Upper Burrell chopper pilot heals, ready to redeploy
Editor’s note: The Valley News Dispatch has been following the recovery of Air Force Capt. Kyle Deem for the past year. This is the third installment.
One year, three months.
In that time, Air Force Capt. Kyle Deem nearly lost a leg due to combat wounds, retrained to fly a medical helicopter and even ran a 5K.
Next week, he’ll redeploy to Afghanistan — where his legs were struck by a bullet and shrapnel last summer.
He’s not afraid to go back.
But he says he’ll bring an awareness of the job’s inherent danger.
“You always know in the back of your mind what can happen to you,” Deem said. “But you don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”
On June 19, 2010, he piloted an HH-60G Pavehawk helicopter to rescue a wounded British soldier in southwestern Afghanistan.
A bullet fired from the ground pierced a window at the bottom of the helicopter and struck him, severing a main artery in his right leg.
Despite that, Deem completed the mission, transporting the wounded soldier to a hospital.
That started a tortuous path back to Afghanistan.
Deem, who graduated from Burrell High School in 2002, underwent emergency surgery in Afghanistan to save his life. In the following week, he had nine more surgeries — the final three at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center near Washington.
Even after that, doctors gave Deem no guarantees. They gave him little hope for walking normally and returning to active duty seemed next to impossible.
Except to Deem, who said he knew from the beginning how his near-death scenario would unfold.
Some people, he admits, think he’s crazy for returning to his military duty.
He vehemently disagrees.
“I wanted to get back to what was normal for me … doing this job,” said Deem, who graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 2006.
Deem, 27, will again pilot medical rescue missions, whisking the wounded to safety.
He said he’s known since Sept. 11, 2001, that he wanted to fly in the military, a decision that remains steadfast.
“After the 10th anniversary, it kind of reinforces this is why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Deem said.
Scarred, but healed
Deem and girlfriend Kristen Olson visited his parents, Elsie and Bill, in Upper Burrell this week.
This trip is happier, less painful and much more hopeful than a year ago when he was wheelchair-bound with an exterior metal contraption drilled into his broken leg bones.
Kris Okuda, who worked with Deem as a physical therapist at HealthSouth Harmarville, said he exceeded the typical recovery time.
Even she was “a little skeptical” when Deem told her from Day One that he’d fly again.
Okuda said Deem was highly motivated and never resistant to trying anything.
“When I told him he was ready to move on to the next step, he might have looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “But he did it.”
Deem’s remarkable recovery inspired other patients.
“I still have patients asking about him — ‘How’s he doingâ¢ What’s he been up to?’ ” Okuda said.
Today, Deem’s legs are scarred, but healed. Skin grafts, once vivid purple, now have a near-normal skin color.
Although Deem still has some pain, he ran a 5K race at his Air Force base in Georgia.
“I was going through the run, and I was too stubborn to call it quits,” Deem said.
Returning to duty
As fate would have it, his mother, who helped nursed him to health, has a shattered tibia she injured jumping on a trampoline.
“I’m hoping for a full recovery. He’s set the bar so high, I can’t do anything less,” Elsie Deem said smiling.
Elsie and her husband, Bill, know their son’s desire to return overseas motivated his recovery and they exude admiration when talking about Kyle.
Bill Deem simply puts it: “It’s what he’s trained to do.”
Elsie adds, “He’s going back to what he loves to do.”
Kyle’s squadron will be in place in October, and he’ll stay deployed at least through the winter.
He’s ready to go back to work.