As Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Curtis ascended to the cockpit of a CV-22 Osprey Monday, he tried not to focus on all the people there to honor him and instead concentrated on his job as a flight engineer, even though it was one day short of three years since he last did so on active duty.
After all, if he completes a handful of other flights in the coming month, he can return to active flight status — a prospect that motivated him through a grueling recovery following a crash that killed four service members in Afghanistan and put Curtis into a coma.
“When I awoke from that coma, they asked if I wanted to fly again, and I said heck yeah. Absolutely,” Curtis told The Union by phone Tuesday, the three-year anniversary of the crash.
Among those who did not survive that April 8, 2010, crash were Maj. Randell D. Voas and Senior Master Sgt. James B. Lackey, both also from the Eighth Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field.
“They were two of the best friends I ever had,” Curtis said.
An Army Ranger and a civilian employee also died in the crash.
“I want to remember them today,” said Curtis, a former Nevada Union High School student and 1993 graduate of Forest Lake Christian school.
“I want to honor those four people today,” said Curtis. “To remember them and their sacrifices.”
After awaking from that coma, Curtis’ initial prognosis was grim: severe blood loss and 17 broken bones in his back, face, legs, left arm and pelvis.
He underwent 14 surgeries to treat his injuries and rebuild battered limbs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he subsequently spent months in rehabilitation to learn the most basic of functions, including how to walk unassisted — a goal that doctors described as ambitious.
“I am in awe of him. I look up to him,” said Suzanne Belew, Curtis’ mother and a Peardale resident.
“His injuries and the uphill battle of physical therapy, it was pretty hard. He had to fight to get back in the position he is in. It took a lot of perseverance and willpower.”
At Walter Reed, Curtis learned a lesson: Stay positive and look forward to take on whatever challenges came his way, he said.
“I look back — yeah, it is terrible — but I made the point to stay positive and it got me to this point,” Curtis said.
Growing up in Nevada County, Curtis worked in the deli at La Cucina Cirino in Grass Valley, he said recalling an inspirational memory about why he serves his country.
In walked Air Force Gen. Chuck Yeager, who also lived down the street from Curtis and knew he was considering enlisting. The two sat down for lunch, and Curtis said he asked Yeager how the Air Force had treated him.
“Everything he is, all the accomplishments, he said he has to attribute it to the Air Force,” Curtis said. “That is true for me as well … The will to serve is not something I was obligated to. It is something we have all chosen.”
With a focus on returning to the cockpit, Curtis pushed through his pain and his physical therapy.
It is what had him returning to the cockpit for the first flight at Hurlburt Field, outside Fort Walton Beach, Fla., he said.
“Whether you are in the Air Force or a job anywhere in the world, you are going to face challenge,” Curtis said.
“You are going to get struck down, but it is all about how you get back up.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4236.