Just after the holidays in 2012, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Bryan Forney kissed his wife and three children and told them not to worry – he would be back soon. A helicopter pilot, Bryan was heading out for an operational deployment including the annual, multinational Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand. He was scheduled to return back to his station in Okinawa, Japan in a couple of months and was expecting to retire from flying after this tour.
On February 20, 2013, Bryan was on the last flight of the last training exercise he was to perform when his life changed forever.
“I was flying with three copilots and five crew chiefs for a practice landing in the mountains of Thailand,” Bryan explained. “We were doing what’s called a main mount landing on the edge of a cliff where you put the back wheels of the helicopter down and the front-end hovers over the edge,” Bryan explained. “The back wheels landed, but a rotor hit a tree behind us. I was able to lift the helicopter back up and move it over the mountain top, but it was destabilized and broke apart. The helicopter fell about 30 to 50 feet and caught on fire.”
Bryan vividly recalled the events of that day, explaining how he was pinned in the wreckage but was eventually pulled from the cockpit – but not before sustaining 2nd and 3rd degree burns to more than 54% of his body and losing his left arm just above the wrist. Today, he uses a prosthetic.
He was transferred to several hospitals before being sent by from Singapore to San Antonio, setting a record for the longest single medivac flight in history of 19.5 hours.
“I got into the burn ICU at BAMC on Feb. 24 and was there until May,” Bryan recalls. “I wasn’t discharged from the hospital until July. I don’t recall much from that time, but I know I had a bad infection called acenitobacter, which they struggled to treat.”
Acenitobacter is commonly referred to as Iraqibacter, because it is found more frequently in service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is a hospital-acquired infection found worldwide.
“The infection was so bad they had to put me on colistin (an antibiotic of last resort because it is also known for its kidney toxicity) and continuous renal replacement therapy as a result of the colistin,” Bryan said.
He recovered and after months of reconstruction, surgeries and physical therapy, Bryan was able to leave the hospital. Just a month or so later, he returned with a MRSA infection he managed to clear and was good for the better part of a year. In 2014, he recalls feeling weak and tired and noticing his leg swelling. Doctors never pinpointed the exact infection but diagnosed Bryan with cellulitis, a bacterial infection affecting the skin and deep tissues. Cellulitis can escalate by travelling to the blood and lymph nodes, causing a blood infection.
The working theory is that because Bryan’s knees were so badly burned and had to undergo such significant reconstructive work to close them, that his lymphatic system took a hit, making him very susceptible to infections and flare ups of cellulitis.
“It put me in the hospital 4 times between 2014 and 2017,” Bryan said. “It (the accident and subsequent recovery) was life changing for everybody. Jennie (Bryan’s wife) became my full-time caregiver.”
When Bryan was released from the hospital, he still had open wounds that needed changing and dressing. He was in a wheelchair and still had limited mobility in his right hand.
“It changes everything about family dynamics. I used to do all the handyman things around the house. And now, I couldn’t go out and play catch or soccer; even a simple Saturday afternoon at the park changed, because everything had to be modified so I could do things with them,” Bryan added.
His recovery is nothing short of miraculous. Bryan was found fit for duty and allowed to continue his Marine Corps career, eventually taking command of the wounded warrior detachment that took care of him and his family. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2017 and is now a high school math and science teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he and his family have moved. He continues to fight infection, but thanks to early treatment and now a continuous, prophylactic dose of antibiotic, he has been infection free since Spring of 2018.
He said. “I don’t see much attraction in doing something that doesn’t involve service. I have been so taken care of, so I want to continue giving back, and teaching is a way to do that.”
As for his perceptions of the research it took to bring him back from the brink, Bryan said he realizes that had he gone through this just a decade prior, he wouldn’t have survived his wounds and the infections.
“I know it (scientific research) costs a lot and a lot goes into it, but you can’t put a value on it,” He said. “I was in charge of wounded warriors in San Antonio, and I shudder to think where those guys would be now if it wasn’t for all the researchers, medical professionals, doctors and resources that have been put into making them better.”
Always the Marine, Bryan relayed the challenges he faced, with honor and grace, always bringing the discussion back to his family, his fellow service members or those who took care of him.
Best reflecting his spirit of determination was his response to what kept him going after the incident and during his recovery. He said, “Honestly, I didn’t have a choice. I have a wife and three kids to take care of. They did not deserve to lose me, so I had to do everything I could to get back to being a husband and a father for them.”
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