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50th MSG deputy shares tale of tragedy, recovery

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The cyclist awakens from a dream. He last remembers seeing the faces of his children. He feels no pain, but he cannot breathe. He yells at nearby paramedics, “I can’t breathe!” 

Lying motionless, his thoughts go in and out. He lays trapped, his helmeted head crushed inside a car’s front right wheel well. He sees what his rescuers cannot and begins directing them how to get more than a ton of vehicle off of his body. 

Lt. Col. Gary Henry’s story of tragedy and recovery begins around 7 a.m. July 24. The 50th Mission Support Group deputy commander; his wife, Maj. Kelly Phillips-Henry, and the U.S. Air Force Academy cadet they sponsor, Tori, leave the hotel where they were staying in Boulder, Colo., and set off to compete in the Boulder Peak Triathlon. It is a race the Henrys had not planned on—more of a “training opportunity,” a “block to check off.” They had signed up mainly to support Tori, who had just started competing in triathlons. 

They set up their bicycles and the rest of their equipment. However, because they are running a little behind today, the Henrys do not get to meet up for their traditional good-luck kiss before going to their staging areas. 

Although disappointed that he cannot wish his wife good luck, Colonel Henry stays focused on the first leg of the triathlon, the 1,500-meter swim. It is his least favorite part of the sport, but he enjoys conquering the challenge. He runs down the sandy beach, plunges into the chilly depths of the Boulder Reservoir and begins kicking out across the lake. 

After a fairly smooth swim just shy of a mile long, Colonel Henry trudges out of the brisk, lapping water, strips off his wet suit and runs to his bike. Colonel Henry, a strong cyclist, looks forward to the 26-mile ride ahead. 

He pedals a good, steady pace—he’s not trying to win the race but pushes himself for his own satisfaction. He starts to dig in at the sixth mile as the winding Old Stage Road ascends at a 15-percent grade, becoming a 600-foot vertical climb for about 2/3 mile—a “significant hill,” as he calls it. 

He reaches the apex and descends freely. He sails down the hill, the wind cooling his skin. He’s wheeling down, approaching a curve to the right near the bottom, when he sees a car coming around the corner from the opposite direction. The race route had not been blocked to traffic because of the small number of participants. 

Colonel Henry makes a split-second decision to lay his bike down, trying to avoid the inevitable collision. Then he blacks out. 

By chance, that day, a doctor is enjoying a leisurely bike ride along the same route in the opposite direction; he immediately responds to the accident. By chance, an ambulance is just hundreds of yards away responding to an accident that happened 20 minutes earlier. The paramedic team splits up to respond to both accidents, shaving precious minutes from a normal emergency response. 

“I can’t breathe!” he repeatedly tells the paramedics. “I can’t breathe!” 

For 40 minutes, the paramedics consider how to free him from under the car without aggravating his injuries before they finally extract him. 

About eight feet away, a group of bicyclists waits for the road to clear. One of those cyclists is his wife, Kelly. She does not know that her husband has been involved in
the accident. 

“I had the weirdest feeling,” she said, recalling the scene. “Normally I ride hard and push myself, but all I could think about was seeing my kids and being with my family—I needed to know that everything was all right in our world.” 

Colonel Henry is in and out of consciousness as the ambulance rushes him to a Flight for Life helicopter. 

“My prayers are with you,” Major Henry says. She looks up at the helicopter, watching it fly out of sight. She finishes the race and is beckoned to the first-aid tent. As dehydration is a common ailment, she thinks nothing of going to the tent, probably to find her husband getting some fluids replenished. 

She walks into the tent. He’s not there. 

As a medic approaches her, Major Henry realizes the person on the Flight for Life was her beloved husband. 

Major Henry’s mind reels as she listens to the doctors telling her what happened. The overwhelming information makes no sense. As she begins to faint, a family friend walks into the tent and catches her. Her friend slowly begins to explain to her what had happened. 

Major Henry recalled the drive from Boulder to Denver felt like slow motion. She arrived at the St. Anthony’s Trauma Center still in her bike suit. Within minutes, she was sitting on the hospital floor looking up at the doctors who were explaining all of the surgeries that would have to be performed on her husband over the next several hours. 

Colonel Henry was given a 15-percent chance to live. His life-threatening injuries included a torn aorta, lacerated liver, ruptured bladder, shattered pelvis, broken right femur, collapsed lungs, broken clavicle and road burns. Every rib in his body but two were broken. 

Amazingly, he had no head injuries. Though his helmet had been completely crushed, it had performed its designed task beyond all expectations. 

Within two hours of Major Henry rushing to the hospital, word from the 50th Space Wing Command Post brought together the Henrys’ colleagues, bosses and friends. Chaplain (Maj.) Michael Williams was one of the first ones there. 

“I was returning home from a Sunday morning worship service when I received the message from the command post. I did a quick touch-and-go at my house and hightailed it to Denver,” he said. 

“On arrival at the hospital in Denver, I eventually located Kelly, and she filled me in on what had happened, the extent of her husband’s injuries and the medical treatment plan that was already in progress,” Chaplain Williams said. 

Eight people were now at the hospital to help support the Henrys through this grave situation; Colonel Henry’s parents and children were being flown in. They consoled one another, waited and prayed. 

“Because chaplains have pretty free access around hospital floors, I did my best over the next several, very fragile days of multiple surgeries and critical care to help get Kelly timely information about her husband’s status,” said Chaplain Williams. 

The most crucial operations ended at 1 a.m. July 25—after nearly 12 hours of initial surgeries. 

“The first week was touch-and-go,” said Major Henry. “The intensive care nurses were like angels in disguise. They prepared me for the worst. 

“It was like a rollercoaster ride,” she said. “One moment things seemed to get better, only to get worse. On the third day, he flat-lined,” she said. 

He also had life threatening blood clots and contracted pneumonia. 

“He is a miracle,” said Major Henry. “Ten years ago, he would never have survived. Medical science advancements? Yes. Divine intervention? Absolutely.” 

Colonel Henry spent three weeks in the intensive care unit. His body was strapped down so he could not accidentally dislodge any of more than 10 tubes that protruded from his body. 

“I lost my best friend for three weeks,” said Major Henry. “I took pictures of him and wrote a journal so he might better understand the entire ordeal.” 

Once Colonel Henry was moved out of intensive care, his self-styled “bull-headedness” began to show. 

“Coming out of a drug-induced coma isn’t like you see on a soap opera,” Major Henry said. “There was no reaching out and hugging and loving; it was a slow awakening, and you just knew how much pain he was in. 

“I just had to tell myself that things were going to get better, and every day they did,” she said. 

As the heavy sedation of painkillers wore off, Colonel Henry began to understand what his injuries entailed. He wanted to get back to normal and wanted his dignity and strength back as well. 

He underwent voice therapy because of the feeding tube. Doctors said he wouldn’t walk until October. He was determined to get moving long before that. 

“I forced myself to walk,” he said. Little by little, he was able to go about six feet. That was enough to get rid of the bedpan and gain back some of his dignity. By Aug. 17, he was walking—first with a walker and then with a cane. 

“I’m no miracle man; I’m just stubborn,” joked Colonel Henry from behind his desk, his arm in a blue sling. 

“Coming back to work was the best therapy,” said Colonel Henry. “It forced me to get moving. It helped me mentally and physically. There’s only so much television a person can watch. 

“I feel guilty for what I’ve put my wife and family through. I just want to be back a hundred percent so I can help her out. So many people were there for us. They cut our lawn, prepared meals for the family,” he said. 

“I believe that there is no organization in this country that shows more compassion and care than the Air Force family. The Air Force e-mail grapevine is an amazing thing—we received such tremendous support from all over the world.” 

Once he has completely recovered, Colonel Henry said he believes he will be even healthier than before. He plans to resume racing as soon as he can. 

“I miss not being able to run on weekends with my wife,” he said. 

For now, he pedals on a spinning bike at home. 

“It’s frustrating. But in two years, I’ll be doing IronMan races again,” he said. 

“There’s nothing in my life I would change,” he said. “The accident clarified that I know I’m living my life right—I see the sunsets and sunrises and my surroundings more deeply now. I can’t thank everyone enough for all of the support we’ve received. It is immeasurable—the Wingman concept, personified.”