Army Corporal David Bixler never got the chance to jump out of an airplane when he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.
Friday, he’ll get his chance.
Bixler, who lost both legs while saving his platoon from an explosion in Afghanistan in 2010, took part in a tandem skydive over Charlotte Latin’s football stadium.
“I want to show people what’s left for guys like me,” Bixler said in an interview from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, where he is undergoing rehabilitation.
“Just because you’re busted up doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.”
Friday’s jump was sponsored by the Patriot Charities, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that supports wounded members of the military and their families from the Carolinas.
The group raised $3,500 to pay for Bixler’s jump with Mike Elliott, an Army veteran who has made more than 9,000 parachute jumps, including two tandem jumps with former President George H.W. Bush.
Bixler, 28, of Harrison, Ark., jumped in Charlotte thanks to Dilworth resident Paula Broadwell, a counterterrorism expert who was embedded with his unit in Afghanistan while researching her recent book, “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.” Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves, had thought about making a parachute jump to celebrate her 40th birthday on Nov. 9, but decided instead to offer it to Bixler, who shares her dream.
They met for the first time Friday, but Broadwell said she has been a “big sister” to Bixler since hearing about his heroic action on the battlefield and his optimistic attitude during recovery. She and her husband will help him find a job when he’s ready.
“He’s so amazingly positive, it just makes you cry,” she said.
Bixler has deployed to war three times. He served in Afghanistan for six months in 2006-07 and in Iraq for 14 months from 2007 to 2009. But he described his second stint in Afghanistan, from July to September 2010, as “three months of hell.”
By Sept. 30, the day Bixler was injured, more than a dozen soldiers in the unit had been killed or wounded. The platoon leader had been killed by an improvised explosive device (IED), according to an account in Stars and Stripes.
On that day, Bixler walked with his platoon through heavily mined farm land in the Arghandab River Valley in southern Afghanistan. As the last soldier in the group, Bixler collected markers that had shown them a safe path through the IEDs.
As they neared the village, where the soldiers had planned to meet with a few local elders, machine-gun fire ripped through the tree line in front of them. It was a Taliban ambush.Bixler and his comrades, including several Afghan National Army soldiers, were pinned in a ditch. Only a few could get into decent fighting positions, so the platoon leader called for them to turn back on the cleared path and re-engage on safer ground, according to Stars and Stripes.
As they prepared to move out, Bixler said one of the Afghan soldiers got scared and took off running on uncleared ground. “He was running across explosives. We all knew they were there somewhere.”
Bixler yelled “Stop” three times – first in Dari, then in Pashtu, and then in English.
In an email sent later to his commanders, Bixler said: “I would have shot his legs out from beneath him to save him from detonating an IED and possibly getting us all killed, but I had too many friendlies in the way, so I hauled up the dirt mound and grabbed him by the back of the collar … and threw him back, attempting to push him back into the ditch when I stepped backwards and wide trying to regain my balance.”
That step detonated an explosion that threw Bixler into the air and ripped through his body. His left arm was torn to the bone, his right leg was gone below his thigh, and his left leg dangled from the knee.
At first when he tried to yell, no sound came out. But then: “Everything hit me all at once, and I started screaming.”
‘My legs or five guys’ lives’
Post-blast analysis blamed two 88-millimeter mortars, enough to take out an entire platoon. “Yet here I am, alive with most of my parts.” And the Afghan soldier suffered only minor wounds.
Bixler had multiple surgeries at the military hospital near Landstuhl, Germany, and at Walter Reed in Bethesda. Surgeons reconnected his spine and reassembled his buttocks. As a “southpaw,” Bixler is grateful that doctors were able to save his left arm. “I think it works better than it did before.”
He’s been working with physical and occupational therapists on using his prosthetic legs.
“It was my legs or five guys’ lives,” he said. “… I should be dead, and I’m not. Other people that were there should be dead, and they’re not … I did what I had to do, and I protected my friends. The Taliban did not win. It was an acceptable loss versus my buddies’ lives.”
Persuading the doctors
Before Bixler could make the parachute jump, he had to get permission from military personnel and his medical team, which took some time and persuasion. “It was a pain,” he said.
But the blunt-talking soldier said he accepts the risk because he’s already been through the worst.
“I’ve been shot at. I’ve been blown up. I’ve been stabbed…It’s been two years since I was hurt. I’m as healed up as I’m ever going to be.”
Broadwell will be waiting for Bixler at the landing zone Friday, and both will speak Saturday night at the Patriot Charities gala to raise money for local organizations that serve wounded military members and their families.
“It’s the right thing for us as citizens to do,” Broadwell said, “… to draw awareness to … those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.”
Bixler, who has received the Purple Heart and the Silver Star and was named the 2011 USO Soldier of the Year for his heroism, hopes for a career in cybersecurity and enjoys his role as a public speaker, using his experience to encourage others.
As he wrote in the 2011 email to his commanders from his hospital bed:
“I would gladly have given my life to ensure the safety of our families back home … I will gladly make the same sacrifice again.”