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Amputee pilot back in the cockpit

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 06, 2004) -- Most people would have thought Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake would never see the inside of an Air Force cockpit again, at least not as a pilot.

The colonel was injured in a motorcycle accident in the fall of 1998. Infection following surgery to repair a broken bone left him with few choices but to have his left leg amputated above the knee three years after the crash.

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Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against him, he said he was determined to get back into the cockpit and return to his Air Force job. He got his wish six years after the accident and now is flying and walking with the aid of an artificial limb.

Colonel Lourake logged in his first operational mission in a C-20 aircraft recently during a roundtrip flight from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to Boston with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper. The colonel, who has more than 4,000 flying hours, served as the co-pilot.

“It feels pretty awesome," Colonel Lourake said. "Today was the first day I flew in the right seat, so I had to work all the co-pilot duties. I hadn't done that in a long time, because all my training was done from the left seat. So this time around was essentially another new experience, but everything came back to me pretty (quickly).

"I'm elated; you can't hardly wipe the smile off my face," he said. "This is what I've done most of my life. My whole Air Force career has been airplanes. And I had it taken away from me because of an accident and a microorganism. I had to fight to get back to it, to prove I could fly an airplane again at this level."

When he is not in the cockpit, Colonel Lourake spends time with his wife visiting amputees at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.

Many of those servicemembers have lost limbs as a result of the war on terrorism. They go to center to be fitted for prosthetics and learn to use them. Colonel Lourake uses his perspective as a military officer, pilot and amputee to let the patients know they can have a future.

"I was in their position at one point," Colonel Lourake said. "You can go out there and lead a very normal life with the help of prosthetics, but you don't really get that feeling when you are in a hospital bed, drugged up and in a lot of pain."

Colonel Lourake said once he shows bed-bound servicemembers he too is an amputee and that there can be life after an amputation, they start to trust him a little.

"That's what my wife and I bring to the table for them -- credibility," he said. "I pull up my pant leg and have them look at my artificial leg. That's a good feeling, because then they open up, and we form a bond. Then I can show them that life can be normal, six months down the road, once they get fitted into a prosthetic."

Just one day after his return to operational flying, Colonel Lourake participated in the ground breaking of a new $10 million treatment center for amputees at Walter Reed. The goal of the Military Amputee Training Center staff will be to return amputees as close as possible to their "pre-injury level of tactical athleticism," officials said.

"It's going to be a great leap forward in amputee care," Colonel Lourake said. "It's especially needed now that we have so many (servicemembers) coming home from the war with lost limbs."

Colonel Lourake will no doubt be there to meet many of them and let them know it is possible to be normal again.

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