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Face of Defense: Airman Adapts After Amputation Decision

By Air Force Airman 1st Class Scott Poe 19th Airlift Wing

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LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark., November 6, 2014 — Nov. 6, 2014 -- At age 28, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jason Caswell, a 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief here, was an athlete who aspired to play on the U.S. national rugby team. While he was stationed in England, he was out on the field playing his sport whenever he wasn’t working on the flightline.

During his third season in the game, however, his dream came to a bone-shattering halt. While playing in a match, Caswell said, he was tackled to the ground by an opposing player who intentionally tried to injure him by sliding into his leg.

Compound Tibia Fracture

"After I was tackled, I kept trying to get up and run, but I kept falling over," he said. "I could not figure out why I couldn't stand up." Caswell had suffered a compound fracture. Every time he tried to get up, his tibia, which was protruding out of his right leg, was digging into the ground. He needed medical attention immediately.

While paramedics debated over whether to transport him to the base hospital or the local hospital, Caswell was slowly bleeding out. His teammates, who were by his side, did not realize they were kneeling in a pool of blood. After more than an hour of lying on the rugby pitch, Caswell was taken to the base hospital in an ambulance, flat-lining twice during the ride.

Caswell endured eight surgeries to repair his leg. After most of the surgeries, he said, he was back to work in less than a month, sometimes as soon as two weeks. Over the course of four years, Caswell and his family moved from place to place and hospital to hospital, continuing the procedures and enduring the disappointment and lack of progress of each one.

The family was mentally and physically exhausted, Caswell said, and he was still in pain.

Time for a New Approach

When Caswell came here, he decided it was time for a new approach. He met with his new doctor, and in September, he and his family had made a very important and life-changing decision. It was time to remove his leg.

Caswell said he was tired of feeling like a burden to his family. And with every step he took, he added, a sharp, stunning pain shot up his leg.

"After four years of doing this -- four years of difficulty, pain and surgeries -- I asked myself, 'Am I letting everyone down?'" he said. "These doctors, nurses and therapists have worked so hard trying to fix my leg, and now I am just going to cut it off."

Caswell's wife, Tami, reassured him that he was doing the right thing. "I told him, 'You fought as hard as you could. Your body has made this decision, not you,'" she said. “‘Your leg has said -- Enough.’"

On Oct. 17, Caswell said, he was prepared for his ninth surgery, hopeful that it would be his last.

Ready for a Better Quality of Life

"Nobody ever wants to lose a leg, but after four years of pain, four years I will never get back with my kids, I know it's time," he said. "You don't get back time, so why wait? Why give up extra time trying to fix something that is not fixable? I am ready for a better quality of life."

Tami gave her husband a kiss and told him she would see him in a bit, a tradition that they have carried alongside all the surgeries they had been through together. As Caswell rolled toward the operating room, he had a big smile on his face, knowing he was making the right decision for his family and himself.

Two days after the amputation, Caswell already was playing and racing with the kids in the living room, using his walker. His daughter Raevyn, and son, Charlie, said they are looking forward to going hunting with their dad and being able to play with him again.

"It's a relief," Caswell said as he moved his bandaged leg around. "The other night I was doing pushups and back leg lifts. I was having fun, because I can do this stuff now and it doesn't hurt. The doctor took a 16-pound burden off of me."

Thankful for Support

Caswell said he is thankful for all the support he received from his wife and children and from the Air Force Wounded Warrior Adaptive Sports Program.

"I participated in the Warrior Games, and that's when I met a lot of guys who were going, or had gone through some rough times," Caswell said. "That's when I realized I was not alone. I knew I could get through this. The adaptive sports program taught me that your life is not over. You just have to adapt and overcome."

Looking into the future, Caswell said, his family is ready to start a new chapter in their lives and make new memories, noting that while the surgery was successful, the family still has a long road ahead. Caswell hopes to be fitted with a prosthetic leg by the end of November, and will undergo therapy until he is able to walk with his new leg.

"I can't tell you what I'm going to be doing in the future, because everything is open now," he said. "I would love to go back to being a crew chief again and do my job. The sky is the limit."