first major milestone of his recovery came this summer, when he participated in the 2012 Warrior Games, a military Paralympics competition sponsored by the USO. He competed in the 100-meter sprint, 200-meter sprint, shot put, discus, seated volleyball and wheelchair basketball, helping to bring home four bronze medals for the Air Force.

Now, just two years after the accident, Master Sgt. Aguilera is officially “back.” His balance is no different than anybody else’s, and he even scored a 92 on his recent physical fitness test—considered “excellent” by Air Force standards.

He hopes to return to Afghanistan by spring of 2013, and this time he intends to finish his deployment and return to the States on his own terms.

“Returning to flying status will show a lot of the guys in the rescue community that no matter what happens—even if the worst happens—you can still come back,” he said. “It will give them confidence to know that there’s life after this. You can survive and you can go on and you can come back.”

- Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer