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Wounded Upper Burrell pilot's true grit put to test

| Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010

Blood ran out like water from a split garden hose.

Capt. Kyle Deem, 26, had been shot, and he was bleeding out.

The Upper Burrell native was piloting a helicopter on a rescue mission in Afghanistan when his legs were struck by a bullet and shrapnel that failed to bring down the aircraft.

The helicopter was stuffed with medical kits and bags. A medic pushed through to the cockpit, handing Deem a tourniquet.

The wounded captain was woozy, so dizzy he couldn't even unwrap the rubber band around the tourniquet.

The whole time, there was an inner voice saying: "You're not gonna die today. You're not gonna die today."

He summoned his strength, and the adrenaline thrust his right leg up so the medic could wrap the bandage above his knee.

Immediately, a rush of calmness. It was like someone turned off the faucet.

"I owe that guy a lot," Deem said. "He saved my life."

That medic and the rest of the crew are still in Afghanistan, Deem said.

His voice quiets and his eyes lower.

"I worry about them. I hope that they're OK."

Up until then, it was a normal June day, Deem said — not a cloud in the sky and hot as hell. Deem was with his crew, "a good group of dudes" who try to have fun despite the circumstances.

They were on a mission to rescue a wounded British soldier in the Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan. In his role as an Air Force pilot for a rescue squadron, Deem pilots the helicopter, while the crew in the back performs medical work.

While picking up the wounded British soldier, he believes one bullet came from the ground and through the chin bubble, a window at the bottom front of the HH-60G Pave Hawk, a medium-sized helicopter.

The pain came immediately, then blood, fear and anger. Once the tourniquet was on, the medic smiled at Deem and patted him on the head, calming him.

Even with his injuries, Deem helped the other pilot navigate the aircraft to make sure the wounded soldier got to the hospital.

Deem underwent 10 surgeries, two in Afghanistan.

Before going under, Deem begged the doctors not to take his leg, but they told him there was no guarantee.

The moment he opened his eyes after surgery, he looked down and thanked God his leg was still there.

Today, Kyle Deem sits in a wheelchair in his living room in his parents' Upper Burrell home, patriotic decorations tacked around the front door.

He wears knee-length gym shorts, a gray Under Armour T-shirt and a look of determination.

"I still intend to be walking," Deem said. "And I still intend to fly again."

A Taylor Spatial Frame — two metal circles joined by rods — covers the lower half of his right leg. Six screws are drilled into his broken bones to help set them.

His legs bear shrapnel wounds and healing skin grafts.

The bullet struck a main artery in his right leg, and doctors took one from his left leg as a replacement.

After a vein graft and a surgery to save the tissue in his leg in Afghanistan, Deem was flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he recently went for a checkup.

Doctors said the arterial graft in Afghanistan had failed, leaving him with just one of three arteries to circulate blood in his right leg.

"I only have one left, which is kind of discouraging," Deem said. "But the body is an amazing thing, or so I'm learning, and it compensates."

Doctors will not have to amputate the right foot, but he may experience problems, such as numb toes.

"There's still absolutely no doubt that it's going to be a long road, but there's no major setbacks," he said.

He knows he's heading in the right direction, but he also knows the journey will be long.

"I've got a long way to go. I'm in a damn wheelchair."

It was at Bethesda that Deem's parents, Elsie and Bill, first saw him after the injury.

"Oh my gosh, to see him," Elsie said. "I just wanted to touch him. I wanted to feel the life inside of him and just see him and know in my heart that he was going to be OK. And I did."

She was so relieved to have her son back in the United States and to touch him and know that it was real.

Deem's parents got a call about 10:30 on a Saturday morning from an Air Force colonel, who put Kyle on the line. Elsie had been painting her family room.

"Kyle told us, 'I got shot, but I'm OK,'" she said.

He'd just come out of surgery, and to hear their son's voice tell them the news was strengthening.

"I know ... what he does and when he went to war, there was risk," Elsie said. But the truth is, you never expect a phone call like that."

Three times a week, Deem undergoes therapy at HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital. The improvements are already coming.

At first, Deem couldn't feel anything in his right foot, and then the nerves started to come back.

Now he can even put weight on his right foot and use a walker and even crutches.

"I've still got a long road in terms of walking," he said.

But mentally, Deem is confident.

"This is going to heal up."

At home, Deem spends his time resting, caring for his wound and reading. He's researching master's degree programs and considering studying history, aviation safety or aviation management.

And he cherishes the time with his parents.

Elsie Deem wouldn't have him anywhere else to recuperate.

"I love having him here. Sometimes it's hard to leave for work because I'd love to be here and cook all his meals for him."

She knows there's a long road ahead, and she'll be there to help him travel it.

Deem's high school friends — Dave Barbieri of Lower Burrell and Jon Trzeciak of Upper Burrell — visit with Deem every chance they get. Both are members of the Lower Burrell American Legion

They describe him as someone you can always count on, and Barbieri calls him "funnier than hell."

Barbieri coordinated about fifty friends, family members and neighbors to warmly welcome the returning pilot back to his Hillview Drive home, each one waving a small American flag. Trzeciak drove to Bethesda to help the family bring back gifts.

"The support since I've been home has been phenomenal," Deem said.

Cards, phone calls and visitors pour in.

"It touches you," he said.

To him, the most gratifying moments are the little things.

When in the hospital, Deem had his Medevac squadron's patch in the room, and a Marine passing by it yelled out "I love you guys!".

But Deem stays humble, and his mother said he feels uncomfortable when people call him a hero.

"I was just doing my job."

Though Deem can't get into strategic talk about the war, he said he's seen a lot of wonderful moments of people helping people.

"I saw a lot of inspiring things," Deem said. "People putting the health and welfare of others ahead of their own. I've seen things over there that make me proud to be American. It gives me hope in humanity."

You can tell his brown eyes have seen a lot.

Even before his 2002 graduation from Burrell High School, Deem knew he wanted to fly. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, he knew he'd fly for the military.

Deem went to Virginia Military Institute before being commissioned and doing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His Medevac unit is devoted to rescue missions, and they do anything to get to wounded soldiers. He doesn't know the fate of the British soldier he rescued; he just hopes he survived.

He thinks and prays about his 'copter crew every day. And he's focused on getting back to the mission.

"The motto for Air Force Rescue is, 'These things that we do, that others may live.' And I've seen that firsthand."

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