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By GREGORY A. SUMMERS
S.C. National Guard helicopter pilot Scott Carnes knows he can't take back what happened in December 2004 when his AH-64 Apache gunship was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
One minute the South Middle School science teacher was getting ready to open fire on an insurgent stronghold. But within seconds, he was hanging out of the left side of the helicopter cockpit as it plummeted 400 feet toward the ground at more than 160 mph.
Carnes and his gunner made it down, but the helicopter was destroyed in the impact.
So was Carnes' back. The gunner, who was sitting in the front, was not hurt, but that crash changed Carnes' life forever, permanently disabling him.
Living with chronic pain, nerve damage and partial paralysis to his legs and one hand has become a way of life for Carnes.
"The farthest I can walk is to our mailbox, and that's a real challenge because it's uphill," he said. "If I can make it twice a week, it's been a good week. It's painful and I do my best to get around as much as possible. What it boils down to is you just can't fix a spinal cord injury."
As a pilot with the 1st Battalion, 151st Aviation Regiment, based at McEntire Air National Guard Station, Carnes saw his share of air time.
The Desert Storm and Desert Shield veteran, who also served a tour of duty in Kuwait, was deployed almost back-to-back in Kosovo and Iraq.
Another close call
And the December 2004 crash wasn't Carnes' last close call.
Because his injuries were misdiagnosed, Carnes flew missions for another six months with a fractured back.
On May 26, 2005, Carnes was involved in a rescue operation after an OH-58 Kiowa surveillance helicopter was shot down by small arms fire near Baquba, about 40 miles north of Baghdad.
A platoon of U.S. troops was dispatched in the thick vegetation along the banks of the Diyala River to search for the lost aircraft at night.
Carnes was piloting one of two Apaches flying cover for the rescue mission. However, the other Apache experienced mechanical difficulties and was forced to turn back.
"My fuel was already low when I got the call, but I was determined to stay," Carnes said.
Flying over tall, thick palm trees, Carnes started taking gunfire while ground units were engaged by gunmen.
According to Reuters news reports, Carnes saw where the fire was coming from and started shooting back, blowing up a cache of weapons and pinpointing the Kiowa wreckage.
"They were dead, but we were able to get them out," Carnes said. "We don't leave any of our guys behind. Not ever."
Within a month of that mission, Carnes was flown to Germany and then stateside due to his worsening back injuries.
"I just didn't understand what was going on because the pain in my legs kept getting worse instead of better," he said.
Carnes originally received treatment at Fort Bragg, but two rounds of surgery had little or no effect.
"It was frustrating," he said. "The doctors weren't listening to what we were telling them was going on.
"It took them two years to figure out that my back was broke, the discs were fractured and I had been leaking spinal fluid," he said.
Carnes said a trip to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., confirmed his condition, and a U.S. Army Disability Review Board there recently declared him permanently disabled.
"They had been looking in the wrong place; if they would've been looking 5 inches higher, they would've found it. When they finally pinpointed it, I had permanent nerve damage, partial paralysis in my left leg, one arm and in my left hand," he said.
But Carnes isn't bitter about serving his country.
"Mad at them? No," he said. "I'm not mad at them for getting hurt. I'm more mad at myself. If I wouldn't have hesitated a few seconds on that mission, we would have never gotten hit. I have a lot of resentment about not trusting my own judgment as a pilot that day."
Already decorated with heroism medals for protecting the elections and for the May 2005 rescue mission, Carnes was awarded the Purple Heart on Sept. 11, his last official day in a dress uniform. The significance of the 9/11 date was not lost on him, either.
"Linda (his wife) and I have sort of joked about it," Carnes said.
Carnes will formally retire Thursday after almost 18 years of military service.
Carnes spent the last few days at the VA Hospital in Augusta, Ga., as doctors there build up baseline records for his medical history.
Carnes said they want him to consider additional surgery to relieve his pain, but it's just not something he is willing to risk with twins on the way.
"The nerve damage I suffered will only get worse to the point where I have complete paralysis," he said. "But if anything goes wrong, I risk the chance of losing the limited mobility I have and that's not a chance I'm willing to take. I'm living with a lot of pain and the prognosis, but at least I know what to expect."
However, help could be coming from a different source.
The Carnes family is growing - the couple has two sons, Jarrod, 5, and Nicholas, 7, and Linda is expecting twin girls in February.
"The boys are excited," Linda said. "They told us they didn't want any more 'stinking boys' and wanted a sister."
Because of Carnes' condition, Linda went to a fertility specialist to get pregnant and gave her husband the news just before Father's Day.
"I wanted it to be special," she said. "I told him that his gift was coming, but it was on order, so I put the test results in a wrapped gift box for him."
That's where the help comes in.
After the girls are born, doctors will remove the blood from the umbilical cords so that stem cells can be drawn from it. Those cells will then be frozen and as stem cell research continues, the cells could be used to provide some relief for Carnes.
Doctors told the Carneses that the stem cells from one umbilical cord would not be enough, that it would take two.
That was before the couple knew that Linda was carrying twins.
"I was taken aback. It was just so amazing to hear that," she said. "I don't expect it to be two years from now; it could be 10 years before the research gets there.
"But, hopefully, this will improve his quality of life," she said.
Carnes sees it in a different way. Regardless of his circumstances, he said his faith in God has not wavered.
"Everything just kind of works together for a reason," he said.
Carnes said the military benefits he is entitled to as a disabled Operation Iraqi Freedom soldier have started kicking in.
"I was worried about where the money would come from, but all of that has kind of started taking care of itself," he said. "Everything is looking pretty good right now and we can focus on getting me healthy once again."
Carnes is also focusing on getting home from Augusta. He hoped to make it back to his Heath Springs home by late Thursday.
"I hope to make it to the Elgin (Volunteer Fire Department) barbecue on Friday," he said, laughing. "I can't miss that."
- Contact Greg Summers at 283-1156 or email@example.com