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Wounded Upper Burrell native determined to fly again in war zone

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

The term "persistent" describes Capt. Kyle Deem. He's always been that way — just ask his mother.

"He was always very determined, even when he was little," said Elsie Deem, Kyle's mother. "He didn't let people tell him he couldn't."

So it should come as no surprise that Capt. Deem is back in flight, not even a year after his legs were struck by a bullet and shrapnel in Afghanistan as he piloted a helicopter on a rescue mission.

Kyle Deem, an Upper Burrell native and a 2002 Burrell High School graduate, is back at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga., working to update expired flight qualifications.

He hopes to be eligible to fly again by month's end.

The 27-year-old Air Force pilot is retraining to fly an HH-60G Pavehawk, a medium-sized helicopter. It's the same aircraft Deem piloted that fateful day last June.

It was June 19. Deem was flying to rescue a wounded British soldier in southwestern Afghanistan. He believes a bullet fired from the ground pierced a window at the bottom of the helicopter.

Even though he was wounded, Deem helped the co-pilot navigate and they airlifted the wounded Brit to the hospital.

Deem's own recovery took months.

He suffered shrapnel wounds to both legs. He received skin grafts on each, but the right leg took the brunt of the injury.

By November, he walked on his own — a moment that brought tears to his mother's eyes.

And by Christmas, he finished physical therapy.

"Even those of us who thought he would eventually get back to doing everything he did before ... I don't think anyone realized how quickly he'd get there," Elsie Deem said.

He'd gone from a wheelchair, to a rolling walker, to a walker, to crutches, to one crutch, to a cane. Then, finally, to just his own two legs.

There were some limitations after Deem moved back to Georgia in January, like not being able to work for a full day.

"I just kind of listened to my leg for the first few months," Deem said.

As he got back into his routine at the squadron, he constantly checked in with flight doctors who cleared him to fly in the spring.

He took his first practice flight again in mid-April.

"I thought maybe at first that it might be a little bit tough," Deem said. "But really, once I got in the aircraft and started flying again, it was just like a regular training flight for me."

It's a leap of success from mere months ago when he was wheelchair bound.

There's no trace of a limp when he walks, and he's even able to jog for about 10 minutes.

His leg is pain-free, though it gets sore if he's on his feet all day — just like anyone else's legs would, he said.

Deem stayed resilient as his body recovered.

"I can be a little hard-headed," Deem said, "so I kind of fill my head up with that — 'Hey, this isn't going to stop me' — that sheer determination that I'll get beyond this injury."

But there were tough moments, especially right after the injury when Deem didn't know if his leg would have to be amputated.

He's grateful for the support of his community.

"I firmly, honestly believe that there's no way that I would be back here now without the support of everybody in the community now," Deem said. "The obvious ones are my friends and my family, but so many people reached out through the local area. It was amazing, just shocking. It really felt just like a small town — the whole area."

Through it all, Deem has said he was just doing his job and that he's no hero.

"I think I've been lucky to meet some heroes," Deem said. "I don't think I'm one of them.

"I think if that word were to be used, it would have to describe everyone that I fight with. We're just hoping to protect our values and the American way of life and give some of those people over there a better way of life as well."

To Deem, the heroes are five soldiers from his unit who died about a year ago when their helicopter was shot down.

But to Elsie Deem, her son continuing to do his job even when wounded is heroic.

"He sees other people who are doing the same thing that he was doing," she said. "It could be argued that they're all heroes, and I wouldn't argue with that, either."

Deem is certain that he'll be deployed into a war zone again.

"It'll happen again, just with the rate at which we deploy," he said. "I'd say the earliest would be sometime this fall, but nothing's ever set in stone."

For now, he's back in the pilot's seat, two strong legs in his boots.

Just like he said he would.

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