On a Different Track

Anyone undergoing an amputation hopes to return to the level of functionality enjoyed prior to becoming an amputee. When you started out skydiving, you have nowhere to go but back up.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman has used his experience to create a life different from the one he had planned. Instead of letting his accident dictate his actions, Bowman has pushed his body to exceed his previous expectations of himself, and has accomplished more than anyone thought he would. Including getting back up in the air.

Split second

Dana Bowman
Following his accident, Bowman became the first bilateral amputee helicopter instructor.
Images: Dana Bowman.

In 1994, Bowman’s life was on the track he had so carefully laid. At 30 years old, he had just gotten married. He was a U.S. adviser in Central and South America, was a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Ranger Team, Halo Team, SCUBA team and sniper team, and had just added to that list a spot on the Golden Knights U.S. Army Parachute Team, an elite demonstration and competition parachute team.

On Feb. 6, 1994, Bowman was at the Golden Knights training in Yuma, Ariz. He was partnered with Sgt. Jose Aguillon, and the two went up to do a diamond track jump, a maneuver they had completed together 50 times without a hitch. To complete a diamond track, two parachuters jump out of the plane and fly away from each other and then back toward each other to crisscross in a diamond pattern. Viewers on the ground see diamonds of red smoke flowing from their ankles.

Bowman and Aguillon completed the first part of this particular jump perfectly, and, at 7,500 feet above the ground, turned back around to cross over each other, each flying at about 150 mph. Aguillon was higher, so he was responsible for making any adjustments to his position to meet Bowman, who was flying lower than him in the sky. Aguillon realized that the two would not cross in the correct spot for the crowd below to see, so he dipped lower to get closer to Bowman’s height.

He had dipped too low. In a moment, Bowman realized that the two would collide. He pulled his head up just in time to see Aguillon’s distressed face as they flew closer. Aguillon put out his arm — a natural reaction to ward off injury from collision — and that arm slammed into Bowman’s legs at 150 mph, shearing them both in mid-air, one above the knee, one below the knee.

“You don’t have seconds to change things like that,” Bowman said. “There are a lot of amputees out there in the same deal — accidents, tragedies, diseases. There’s no way that we can change that.”

The force of the impact opened both men’s parachutes and they each landed, unconscious. Bowman’s parachute veered him away from the landing field in a right turn, where he grazed the top of a barbed wire fence and hit the ground at 30 mph, injuring his shoulder and his head. Aguillon never regained consciousness.

Ultimately, what killed Aguillon was Bowman’s legs; as they severed from his body, they hit Aguillon and caused tremendous internal damage. He landed in a palm tree, with his arm severed but still inside his jumpsuit, and with Bowman’s right leg attached to him. He died a few hours later.

Clean up

Bowman awoke from an induced coma 2 days later in the hospital, surrounded by his teammates, who had to relay the horrible news about Aguillon and about the extent of his own injuries. At first, he could not believe it.

“I had this white bed sheet from the hospital up to my chest and … I looked down and it was just a flat bed. It looked like you were playing a joke on somebody and put a hole in the bed [to make it look like] you had no legs,” he said. “I thought I was in a bad dream. I just wanted to go back to sleep.”

His nightmare continued: his head injury had caused a stutter that lasted for 4 months after the accident; his doctor told him that the rest of his life would be difficult and that he should contact Veterans Affairs for help; and his new wife informed him that she did not want to be married to someone who was disabled.

“I had it all and now I’m being humiliated,” he said.

He had to work at having a positive attitude, fighting against his physicians and rehabilitation team the whole time. When they felt sorry for him because of his brain injury, he worked harder to overcome his speech impediment, and eventually became a motivational speaker. When doctors told him he had to wait for the wound on his transtibial residual limb to heal, he asked them to cut it off instead, and stretch the excess skin from the top of his left leg. They thought he was crazy, but, eventually, they listened to his request.

“It only takes 18 days after amputation to be fitted for a prosthetic limb and start walking,” he said. “Eighteen days, you’re in. You can start working it out, stop complaining about it, get going. Yes, it’s going to be sore but life is.”

Back on track

Bowman and Scussel share a mutual respect that allows for a great working relationship
Bowman and Scussel share a mutual respect that allows for a great working relationship.

Only 6 days after his accident, Bowman convinced his teammates to take him from Phoenix to San Antonio for Aguillon’s funeral so he could pay tribute to his fallen teammate. From there, he traveled on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) to begin the rehabilitation process.

Once he received his prostheses, his rehab team tried to get him to slow down so as not to hurt himself. Again, they blamed his head injury on his overzealousness. He simply worked harder.

He fought the physicians at WRAMC to receive carbon fiber prosthetic feet when they said he would not be able to walk in them as a bilateral amputee. He won that battle, too, forcing the team to learn about the newest prosthetic technology in the process.

“I wanted to show them that the times are changing for the better. We need to help our soldiers and our veterans,” he said. “We’re never too old or too young to go back to school. And I did it and showed them. I’m a tough cat. I’m not going to give up.”

Bowman used his new prosthetic devices to get back in the air just 5 months after his accident. He left the hospital without details about his weekend plans, drove the 5 hours to North Carolina with his new prostheses — using the car’s dome light at night to see his foot placement on the pedals — and did a wedding jump with a borrowed parachute and 21 other skydivers. He even managed to maneuver into the most difficult position in the formation. He made it back on Monday morning to show his physicians a video of the jump and a giant photo of him in the air, proudly displaying his prostheses.

After proving his proficiency with his new legs, he received more freedom in his rehabilitation. Nine months after his accident, he became the first bilateral amputee to re-enlist in the United States Army and parachute with the Golden Knights team again. He retired from the military 3 years after the accident, but still jumps with military teams on occasion as a civilian.

The rest of Bowman’s life fell back into place as well. He remarried and has five kids from ages 7 to 21 years old. He became the first bilateral amputee helicopter instructor in the world, and he flies airplanes, sea planes and multimillion-dollar helicopters.

“I’m living life to the fullest. I’m the guy that can skydive into events, land on target, and do a keynote address to kindergartners or astronauts,” he told O&P Business News. “I’m not a quitter, and we have to motivate these guys and gals out there because a lot of people are having a tough time. Let’s make a difference for them.”

Unexpected change

Bowman had already accomplished a great deal, and was not in the market for a new prosthetist. But still, he said, he is always looking for the next new thing.

Rick Scussel, CPO, founder and president of Symmetry Prosthetics in Dothan, Ala., had created a new thing — the Symmetry elevated backing socket and silicone liner system for both transtibial and transfemoral amputees — and reached out to Bowman for a test run. Bowman agreed.

Skeptical at first, Bowman said he liked the fit of the new socket and liner and switched immediately. He said he was able to put his hand in his pocket, which he had not been able to do since his accident.

The ischial containment sockets he had been using previously caused him to limp because of how high they went up his thigh. Scussel offered Bowman a brimless socket, and said he made him a much better walker.

With his new prostheses, he was able to continue the activities he loves without worrying about how his legs would hold up to the challenge. During a jump onto the 50-yard line at the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers game last year, the pump keeping his prosthesis suctioned to his leg was ripped off. This presents a problem because, if the leg slips off that high in the air, it could kill someone on the ground.

“The leg didn’t come off. I can jump without the pump and still have air come out. That’s how tight this thing holds on,” he said.

Working with Bowman was easy, Scussel said, because he is articulate and knows what he needs in prosthetic devices.

“Dana is a pretty dynamic guy. He’s been through amazing things and he’s overcome monstrous odds,” Scussel said. “I just always had the utmost respect for him.”

And Bowman, now 47 years old, is not finished. He continues to add new activities to his routine. This May, he will travel from his home in Weatherford, Texas to Alaska for a televised Wounded Warrior grizzly bear hunt.

He also serves as the national spokesperson for 188,000 members of the AMVETS, and recently became the national spokesperson for American Airlines, a first for the company.

“Every year changes. It gets bigger and bigger and I’m able to help more and more people,” Bowman said. “I’m not a celebrity. I’m somebody that was given a chance to live. And I want to give back each and every day.” — Stephanie Z. Pavlou, ELS

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