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Marine double-amputee’s treatment on Delta flight angers other vets

On Dec. 13, 2011, Marine Lance Cpl. Christian Brown was leading his squad on a foot patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province when he stepped on an explosive device that blew off both his legs, one above the knee, the other below his hip. He also lost part of his right index finger.

Last Sunday, almost exactly a year since those grievous injuries forced him to learn to walk on two successive pairs of prosthetic legs, Brown was “humiliated” to the point of tears on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Washington after being clumsily wheeled to the back row of the plane, according to a complaint sent to the airline by an outraged fellow passenger.

Worse yet, according to retired Army Col. Nickey Knighton’s detailed “customer care” report to Delta, efforts by several fellow vets to shift Brown from coach to a first class seat offered by another flyer, were rebuffed by the crew. Flight attendants insisted no one could move through the cabin because the doors were being closed for takeoff, she wrote.

Knighton, a former helicopter pilot with nearly 30 years of service, who turned out to be seated in the same back row as Brown, assumed that because he boarded last, he would be seated up front for comfort and ease of exit in case of emergency. Instead, she wrote in a complaint obtained by “She The People,” he was squeezed into a narrow aviation wheelchair that “bumped up against stationary aisle seats as he was wheeled through the aircraft. [He] was obviously humiliated by being paraded through the aircraft and was visibly upset. I touched Brown on his shoulders and asked if he was okay. Tears ran down his face, but he did not cry out loud.”

What Knighton did not tell Delta, perhaps because she did not know, was that Brown, 29, was also very ill with a high fever. He was returning, via Atlanta, from a hunting trip in Alabama for injured service members to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.  Injured on his second deployment to Afghanistan after joining the Marines in April, 2009, Brown has spent nearly a year at the complex outside Washington, D.C.

After six months in the hospital, including a period when he was in a coma, Brown moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the medical campus that he shares with his mother, Lyn Braden-Reed. He undergoes daily physical therapy to adjust to his new legs, she said. Friends and family follow his progress via Facebook posts and photos.

Brown, a strapping six-footer when he enlisted, was flying back to Washington with a military “escort buddy,” but his mother told me that had she been with her son, “it would have turned out a little bit differently. I just can’t imagine what it was like for him, being that sick. He had a 104-degree fever and he was shaking. He was quite obviously sick.”

Brown and his mother, who live 25 miles north of Memphis in the town of Munford, declined to offer specifics about what he actually experienced on the plane.

But while Knighton’s complaint reflects controlled rage, retired Army Lt. Col. Keith Gafford, also on the flight, held nothing back during a phone interview.

“I have been flying with Delta for a gazillion years and this crew treated Chris worse than you’d treat any thing, not even any body. I did 27 years in the military. I have seen a lot of things and have seen a lot of guys die, but I have never seen a Marine cry,” said Gafford, who served two tours in Iraq. “What the kid said was, ‘I have given everything that I can give and this is the way I am being treated? This is how I will be treated for the rest of my life?’”

In fact, Gafford added, two first-class passengers offered to switch seats with Brown, “but the flight attendant said we have to go. How many times have we sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes? You could close the door and still make an adjustment.”  The Texas native blasted the crew for being “hard as woodpecker lips.”

Knighton said time was hardly the issue since the plane took off five minutes ahead of schedule and arrived at Washington Reagan National Airport a quarter hour early.  She also said crew members refused to divulge their names or discuss the situation, although one attendant suggested she speak to the captain upon landing. By the time she reached the cockpit, the captain had vanished. The first officer declined to engage in conversation, and urged her to contact customer service.

Michael R. Thomas of Delta’s corporate communications office in Atlanta offered this emailed statement regarding Knighton’s letter:

“The story in no way reflects either Delta’s standard operating procedure or the very high regard we hold for our nation’s service members. We are sorry for the difficulties that transpired and are investigating this event to determine the appropriate next steps.”

Asked to list possible next steps–reprimands, fines, suspension, termination–or estimate how long the probe might last, Thomas sent a second email: “As previously stated, we are actively looking into the incident and have no additional details to share at this time.”

What Knighton, a longtime Delta flyer, seeks is simple. “I don’t want another wounded warrior, a veteran, or anyone with any type of disability to be handled in this fashion.  It was just senseless to me to the point of, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.'”

This is not the airline’s first snafu involving military personnel. In June 2011, Delta ignited a national firestorm when two soldiers posted a YouTube video about their experience catching a connecting flight from Baltimore to Atlanta after an 18-hour layover from Afghanistan. Several in the group of more than 30 people were charged $200 each to check a fourth bag. Under public and Congressional pressure, Delta soon announced it would allow military personnel and dependents to check extra bags for free.

This time, the solution may be comprehensive sensitivity training for crew members.

Meanwhile, the Marine–who learned of his promotion to corporal while recovering in the hospital here–can’t wait to return home for good next week with his mother.  Between his graduation from Munford High, where he played baseball, and his enlistment, Brown studied for the ministry at a non-demoninational seminary in Pensacola, Fla. But by 2009, “he felt a different calling. God wanted him to go in the military,” said Braden-Reed.

Brown is uncertain about his long-range plans, but is exploring the possibility of shifting gears yet again, this time to the classroom as a Marine Corps instructor.  He may also want to consider revisiting his earlier calling to the ministry, or become a motivational speaker who turned a personal ordeal into the ultimate teachable moment.

But first there is the near term back home.

“I want to go hunting with my dad and enjoy some good holiday food,” he told me. He’ll also continue rigorous physical therapy.

And does he think he’ll ever fly Delta again?

“Hell, no.”

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and reporter and columnist who writes widely about politics, culture and design. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country and More, and she is at work on a memoir.