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Indestructible: An Air Force Citizen Airman’s road to recovery and the struggle to return to his position as a loadmaster on the C-5M Super Galaxy

  • Published
  • By Minnie Jones
  • 433rd Airlift Wing

Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin, an aircraft Loadmaster, is assigned to the 68th Airlift Squadron, 433rd Airlift Wing. The loadmaster on the C-5M Super Galaxy is one of the most critical jobs in the Air Force. The loadmaster is responsible for loading and offloading the aircraft with people and cargo, and ensuring the security of the load, which is probably the most important job a loadmaster can do. The job can be physically challenging. It requires loadmasters to bend down on their knees and sometimes on their stomachs on the deck of the aircraft to ensure the cargo is loaded correctly and securely.

 

Day of Change

May 24, 2017, was a day like any other day. Twenty-six-year-old Martin hopped on his Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle, his pride and joy, and headed to school. Little did he know that the routine ride would change his life forever.

It was around noon when Martin said an SUV came out of nowhere and hit him in an intersection. The force of the collision sent him onto his side into the intersection. Despite the power of the collision, Martin was still conscious; and despite being hit, he was not feeling any pain. Then, as a take-charge person, Martin began yelling out commands to the bystanders. He remembers telling people to move him out of the intersection and get his cell phone for him.

As he looked around to assess the situation, he knew his hand was injured but was unaware of the condition of his leg until he saw the look of shock on the face of the driver who hit him. As he followed her eyes, he glanced down at his left leg; he saw that it was shattered and somewhat disconnected.

Not long after that, the ambulance arrived, and he was rushed off to the hospital. At the hospital, the doctors were trying to determine a strategy of putting his leg back together again. The initial prognosis wasn’t good, but they were going to try. They told Martin that they would attempt to reconstruct his leg because they had recovered most of the parts of his leg. However, they could not guarantee that it would be entirely successful. Several conditions could arise after surgery, such as necrosis, the death of living tissues, or fusion of the bone. The other option was to amputate it. Martin, without hesitation, said to the doctor, “If it’s gone, it’s gone.” 

The first person to arrive at the hospital was Master Sgt. Michael Lopez, Martin’s supervisor, and his evaluator. Lopez received a call from his supervisor, who said Martin was in an accident and asked him to check on him at the hospital.

When Lopez arrived at the hospital, Martin was awake and alert.

“I was hoping he had his helmet on, and he did,” said Lopez. However, when Lopez looked down at Martin’s ankle, Lopez said to himself, “Oh my God, I mean, it was nothing holding it.”

As Martin lay in his bed before surgery, he walked Lopez through the accident. Martin told him that the doctor said he might lose his leg. Martin said to Lopez that he instructed the doctor to go ahead and amputate it.

Lopez said that despite the pain, losing his leg, and the uncertainty of recovery, one of Stuart’s primary concerns was whether he would be able to stay in the Air Force and remain on flight status. At that point, they both hoped that it was a possibility. However, Lopez told him that they would take it day by day.

 

The road to recovery

Three hours later, Lt. Col. Daniel King, 68th AS commander, and Martin’s parents, who had driven four hours, arrived at the hospital just as Martin returned from surgery.

“I was thankful he was alive,” said King. “But sad about the circumstances. His family was incredibly supportive and really positive about it. They said, ‘God has this, and we’ll get through it.’”

That was the first of six surgeries. After that, Martin spent 30 days at the University Hospital in San Antonio, recovering from the accident.

King began processing the paperwork to return Martin to duty. Martin was placed on no-points, no-pay, which is a status for reservists still serving but not participating.

“If I had to give advice to an Airman in a similar situation as this, I believe the most important thing that they would have to have as far as my opinion, is perseverance,” said King.

“They need to know the process is incredibly challenging,” said King. “I knew of a couple of cases where people have come back, but I also knew the process was extremely tedious and lengthy. As a result, most people just give up on the process because it’s just a battle.”

Despite the battle to regain his certification, Martin made it to the last step in the process.

“The last chance we had, was the medical board, who normally don’t allow outsiders,” said King. “So, I went to the medical board with him and addressed the board in-person by giving my opinion regarding his retainability. I believe going in person instead of them reading a letter from me was more important because they weren’t just reading a letter; they had to look at me.” After meeting the board, Martin’s waiver was finally approved. He was then put on active-duty orders to complete his loadmaster recertification, which is required due to his time away from duty.

Lopez contributes the success of Martin’s recovery to his self-determination to heal both mentally and physically, and his attitude and not giving up. Lopez said the wing’s leadership, social support, wingmen, and the San Antonio communities that rallied around Martin were also critical to his recovery. Finally, Martin’s determination to do the job and not fall behind.

“I am not making fun of the other trainees, but walking around the aircraft is pretty difficult because you feel a lot of stuff with your feet, but Stuart hops around and moves around as well as anyone,” said Lopez.

Martin’s re-certification was completed on Nov. 30, 2021. He was in a non-flying status for about two and half years.

According to psycologytoday.com, support is critical in a person’s recovery; people are more successful with help from friends, family, and health care professionals. Martin said he had it all.

Within those four years, Martin has completely healed. He pointed to the support from the wing, his family, both spiritually and physically, his Air Force team members, and the motorcycle social networks as his driving forces.

Since the accident, Martin has obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from the University of Texas, San Antonio, and a Master of Science degree in Athletic Training from Tarleton State University. In addition, he has participated in several half marathons and is looking forward to starting his civilian job in the next couple of months.

Another key to a full recovery is attitude. Despite what Martin had been through, there is always a smile on his face. When a person meets him, there is a calm demeanor about him. It is often said that recovery is person-driven; self-determination and self-direction are critical in recovering. After meeting Martin, he has all those characteristics.

 

One last hurdle

It has been a four-and-a-half-year journey. Although Martin has returned to duty, he still has one more hurdle to jump. His current status does not allow him to participate in temporary duty assignments outside the continental United States. He intends on getting his full status reinstated and will not rest until he is back to being cleared for all flying statuses.

 

Martin’s perspective after the accident

“I always accepted the risk when I got on to a motorcycle,” said Martin. “However, I will admit this isn’t the outcome I ever expected. After my accident, I saw support, generosity, care, and love from many people throughout my recovery.”

Martin continued “There were people I had known for years, people I had worked with, and people I didn’t even know personally, who encouraged me to pursue a most incredible life regardless of the injuries I’ve sustained.” It was an overwhelming wake-up from surgery, and I already had so many people there to care for me. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to return to flight status. I enjoy being an Air Force reservist; I’ve had the opportunity to continue my education and help others who have suffered injuries outside the Air Force.”

Martin talked about his struggles and hopes his story can help others who may be in a similar situation.

“My hope is that others see my story and are encouraged to pursue what they desire regardless of the barriers they might experience,” said Martin. “Additionally, there is still an entire fantastic life ahead for anyone who may suffer from a traumatic injury. And finally, I hope that as an example that service members can participate in physically demanding career fields even after suffering the loss of a limb.”