After the accident, after the surgeries that took his foot and then his leg, Capt. Ryan McGuire imagined a future confined to a wheelchair.
As he sat outside Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in those dark, early days, he needed no reminder of all he had lost. But there it was: a plane roaring overhead.
McGuire broke down.
It was October 2009. Just six weeks before, he'd been making his way through pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, when a weekend boating mishap led to the loss of his leg. McGuire had wanted to fly for as long as he could remember. Now that was all over, he thought. No Air Force amputee had ever gone on to earn his wings, according to the service.
This is the story McGuire — a recently minted C-17 command pilot — tells airmen in speeches around the country. He tells them about a chance encounter in an elevator a week after surgery that offered a glimmer of hope in the dark. He tells them that no matter what they are facing, it's never too great to overcome.
Life was unfolding just the way McGuire had planned in the summer of 2009. A year after graduating from the Air Force Academy, he was well on his way to becoming a pilot, a dream first kindled on twice-yearly flights from Houston to Chicago to visit his grandparents. The pilots would let a wide-eyed McGuire into the cockpit and present him with a pair of plastic wings.
"That was the greatest part of any vacation," he recalled. "My parents always said I was annoyingly in love with flying."
In high school, McGuire looked into aviation colleges. A visit to the academy sealed his future. The Air Force, he decided, would give him the chance to fly and be a part of something bigger than himself.
Over Labor Day weekend 2009, McGuire and some friends decided to take a break from the rigors of pilot training by visiting nearby Lake Amistad for some boating and tubing. Heand the others were in the boat as it headed to shore when one of the tubes flew into the water, its rope wrapping around McGuire's right leg, slamming him into the side of the boat and yanking him into the lake.
The force and impact of it all fractured his pelvis, dislocated his hip and shattered his ankle.
"I remember every second of it, and I remember thinking, 'This is bad,' " McGuire told Air Force Times.
But the worst was still to come. As those first days in the hospital ticked by, doctors struggled to find a pulse in his foot.
"The tissue started dying," McGuire said, and doctors tried everything to save it, including leech and hyperbarictherapy.
When none of it worked, McGuire's foot was amputated. When more tissue began to die, doctors took his leg below the knee.
Through it all, McGuire had one question for the medical staff. "I bugged everybody. 'What does this mean for flying?' It was the furthest thing from the doctors' minds. People familiar with the situation said [continuing flight training] probably wasn't going to happen."
'Blind faith in me'
A week after the final surgery, McGuire was on an elevator at the hospital when a soldier asked him about his amputation.
The soldier told the airman in the wheelchair that his own amputation had occurred a year before. Then he walked off the elevator with a perfectly normal gait.
"I couldn't tell he didn't have a leg," McGuire said. "I was ecstatic that was going to be my future. Once I got into rehab at the Center for the Intrepid [in San Antonio], and saw other patients, I could see what was down the line."
His future, he realized, wasn't going to be confined to a wheelchair after all.
At first, the Air Force told McGuire he was unfit for service and would be medically discharged.
But Col. Craig Wills, the 47th Operations Group commander at Laughlin, was determined that the young lieutenant be given every opportunity to succeed, McGuire said.
"He had blind faith in me," he said. "I had everybody helping me out. Friends in pilot training would drive down to see me on weekends. Even at the hospital, people [I didn't know] came in to see me. They said they heard there was an academy grad at the hospital.
"I was not anybody special, but I got incredibly special treatment by the Air Force. They took care of my family [parents] and I, just because I was an airman."
McGuire applied for, and received, a medical waiver. Thirteen months after the accident, he was back in pilot training. He graduated in May 2011.
"It was one of the best days of my life," he said. "I went from a complete loss of hope to having my wings."
Since arriving at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, in the fall of 2011, McGuire has clocked nearly 1,400 flight hours in the C-17 — from Brazil to Thailand to Afghanistan to South Africa.
McGuire will head to Southeast Asia at the end of the month for his third deployment and his first as an aircraft commander.
Message of hope
He tells his story to groups of airmen whenever he is asked — at McChord, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and at the National Character Leadership Symposium at the Air Force Academy.
Public speaking is not something he ever imagined for himself. "I'm not a good public speaker. I get nervous. It's not something I aspire to."
But his message, 4th Airlift Squadron commander Lt. Col. Matt Anderson at McChord said in an Air Force news release, always hits home.
He leaves each stage with a standing ovation.
McGuire tells his audiences that the Air Force takes care of its airmen, that they should surround themselves with positive people and keep on going no matter what.
"For every challenge, there always has to be a first to overcome it," he says. "In my case, I was that first. You can be first, too."■