Tech. Sgt. Christofer Curtis suffered more than 17 broken bones when a CV-22 Osprey he was on crashed April 9, 2010, in Afghanistan. Since then, he has undergone more than 20 surgeries with the goal to one day resume his flying career.
They are images Tech. Sgt. Christofer Curtis wishes he didn’t have in his head. Yet, whenever he closes his eyes, they are played over and over in his mind. He finds himself reliving a scene of terror, disbelief and confusion.
There is always pain.
He doesn’t have to close his eyes to remember the pain, either. His body reminds him of it every day. When he wakes up each morning, moves the wrong way or stands too long.
Mirrors are the cruelest reminder, though. Glancing in them, the full horror of that day is brought racing to the forefront of his thoughts, and the scars adorning his left side retell the story of a day that not only changed Curtis’ body, but also his life.
It was April 9, 2010, Curtis was standing on the back ramp of a CV-22 Osprey as it flew over the Zabul province of Afghanistan, about seven miles from the city of Qalat. The tilt rotor aircraft was carrying a group of Army Rangers to a predetermined landing zone, entering its final approach.
As the tail gunner for the aircraft, Curtis was wearing night vision goggles and scanning the ground for any threats while monitoring the aircraft’s descent.
Turning to the Rangers, Curtis told them, “One minute.”
Then, everything went wrong.
“We were about 200 feet in the air and, out of nowhere, we just started free-falling,” Curtis said.
In his NVGs, Curtis saw the ground rushing up toward him incredibly fast. The Osprey slammed into the earth and Curtis was flung up into the ceiling and thrown around violently.
“I was hooked in with a safety line so I didn’t fall out of the aircraft,” he said. “But I wasn’t strapped in like the other guys; I was just being tossed around like a rag doll.”
Amazingly, the Osprey didn’t break apart upon impact and it kept moving at a high rate of speed. In his headset, Curtis could hear the flight crew yelling while buzzers and warning alarms were going off around him.
Then, the Osprey hit a berm and came to a bone-jarring stop. Curtis was thrown around the rear of the aircraft again and lost consciousness.
“The last thing I remember is moving really fast, then we hit something and the aircraft just stopped,” he said.
When he came to, Curtis was disoriented. Everything was black, there were no sounds and he had no idea which way was up or down. Where only moments before there was chaos and turmoil, there was now only silence.
“It was eerie,” Curtis said.
Then, the pain set in.
“I knew I was banged up pretty bad,” Curtis said. “But at the moment, I was more concerned with getting myself and everyone else out of the aircraft.”
He had good reason too. Sitting there alone in the dark, Curtis became acutely aware of two very ominous sensations – the acrid smell of smoke and the hiss and crackle of fire.
His heart racing, Curtis used his training to get his bearings and attempted to move. But, he couldn’t.
“The .50 caliber ammunition from the tail gun had wrapped itself around me during the crash and I couldn’t move,” he said. “So, I started calling out for everyone to come to my voice because I was in the rear and near the exit.”
He heard movement, and then saw several forms moving past him. He reached out for one and saw the shape recoil in shock. The man bent down and grabbed Curtis’ arm.
“I thought you were dead,” the Ranger said.
Another Ranger also stopped, and the two men untangled Curtis and helped him out of the Osprey. Much of Curtis’ body was racked in pain, but it was what he couldn’t feel that worried him the most.
“I couldn’t feel my left arm,” he said. “I thought for sure it was gone. The whole time I was being helped out I didn’t look at it – I didn’t want to.”
Eventually, his fear was overcome by curiosity and he glanced at his left arm.
It was still there, but it was broken, bent and mangled and there was a huge gash spurting blood.
“Right away, I knew this was arterial bleeding and I needed a tourniquet,” Curtis said.
He grabbed one and applied it as high up on his arm as he could and then snapped back into flight crew mode.
Survivors were gathering at the rear of the Osprey and Curtis was nervous. Fire and fuel are a bad combination. The burning Osprey was a ticking time bomb.
“We have to move,” he told the group. “Now.”
At first, the survivors were hesitant. They were worried moving Curtis and some of the other wounded would harm them further and it would be harder for rescue teams to find them. Once Curtis expressed the gravity of the situation, the group grabbed what it could and moved further from the aircraft.
As he was being dragged away, Curtis glanced up into the night sky and noticed the stars.
“At that moment, my one thought was, ‘What a beautiful night … too bad it’s my last,’” he said.
In the distance, the sound of moving rotors announced the arrival of the rescue team. Several minutes later, Curtis was on a stretcher and being loaded into a helicopter.
His last thought was of his crewmates.
“Is everyone off?” he asked the pararescueman.
“Everyone that made it,” was the reply.
Curtis surrendered to the pain and to the exhaustion and the loss of blood. Once again he drifted off into unconsciousness.
When he woke up, the crash and the Osprey and that night were far behind him. He was in a bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He was covered in bandages, tubes and casts.
“I felt like it had been a few hours or a day since I passed out, but they told me I’d been out for 10 days,” he said.
He received worse news when he was told four people, including two aircrew members, didn’t make it. That hit him hard.
“Hearing that, it was really jarring,” he said.
His list of injuries was also shocking. Doctors told him he’d broken 17 bones – including his left arm, hip, several ribs and left leg – lost a lot of blood, and suffered numerous lacerations and bruises. The diagnoses, though, was optimistic, yet cautious.
“The doctors told me I would probably be able to walk eventually,” Curtis said. “But they said it would be a long, painful process, and I’d have to be patient.”
Walking was one thing, but Curtis set his sights higher.
“I told myself I would fly again,” he said. “No matter what it took, I wanted to get back in the Osprey.”
So, for several years, through 20 surgeries and hours and hours of physical therapy, Curtis worked nonstop on his goal. His body, now full of pins and rods and titanium, didn’t respond like it used to and it was hard work coming back. The hardest part was being patient.
“It’s like I had to start all over again,” he said. “When I woke up in that hospital bed, it was like I was starting at day one. I had to learn how to walk, to stand, sit and even move my left arm.”
He learned to temper his impatience by concentrating on small, attainable goals – like moving a finger, sitting up and other movements he used to take for granted.
A lot of his inspiration also came from other wounded warriors he saw at Walter Reed.
“I’d look around and see a lot of guys that had it worse than me and I was like, ‘If they can do (it), so can I,’” Curtis said.
All around him, doctors and other medical staff kept telling him he could do it and never once questioned his goals.
“(Injured service members) deserve the very best assistance, opportunities and support we can give them when they return home,” said John Campbell, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for warrior care policy. “And we should all be inspired and moved by their displays of perseverance and human spirit.”
Still, there were some who did question Curtis’ goal to get back in the Osprey.
“Yeah, there were a lot of people who were like, ‘Why would you want to get back in the Osprey?’” he said. “But I would just tell them it’s my job, I love to fly and it’s something I wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
Born to Fly
Curtis grew up in Grass Valley, Calif., a small town located about 60 miles north of Sacramento. It was here he developed a desire to fly from as early as he can remember.
“I loved planes and everything about flying,” he said. “It was just a calling, I guess.”
This calling drove him to look to the Air Force as a career, but he was torn between joining enlisted or as an officer.
One day, an unexpected encounter helped Curtis make up his mind.
“I was working at a local deli in town, when in walked Chuck Yeager,” he said. “If you love flying, then you know about this guy; he was definitely one of my heroes.”
Yeager lived in the area and Curtis had seen him around, but he’d never talked to the aviation legend. This time, he braved it. Curtis started talking to Yeager, telling him about his desire to join the Air Force and how he was undecided about going enlisted or officer.
“That’s when he told me he joined enlisted and would recommend it,” Curtis said. “So, that was good enough for me.”
Curtis joined the Air Force enlisted and spent his first few years working with helicopters. His unit transitioned to the Osprey and a fateful evening in Afghanistan was written in the clouds.
Curtis’ patience and hard work are paying off. He walks, stiffly and with a limp because of a titanium knee and a left leg that is two centimeters shorter than the right. He is able to move his left arm and use his left hand – all things he was unable to do after the accident.
This April, he also completed his first qualification flight since the accident. It’s a major step toward his ultimate goal of becoming flight certified again.
“Were there butterflies? Of course,” he said. “But was I excited? Definitely. This is what I’ve been looking forward to for the last three years.”
Still, Curtis is the first to say he didn’t get this far on his own. He owes much of his success to an amazing supporting cast – medical personnel who performed “miracles” on his body, coworkers who visited him nonstop and encouraged him tremendously, the love and understanding of his wife and two children, and his unit, the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., that, instead of saying no, allowed him to pursue his goal of flying again.
“And, of course, those two Rangers that pulled me out of the Osprey,” he said. “Without them, I wouldn’t even be here.”
So, while mirrors show Curtis the scars he earned that day, they also make him smile because he’s reminded of everything he is thankful for.
He’s alive, he has full use of his body and he’s still an Airman who may just get to keep on flying.