Wounded Aviator Gets Airborne Again


KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Justin Callahan is airborne again, flying a C-12 Huron twin-engine airplane in support of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade.

Less than two years ago, Callahan, who’s originally from Bloomsdale, Mo., was told he couldn’t fly aircraft again, could never run again, and would walk with a noticeable limp for the rest of his life.

On Sept. 3, 2010, while flying on a daily reconnaissance mission, Callahan encountered small-arms fire in an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter flying near Sanjaray village in Afghanistan.

“From out of nowhere, it felt like a baseball bat smashed against my leg,” Callahan recalled.

During the engagement, one bullet went through Callahan’s lower left leg. He quickly applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and notified the other aircraft and his co-pilot that he was wounded.

Callahan immediately flew to Forward Operating Base Wilson for care before being transported back to Kandahar Airfield where he was treated for a compound fracture in his lower leg.

After more surgery at Bagram, he was awarded the Purple Heart from Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the 101st Airborne Division’s deputy commander. Callahan’s final stop was Fort Lewis, Wash., where he underwent the last of his surgeries and began his long road to recovery.

“During the recovery, the nerve conduction test had me worried,” Callahan recalled. “I was told that I would never run again. I thought, I still have my legs, I can walk, I can still be glad for that.”

Callahan said he received support from his family and friends during his recovery.

One close friend was Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mariko Kraft, a pilot with the WRFC, originally from Clarksville, Tenn., who was also an OH-58D pilot at the same time as Callahan.

“A lot of people would have seen it as a set-back, start doubting themselves, and feel sorry,” Kraft said of his friend’s desire to return to duty. “He saw that he was still fortunate to have his legs, to walk, and knew he could still do a lot. He saw his injury as a small bump in the road to get back to the fight.”

Callahan said he had personal reasons for wanting to be a pilot, noting he previously served as a forward observer with the 1st Ranger Battalion.

“I remember at the end of one particularly long mission in Afghanistan, a couple of helicopters came to pick us up and I thought it was time for a career change. As a Kiowa pilot, I got to see more of what was going on than just my squad on the ground. Now I am helping soldiers in a sticky situation. There is nothing like having soldiers come in from the field and saying thank you for the support we provided for them.”

Callahan’s motivation for flying and supporting the guys on the ground is echoed by his co-workers.

“He was very dedicated to supporting the ground guys,” Kraft said. “He had added appreciation for what was happening on the ground. We do what we can to make sure the guys on the ground get home to their families and friends.”

While he was participating in physical therapy, Callahan was notified that if he could recover he could take part in a fixed-wing aircraft course in about eight months.

“I was motivated to get through physical therapy,” Callahan said. “I had to make that fixed-wing course; I had to get back to the aircraft.”

“I think he saw it as another challenge to overcome,” said Kraft.

Callahan said he received his approval for flight status a month before the class started.

“Don’t let what the doctors say be the last word for you,” Callahan said. “If you keep working on what you want, you never know what is possible.”

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