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Amputee Pilot Calls His Disability 'Only an Inconvenience'

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 10, 2004 – "I do what I want, when I want, only in a different way," said Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, keynote speaker for a DoD disability awards ceremony Dec. 7.

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Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake told the audience here at the 24th DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and 17th Disability Forum that being an amputee is just "an inconvenience." Photo by Rudi Williams

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Having had a leg amputated has proven to be only an inconvenience, Lourake told the audience at the 24th Defense Department Disability Awards Ceremony and 17th Disability Forum here.

"I don't really consider myself disabled. There were plenty of things I couldn't do before when I had two legs, but I wasn't considered disabled then. Everyone has a varying degree of abilities. Missing my leg just forces me to attack each task in a different manner."

Lourake is now chief of the Commander's Action Group at the 99th Airlift Squadron, 89th Airlift Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

His accident occurred when the throttle on his motocross bike stuck on Oct. 31, 1998, and he was thrown about 15 feet in the air, fracturing his left leg at the knee on impact. It seemed like his days in the cockpit of Air Force Two were over.

Then during his recovery, he contracted a staph infection. For the next three and a half years, Lourake endured 18 surgeries to repair his infected leg. After everything else failed, and nothing subsided the pain, he underwent an above-the-knee amputation in June 2002.

Medically cleared to return to flying status this year on June 18, Lourake flew his first flight in more than six years on Oct. 25. He's now the first and only amputee to return to flight status.

He's also the first servicemember amputee to be fitted with a unique prosthesis called a C-Leg, a computerized artificial leg that can analyze movement at the rate of 50 messages per second. It's also able to adjust to changes in the terrain the wearer is walking on.

Lourake told the audience he was able to return to flight status because he proved he could do the job and he didn't let anyone say no. "Advances in technology are enabling people to do more than they ever have before," said Lourake, who researched the latest prosthetics technology and found the C-Leg. "I just had to show them the possibilities."

A senior pilot with more than 3,900 flying hours, Lourake earned his pilot wings in 1988 after graduating from undergraduate pilot training at Reese Air Force Base, Texas. During six years at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Lourake set many milestones, including becoming the first lieutenant to be an aircraft commander and later becoming the youngest captain ever to be the chief of standardization and evaluation. He served in Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Provide Comfort and Restore Hope.

Lourake said he decided to show people what a one-legged man could do after realizing how hard people were working to keep him alive. "The DoD family is like no other in the world," he said. "We take care of our own. People are making a big deal over what I have been able to accomplish, but the story here is not me. The story is the team that worked their butts off to get me here. One simply can't get through an injury like mine without the support of family, friends and co-workers. It's just not possible."

When it comes to people with disabilities, military and civilian leadership needs to be open-minded and judge each case individually, he noted. "The people at the ceremony today are already helping," he said. "You are the policy makers, the leaders, and the actual workers with disabilities that are going to work every day and blazing the trail for others to follow," Lourake said.

Lourake said he and his wife, Lisa, visit patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington two to three times a week to encourage servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have become amputees.

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89th Airlift Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force pilot Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake shows off his prosthetic C-Leg while sitting in the cockpit of a C-20B aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. He returned to active flying status in June and flew his first flight in six years in October. Photo courtesy of Bobby Jones  
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