FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (Army News Service, March 15, 2007) - When Spc. Max Ramsey boarded a C-130 at Campbell Army Airfield last week, it wasn't the first time he packed a parachute onto an airplane. He's been skydiving more than 350 times since 2001.
This, however, was no ordinary jump. Ramsey was about to be the first amputee on the Screaming Eagles Parachute Demonstration Team.
Ramsey lost much of his left leg in Iraq last March when an improvised explosive device detonated under his Humvee. But that didn't get him down. Ramsey planned to join the parachute team when he returned from Iraq, and he wasn't going to let a prosthetic leg get in his way.
<b>Mission Gone Bad</b>
Ramsey, 37, joined the Army as an infantryman in mid-2004. "I requested a station somewhere in the 18th Airborne Corps because I knew that would send me to Iraq," he said.
His wish was granted. Ramsey deployed with Company C, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, after Thanksgiving 2005. He was prepared to spend a year in Iraq and then get back to his wife, Ayako, and his job with the parachute team at Fort Campbell.
His battalion was sent to Ramadi to link up with the Marines. "Our area of operations ... was particularly nasty," he said.
Ramsey's life plan took an unexpected turn three months into his tour. At about 1 a.m. on March 1, 2006, the unit was setting up an observation point to check the area around a school its Soldiers were inspecting.
Ramsey was the radio man for the mission. When his gunner got out of the Humvee, Ramsey took his place, "which turned out to be a blessing."
While he was manning the turret, an IED exploded beneath the Humvee, lifting the vehicle off the ground and sending Ramsey into the air. "I just remember smoke and flames coming up, getting lifted out of the turret ... and feeling an impact on my knee."
He grabbed his knee and tried to keep himself inside the vehicle. He realized his original seat was completely destroyed in the blast. "I am extremely lucky to be alive," he said.
The blast cut straight through Ramsey's left knee and broke his right ankle. When the medic arrived, the vehicle's driver, Spc. Garry Duckett, immediately directed him to Ramsey. Duckett's elbow was split open and fractured in the blast, but Ramsey "was a priority," he said.
As the medic was putting the tourniquet on his leg, Ramsey caught a glimpse of his injury. "Once I saw the wound, I knew I was going to lose a leg."
This certainly wasn't part of his life plan. "It became the plan regardless, so I immediately got myself into the mode of making sure I could step out of this whole thing and conquer the disability the best I could."
Ramsey and Duckett kept each other's spirits up throughout their trip to Baghdad, Balad and Landstuhl, Germany. "Every stop we made, we were right there by each other making jokes," Duckett said.
Five days after the explosion, Ramsey arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "My wife was very upset, but I said, 'Listen, I am going to walk again; I am going to run again. You and I will return home and I will be on two feet.'"
He overcame his greatest personal challenge in early April when he took his first steps with a prosthetic leg.
"You kind of get momentum," he said. "You get used to walking forward, so you keep walking forward."
Ramsey spent one year at Walter Reed recovering and learning how to physically and mentally face the way ahead. Spending time in the clinic with other amputees was an uplifting aspect of the recovery process, he said. "It changes your perspective on life; that's part of what makes the positive vibe in recovery so strong."
He used the "vibe" to his advantage, pushing himself to the limit so he could return to Fort Campbell and the team waiting for him.
He is a true inspiration to all servicemembers, said 101st Airborne Division Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe. "He is the type of warrior all Americans are proud of and our enemies are terrified of."
<b>Up in the Air</b>
Ramsey's first jump as an amputee came in September in California as part of the "Pieces of Eight" - an all-amputee skydiving group.
For Ramsey, it was like he never left the sky. "I'm back," he said. "The sensation was very natural."
March 7 was his first jump at Fort Campbell. He successfully landed at Corregidor drop zone on post, which, ironically, shares the name of his forward operating base in Ramadi.
"He has great skills," said former parachute team leader Sgt. 1st Class Matt Cline, who corresponded with Ramsey the entire year he was at Walter Reed. "He's just having to adapt to only having one limb on his lower body where he used to have two for power and control."
With 15 jumps under his belt in the past week, he's well on his way to mastering his technique. Ramsey plans to complete 121 more jumps by April 7 to reach his goal of 500, which will move him to the next level in the U.S. Parachute Association rating system before the team's first pro-rated demonstration.
"Max coming here is good for the team," said Staff Sgt. Dewey Vinaya, parachute team leader. "When the newer guys ... start getting aches and pains, they look at Max and he says, 'If I can overcome it, you can overcome it.'"
To his teammates, he's just another one of the guys. "I don't look at him as an amputee," Vinaya said. "He's very open about it, so it doesn't come across as a handicap."
(Kelli Bland is the editor for the Fort Campbell "Courier.")