On the evening of November 23, 1999, Sgt. William Sturges of Ronkonkoma, New York, was in an airplane on a training mission for the New York Army National Guard. An unanticipated fog suddenly rolled in off the Atlantic Ocean. “And so we were flying in this fog with an aircraft incapable of flying in the fog,” said 49-year-old Sturges in a telephone interview. “We had zero visibility.”
Investigators deemed the subsequent airplane crash in which Sturges survived a g-force of 57 in an airplane hitting ground at perhaps 80 knots as “unsurvivable.” (In comparison, riders on many of the world’s wildest roller coasters experience a g-force of only about 6.) In the crash, the pilot and crew chief died, and only Sturges and the co-pilot survived. Sturges later learned key people in command roles made mistakes that led to the crash.
Said Sturges, “My left leg initially had to be amputated below-knee. Then I got gangrene there and that became an above-knee amputation. I also had a traumatic brain injury, dislocated left shoulder, collapsed left lung, broken left ribs, broken transverse processes in my spine, fractured left wrist, bruised spleen, open fracture of the right tibia, and open fracture of the left tibia and fibula. My brother said it was like someone had drilled a hole in my calf muscle, shoved an M-80 (explosive) in, and blown it off.”
Today, 13 years later, he said the most difficult aspect of his never-ending rehabilitation has been dealing with the traumatic brain injury. He sometimes has difficulty trying to form thoughts into spoken words.
Nonetheless, he has been working on a degree in recreational therapy from St. Joseph’s College. Through the National Amputation Foundation, he has been regularly visiting newly injured soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he had spent time recovering himself years before.
He said, “I tell the soldiers there that yes, it really [stinks] you lost a limb. But you can still do whatever you really want. The only limitations you have are what you impose on yourself.”
Besides attending college, Sturges enjoys golfing, kayaking, and skiing. To get around, he uses a high-tech Genium prosthetic leg. He has never stopped trying to physically and cognitively adapt to life and gave much of the credit for his recovery to his wife, Mary, who “more or less has been my legs,” he said.
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