In 2009, a young Air Force lieutenant in pilot training thought his dreams of flying in the Air Force were crushed after a recreational boating accident resulted in the loss of his right leg.
Despite the accident, Capt. Ryan McGuire, now a 4th Airlift Squadron pilot, became the first airman to complete Air Force pilot training after losing a leg. He since has become a motivational speaker to airmen.
The boating accident happened when McGuire was in pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. The boat McGuire was on was towing a float with a rope. The rope wrapped around McGuire's leg, fracturing his pelvis, dislocating his hip and cutting off the blood circulation to his leg.
Six weeks later, McGuire's leg was amputated.
"The days leading up to the amputation were overwhelming and depressing," McGuire said. "The amputation was miserable. I was at the lowest of low."
McGuire said his depression was compounded by the fact that he probably would not be allowed to fulfill his dream of completing pilot training in the Air Force. But when he began his rehabilitation program, he added, he began to realize his situation might not have been as dire as he thought it was.
After his surgery, McGuire was waiting for a physical therapy appointment when a soldier asked him when he had lost his leg.
"Last week," McGuire responded.
McGuire said he was surprised when the soldier told him he had lost a leg the previous year. "Seeing him in uniform walking perfectly normal made me realize that being an amputee doesn't define me," the captain said.
In addition to his rehabilitation, McGuire said, the support system of his family, friends and Air Force wingmen was a key part of his recovery.
"From my wing commander to my flight commander, they supported my family and me throughout my recovery," McGuire said.
In addition to the challenge of recovering from his injury, McGuire faced the possibility of being medically discharged from the Air Force. Having wanted to fly since the age of 5 and entering the Air Force Academy with expectations of becoming a pilot, he said, the thought of losing the opportunity to fly was devastating.
To stay in the Air Force and fly, McGuire had to go before a formal medical evaluation review board to prove he was able to continue pilot training. To get a waiver to fly, he had to show the board he could still do everything that would be required of him as an Air Force pilot.
Faced with what looked to him like impossible odds, McGuire said, the help of his rehabilitation and the support of his Air Force family enabled him to present his case effectively and receive a waiver to continue flying.
"My squadron supported my decision to stay in the Air Force and assisted me in the process of getting a waiver to fly again. … They were going to support me no matter what," he said.
In May 2011, McGuire completed his pilot training and by October of that same year, he finished C-17 Globemaster III qualification training. He since has deployed and flown medical evacuation missions, but he also has become known for his inspiring story of resilience.
"Most people don't even know that Ryan lost a leg during pilot training," said Air Force Lt. Col. Matt Anderson, the 4th Airlift Squadron commander. "The fact that he doesn't talk about it is why his story of incredible resiliency and mental toughness is awesome. He just wants to be part of the team like everyone else."
McGuire has spoken to airmen and civilians at numerous events, including McChord's Wingman Day in 2012, the Air Force Academy's National Character Leadership Symposium in 2013, and more recently, at the 305th Air Mobility Wing's Mission Focus Day at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
"He has represented Team McChord by speaking at these large venues across the country about resiliency, sacrifice and selfless service, each time leaving the stage with a standing ovation," Anderson said. "Ryan's positive attitude, incredible work ethic and desire to be part of something bigger than himself make him an incredible officer and inspiration to others."
McGuire said he is passionate about speaking at various events to give back to the Air Force and help others overcome diversities.
"The Air Force has given me the opportunity to excel and overcome this injury," McGuire said. "I hope to show others that they, too, can overcome an injury or a setback like I did. I want them to know that the Air Force takes care of its people and will provide them with the tools and resources to overcome."
Since arriving here, McGuire said, he has received the same treatment as everyone else and that he has never been singled out or mistreated for being an amputee.
"If you are facing adversity, you have a support system in the Air Force," McGuire said. "It will never be too much for the Air Force to help you get to the other side. No other job in the world gives the support that the Air Force does."
McGuire encourages other airmen facing similar challenges not to lose hope.
"Never take no for an answer, keep pushing forward and the Air Force will have your back," he said. "For every challenge, there always has to be a first to overcome it. In my case, I was that first. You can be a first, too."