EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
From her seat in the helicopter, she saw her aircraft descend below the blast protection walls and wondered why it didn’t land. Then things went ‘sideways.’
On Oct. 11, 2015, Col. Laurel Burkel was rescued from the mangled wreckage of the helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Burkel lived to tell her story, but Maj. Phyllis Pelky, Master Sgt. Greg Kuhse, and three NATO partners were lost.
She recently shared her story of resiliency during a Wounded Warrior Care Ambassador workshop event at the 53d Wing.
The senior navigator said as she lay injured in a hospital bed in Kabul, her thoughts kept going back to her Airmen, Pelky and Kuhse. She asked where they were, but her leadership said, “don’t worry about that now.”
The Michigan native was transported to Landstuhl, Germany and fitted with a halo neck brace. The brace prevented further injury to her spine from her broken neck and damaged vertebra.
“Imagine six screws in your skull. The tightening of those halo screws to stabilize my spine was miserable, but it did good work,” said Burkel, currently the division chief of Air Mobility Command’s Aviation Energy and Innovation Division. “I credit my recovery to my discipline for fitness.”
Burkel underwent months of self-driven rehabilitation. Since then, the 49-year-old made a full recovery and returned to flying status.
During that time, she shared her experience with leadership and other audiences. It was her recovery care coordinator who then suggested she attend an Air Force Wounded Warrior Ambassador class.
Through participation in, then joining the Ambassador program, she learned the value in helping other wounded warriors tell their story.
“People need these talks,” said Burkel. “They are powerfully affected by the stories our warrior share.”
Lt. Col. Ian Cunningham, 53d Wing chief of safety, said he experienced a mix of feelings when he saw his friend again at the event here. He hadn’t seen Burkel since her accident.
“I was amazed what the human body and mind are capable of. I was somber to think of what she went through and the friends we lost that day,” said Cunningham.
Since then, she has shared her story as an Ambassador more than 10 times.
“I want to do whatever I can do to let the rest of the Air Force know we have this program,” she said. “There are people walking around in pain for a long time not knowing this program exists.”
Air Force Wounded Warrior Program Ambassadors speak to groups of Airmen across the Air Force on behalf of the AFW2. The AFW2 program enrolls more than 102 warriors a month, according AFW2.