Col. Clinton ZumBrunnen, 437th Airlift Wing commander at Joint Base Charleston, spoke to the Air Force’s newest aviators during Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 20-03’s graduation ceremony Nov. 15, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.
ZumBrunnen’s speech embodied inspiration for the new pilots. He told the graduates a story about retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Dan Powers, a former squadron leader of the 118th Military Police Company, and how an aircrew’s skillful tactics helped save his life.
ZumBrunnen said on July 3, 2007, while on deployment in Bagdad, Iraq, Powers responded to a vehicle bombing. Powers’ orders were to keep pedestrians from the blast site. As he was guiding bystanders away, a stunning blow from an assailant struck his head, ZumBrunnen said.
“Although he could not feel it yet, Powers had been stabbed in the back of the head with a nine-inch blade,” ZumBrunnen said. “He should’ve died instantly. Instead, for the next 32 hours, a careful symphony of modern medicine, advanced communications, unquestionable logistics and an air bridge across the Atlantic Ocean, provided by the United States Air Force, would come together to try to save his life.”
ZumBrunnen said medics arrived and wrapped Powers’ head with gauze and rushed him to Bagdad’s green zone in order for him to be transported out. Powers was then airlifted to Balad Air Base, Iraq, 30 minutes away, ZumBrunnen said.
Once there, X-rays indicated the blade entered just below a bundle of nerves and veins responsible for carrying blood to the right side of his brain, he said.
“Any further movement of the knife would severe those nerves, killing him instantly,” ZumBrunnen said. “Feeling they had no choice, the surgeons crossed their fingers and pulled the knife out.”
ZumBrunnen said the knife was acting as a cork, to block the blood from spilling. He said the puncture started bleeding profusely immediately after the blade was removed. Nearly 40 percent of the volume of blood in his brain was lost before medics controlled the bleeding.
He said after realizing the injury was too detrimental for the medics at Balad, the medics decided he needed to be airlifted back to the U.S. for more extensive surgery. On the runway, an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and aircrew from Joint-Base Charleston awaited the Soldier.
“A few hours earlier this crew had been preparing to move anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles to an austere location in Iraq,” ZumBrunnen said. “These guys didn’t expect to do this that day. Mid mission, their orders changed back to Balad, followed by a trip to the United States.”
A seven-person medical team, multiple units of blood, 7,000 pounds of intensive-care equipment and Powers were then loaded on to the C-17, he said.
ZumBrunnen said the Air Force medical team gave complicated orders to the aircrew, ordering they must keep the cabin pressure to at or below 4,000 feet and avoid all turbulence. If the pilots did not follow the orders, Powers’ injury would hemorrhage, ZumBrunnen said.
ZumBrunnen said the C-17 would have to maneuver around thunderstorms and was refueled twice midair.
“The story ends well,” he said. “Powers made in the U.S. without bleeding out, he received life-saving surgeries to repair his damaged arteries by creating a plasty on his dented skull and was given superb post-operation care. He remained in critical condition and doctors feared he would wake up from his coma with palsy, severe paralysis, brain damage and maybe no eyesight.”
Four days later, Powers woke up in inexplicably well condition with family beside him, ZumBrunnen said.
“When he woke up, Powers said, in his own words, ‘I’m back in the best place I can possibly be, in the United State of America’,” he said.
ZumBrunnen said Powers had only a couple of therapy sessions for coordination and balance. Powers departed from the hospital just one month after the attack, he said.
“Armed with an iron will, Staff Sgt. Dan Powers returned to his unit and two years later regained his qualification to jump from a United States aircraft again,” he said. “He was able to medically retire in 2012.”
ZumBrunnen told the graduates about the remarkable feat to enlighten them about the possibilities and experiences they may encounter while on missions in their assigned aircraft. He also said he was grateful to be able to speak to the military’s newest aviators and gave a final remark.
“Know that one day, that one thing you least expect you will need to accomplish may be what matters most to someone like Dan Powers or your entire team or this country,” ZumBrunnen said. “Please do your utmost to be ready for it.