On his second and last jump of the day in Central Texas, Air Force Lt. Hunter Davis was going to practice a low-altitude drop from about 5,000 feet, an exercise pilots such as Davis do in case they need to leave an airplane in distress.
He got the go signal and went for it. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, the chute wrapped around the left leg of his brand-new jumpsuit.
He remembers everything until 200 or 300 feet before impact. It was Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012.
“It’s hard to articulate what you think when death is certain,” Davis said. “I felt more lonely and alone than ever before in my life. I was moments away from eternity. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And no one knew I was in trouble.”
In a somewhat fetal position, he slammed into the ground at “somewhere north of 100 mph.”
He remembers trying to talk through a collapsed lung, trying to say, “It’s OK; I just need to get up.” He remembers the oxygen from the mask being hot because the tank had been outside in the Texas summer sun.
Conscious and talking, Davis — now 25 and about to be redeployed — was airlifted to University Medical Center Brackenridge, where members of the trauma team asked him how was he was doing. His response was appropriately soldierly and salty. A sanitized version goes something like: “I just fell out of an airplane. How do you think I’m doing?”
His pelvis and spine had taken the brunt of the G-forces, and his pelvic area was badly bleeding. Dr. Michael Jaimes and his interventional radiology team stopped some of the bleeding using a catheter.
His parents, Dr. Bob and Dana Davis of Houma, La., got a phone call: “You’ve got to hurry.” They quickly called in a favor and got a private Gulfstream and a pilot to fly them to Austin.
“I remember walking into the trauma bay, and it seemed like there were 14 people in there,” said Dana Davis, a psychotherapist. There was no blood in the emergency room, and he looked like himself. I was expecting this mangled, broken body. But the injuries were internal.”
After surgery on his pelvis the next Monday, Davis was sent to San Antonio — he was stationed at the time at Randolph Air Force Base — for care under the military medical system there. His mom slept in the hospital. She asked one of the caretakers looking after him when her son would be able to run again.
“Lady, I don’t think this guy is even going to have bladder function,” came the reply. “He’s not going to be able to walk.”
“I thought, ‘How am I going to tell this kid in the prime of his life?’” Dana Davis recalled. “I was with him for months. He had to be helped with every daily activity.”
“I don’t remember much, but I looked at my mom and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Davis said. “I was screaming every time they touched me. It almost felt like I was in a zoo in a way. I was angry at the world.”
Davis’ grandfather died while he was recovering, but he and his family are nothing if not resilient. Davis, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, has been flying since he was 9.
Eventually the medical clearance came through, and Hunter Davis was reassigned to his original squadron. He hasn’t re-earned his jump certification, but he has taken up paragliding, “which is a little more dangerous, in some respects.”
Lingering effects of the accident include some weakness on his left side, he said, and a bit of a limp on cold mornings.
More than a year after Davis was gravely injured, his mother wrote the Brackenridge team a letter that members recall fondly. And Davis hasn’t forgotten them, either.
“They were instrumental in preserving whatever career I had left,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have survived. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to come up with the right words to thank them. I just hope my life can be a tribute to them.”
On Tuesday, he’ll have to try to come up with some words, right or not. He’ll return to Brackenridge for the second annual trauma survivors’ reunion. His topic: “The Five People You Meet When You Don’t Go to Heaven.”
And he’s thinking about flying helicopter ambulances when he leaves the Air Force in four or five years.
His friends call him “Lt. Thud” or “Meat Bomb.”
“I don’t think I think of things as seriously,” he said. “I feel like I see a bigger picture. Yes, I’ll eventually get old and die, but it’s part of a process, and I feel a connection to everyone and everything around me. I feel connected when people share their joys and hopes and suffering. I just feel awake now. I joke that I might die, but I’ll be 110 and I’ll choke on a Tic Tac or get hit by a truck filled with mixed nuts. It’s very random what the body can survive and what it won’t survive.
"I feel like there’s a waiting line to meet our maker, and some of us has been pushed to the back.”