Dana Bowman is not afraid to fall.
Having survived a horrific midair sky diving accident that amputated both his legs at about the knee, he now chases life as never before on prosthetic legs, inspiring others and still thrilling crowds with his jumps.
The retired Army sergeant first class parachuted onto the grounds of Walton Rehabilitation Hospital on Thursday as part of the National Limb Drive, co-sponsored by Walton, Physicians for Peace and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics. Old or unused prosthetics were collected for humanitarian relief abroad.
Mr. Bowman, 37, was a member of the Army's crackerjack Golden Knights parachute team as it practiced Feb. 6, 1994, in Yuma, Ariz., for its upcoming year of shows.
"Beautiful day, a little breezy," Mr. Bowman recalled. "Everything was going great. This was the last jump of the day."
Teammate Sgt. Jose Aguillon had been with the Golden Knights three years and had been assigned to Mr. Bowman as a mentor. The two men leaped out of the back of the plane together 12,500 feet above the earth. They angled out in opposite directions as they fell, the red smoke streaming from canisters on their ankles, forming the beginning of their move, known as the "Diamond Track." It was a stunt they had performed at least 50 times before and had done flawlessly twice already that day.
"We had already etched out a red top of a diamond in the sky," Mr. Bowman said. At about 7,500 feet, they turned and began to angle back toward each other to form the bottom half of the diamond shape, ending in a point when their paths crossed close together.
"Usually, we do the slice," he said, where they pass side by side before slowing and popping their chutes. To the crowd below, off to one side, it appears they have collided and there is always a loud gasp.
"That's what the illusion is, to pretend that you hit," he said. But this time, because the crowd was directly below, in order to maintain the illusion they would have to do what is called the over and under, where Sgt. Aguillon would pass over Mr. Bowman. It was a maneuver they had not tried before, one with no margin error. And this time, there was no illusion.
As they neared, Mr. Bowman looked up to see his partner rocketing toward him, the red smoke billowing behind him. Sgt. Aguillon put out his arms in front of him to try and slow himself. The other man ducked his head. And they hit at nearly 300 mph.
The force caused one of Sgt. Aguillon's arms to shear off both of Mr. Bowman's legs, the left slightly below the knee, the right slightly above. The impact also popped the unconscious Mr. Bowman's parachute.
"I'm just lucky that my parachute opened," he said.
He would wake up two days later in the hospital and learn that his partner was dead. Then he got more bad news.
"I kind of looked down and there was nothing underneath the sheets," he said. His life flashed through his mind, "being 100 percent active, to doing everything you can imagine and it just stops. You know, what's next? When is this nightmare going to be over?"
"Disabilities, you know, what is that? I had no clue."
The new got even worse. "I lost my friend. I lost my legs. Then my wife left me." The Army also tried to discharge him, "but I wouldn't let them."
He also told them he was going to Sgt. Aguillon's funeral "one way or another." And it is then the motivation came back.
"I didn't want to give up," Mr. Bowman said. "I hated the looks, you know, people looking at you differently, being an amputee or being disabled. It's a sad look, they want to pat you on the back and say it's going to be OK. Poor baby. That wasn't me."
He got his first prosthetic legs a couple months after the accident and started rehab. Doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington told him it would be six months before he was off crutches; he did it in four days.
"You have to learn how to walk on your own," he said. "I fell a lot, let me tell you, good spills. But you have to pick yourself back up."
Five months after the accident, he finagled a weekend pass, drove himself four hours back to North Carolina, browbeat a friend into loaning him a parachute, and jumped again.
Nine months after the accident, he became the first double amputee to re-enlist. Of course, he parachuted into the ceremony.
He retired from the Army but has accelerated into life. It is hard to keep up, just hearing him describe it.
"There's nothing I can't do. Water ski, snow ski, scuba dive, skydive, fly airplanes, helicopters. I'm the first double amputee commercial helicopter instructor. In the world."
It is part of what makes him a sought-after motivational speaker, who has spoken to corporations and children alike.
"I did all that after my accident," he said. "So you can do anything."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213.
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