Amputee ROTC Cadet Wants to Be Air Force… Pilot?

This is a heroic story, and I applaud this young man. But is this really a good idea?

From the Associated Press:

ATHENS, Ohio — An Ohio ROTC cadet is pursuing his goal of becoming an Air Force pilot, despite losing his right leg in a parachute-training accident 18 months ago at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Matt Pirrello of Centerville intends to show the Air Force that he has the physical ability and leadership skills to serve, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Pirrello, 21, joined the Air Force ROTC in 2009. The sophomore business-economics major has returned to Ohio University in Athens but knows he faces challenges in earning an Air Force commission.

“If you’re in the Air Force when you’re hurt, it’s a matter of retention,” he said. “If you’re not in the Air Force, it’s a matter of whether they will accept you despite your injuries.”

Others have flown with prosthetic legs after they were in the service, but most have been below-the-knee amputees who can push the rudder pedal on a plane more or less normally and reposition their feet to get to the brake without too much trouble. Pirrello lost his right leg about mid-thigh.

Military pilots also must pass courses showing that they could evade capture and survive after ejecting over land and water, and Pirrello must win an exception to Air Force policy. He and his ROTC commander plan to file the paperwork soon, although he probably won’t learn the decision until summer.

Pirrello was injured during a basic training course in parachuting. The first jump went smoothly, but high winds swept him off course the second time, according to the accident investigation report. Turbulence slammed him into a pole, severing his right leg. He also broke his left leg and tore a biceps at one shoulder.

The Air Force investigation concluded Pirrello was so focused on his target that he forgot to monitor windsocks that would have shown crosswinds. But he and several witnesses think it was just a freak accident caused by turbulence.

He went through 10 surgeries, unexpected setbacks and more than a year of rehabilitation. Since then, he has kayaked, climbed a 50-foot rope tower and earned his scuba certification. Last month, he finished a 5-kilometer race in about 40 minutes.

“Matt is unstoppable,” said Lt. Col. Alejandro Cantu, commander of the Air Force ROTC detachment at Ohio University.

Pirrello said he gained perspective while staying at a military medical center with others who had endured more severe injuries, such as brain trauma or losing multiple limbs.

“No matter how bad my setbacks were, I had to put it in perspective,” he said.

The Air Force covered the costs of his four prosthetics, valued at about $100,000, and paid his medical bills, estimated at $650,000. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, lobbied to get him Veterans Affairs benefits after he left the center.

“It is incredible how much Matt has excelled with such an incredible injury,” Turner said.

If he can’t be a pilot, Pirrello said he would like to command unoccupied aircraft or do intelligence work.