Whenever Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake visits Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he takes along a sheaf full of stories to buck up service members who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of those stories describes a World War II pilot who lost both legs and went on to become Britain's fourth-best ace. Another tells of a U.S. soldier who returned to active duty with his mortar platoon just six months after he lost his foot in a mine blast on a Baghdad highway. Another tells of a sergeant who lost a leg in Afghanistan and went on to graduate from the Army's paratrooper school, the first to do so with a prosthetic leg.
Yesterday, Lourake added his own story to the sheaf.
After six earthbound years, he returned to the wild blue with a three-hour flight over Washington as pilot of Air Force Two, becoming the Air Force's first above-the-knee amputee pilot.
"If you're wounded in battle, your military career is no longer over, and I'm proof," Lourake said at a celebration yesterday after landing at Andrews Air Force Base.
He came out of the C-20, a military version of the commercial Gulfstream, waving an American flag to the cheers and whoops of a crowd of several hundred, many of whom were amputees Lourake has mentored in the past few years. As his wife, Lisa, sprayed him with champagne, several members of the crowd held up placards spelling out "ANDREW RULES"; others waved artificial limbs in tribute.
"He's got the biggest heart anyone ever had," said Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Metzdorf, who lost a leg in a roadside bombing in Iraq this year. Metzdorf said Lourake's visits made a huge difference when he was recuperating at Walter Reed.
"He gave us inspiration and support and made us want to get back to active duty," Metzdorf said.
Lourake, 43, will return to his duties as a special air missions pilot for the 99th Airlift Squadron at Andrews, flying the first lady, the vice president, foreign heads of state and other dignitaries and diplomats around the globe.
His commanding officer, Brig. Gen. David S. "Scott" Gray, said it had been a long journey with lots of obstacles, "but nothing too tall or wide for Andrew."
"By the sheer force of his personality, Andrew has set a precedent for many others," Gray said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz promised the assembled other wounded members of the military the same commitment if they want to get back to active duty.
"Whatever disability you inherit from this war, we will get you back if you want to get back," Wolfowitz pledged. "This is a first for the Air Force but definitely not a last."
Many amputees who have fought their way back to active duty in the Army have complained about the discrimination they feel from able-bodied soldiers, but Lourake had nothing but praise for his branch.
"The Air Force has been nothing less than astonishing in their support of me. Many people think that what I have accomplished in recent years is a big deal. I don't."
It just took "countless hours of physical therapy, thousands of pounds of paperwork and hundreds and hundreds of hours of friendship," Lourake said.
Though some military pilots have flown again after below-the-knee amputations, Lourake is the first to fly with a prosthetic that includes an artificial knee.
It's a knee that is nearly as sophisticated as the planes Lourake flies. His $43,000 "C-Leg" is the world's first microprocessor-assisted "intelligent prosthesis," a leg whose sensors adjust the swing speed and flexibility of its hydraulic knee 50 times a second to accommodate Lourake's every movement. Lourake's return to the skies comes nearly six years to the day since he mangled his left leg in a motocross accident. A hospital-borne staph infection seeped into the bone and, after 18 surgeries, forced Lourake to choose between losing his leg or enduring years of pain and more operations. The main reason Lourake decided to have the limb cut off was the faint chance of returning to the cockpit.
"I asked Andy why he wanted to fly again after he lost his leg, and he told me, 'Because it's what I do,' " Gray said.
As Lourake posed for photos yesterday in front of his plane after doing what he does, a small blue sign was visible in the cockpit window. It was a handicapped parking sticker.