The way that Gary and Mari Linfoot move through life dramatically changed May 31, 2008, but the important thing to the Clarksville couple and Titans Season Ticket Members is that they are still doing so together.
The Linfoots participated in the Titans 5K on the sixth anniversary of an Army helicopter crash that resulted in Gary's paralysis. The overlap of the race with what's known in the military as Gary's "alive day" was coincidental, but they said finishing the course gave them a good sense of accomplishment.
Gary rolled his wheelchair and Mari ran. When the grades of the uphill were steep, she gave her husband a boost. He sped on the downward slopes but waited for her to catch up before continuing. Titans players greeted them at the finish, and they met Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt on the field after the race.
"I didn't even think about it until Mari had said something a few days earlier," Gary said. "It was a good day to think about stuff, and here, six years later, we're still in a position to go out and do an activity, and I have many reasons to be thankful and count my blessings.
"A lot of people don't (survive a crash)," Gary added. "We know many people who did not get the chance to come home, so I made it through that, came home and we've made the best out of what we've been left with. Every day presents its challenges, but we go out there and I think for the most part, take it head-on and do the best that we can do."
It marked the second 5K in as many weekends for the Linfoots, who also participated in the Snowball Express in Franklin that raised money for children of fallen soldiers. Gary and Mari sit in the north end zone at LP Field for Titans home games and enjoy attending Predators games and NASCAR races. They also previously participated in a Ride 2 Recovery from New York to Washington that was similar to one that visited Saint Thomas Sports Park this spring.
"We find ourselves doing things we normally wouldn't do," Mari said. "I don't know if we would have done a 5K had he not been injured, but there was a lot of satisfaction in finishing it. If you look at the picture on the Titans' Facebook, it looks like I think I won. Clearly, we're never going to win, but doing something harder just feels good. It feels like you're beating it and it's not going to get you down."
Allure of the Air
Gary said he's been attracted to aviation for as long as he can remember. He admired an algebra teacher in junior high who flew F-4 Phantom airplanes in the Marine Corps Reserves, and became interested in helicopters after seeing them in person in Los Angeles and in movies.
"Where I lived in L.A., we had a couple of military installations nearby so I would always hear the Hueys fly over, and the thumping in my chest that I got was cool," he recalled.
He charted a path that would get him into a cockpit as soon as possible after high school, enlisting in the Army and then applying for flight school. He served in Germany for about 18 months before attending flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala.
Linfoot's first duty station was Fort Ord, Calif., where he met Mari on a blind date. The wife of one of Gary's friends worked with Mari, who was managing property.
After a couple of years in California, Gary was transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he spent four years with the 82nd Airborne. He assessed for and was selected to the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, and the couple moved to Tennessee in 1997, the same year that professional football arrived in the state.
Gary completed peace-time deployments and training missions. His first combat mission was to Afghanistan in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he began a series of deployments to Iraq in 2003 to carry out special operations missions on deployments that were "short in duration but high intensity."
Gary's family learned to cope with the family sacrifices that come with the service commitment made by soldiers and airmen. The nature of his job kept his work separate from home life, except for an occasional flyover.
"I kid because I say, 'He was a pilot, or at least that's what he told me,' " Mari said. "Sometimes he'd fly over the house and say, 'I'm coming over the house about 6:30,' and the kids would go out and wave, but I never saw him get in and take off that I remember, so I guess I'd take his word for it."
The Linfoots have since learned that their daughter would tell her dad goodbye before the deployments and then tear up as she walked to her school bus stop.
"It's one of those things where you don't really realize the impact it has on your kids because they do a pretty good job of keeping that to themselves and not showing worry," Gary said.
Gary logged more than 5,000 hours of flying, with about 1,500 of those on combat missions in his more than 20 years of flying. He had a couple of "hard landings" over the years but his first crash occurred early during his 19th deployment to Iraq.
"I had been in one or two hard landings before in Iraq where we had to, the aircraft wasn't flyable, but this time was the first time I had been in what I would consider a crash where there were injuries and irreparable damage," Gary said.
The early summer heat was beginning to hover over Iraq on a day that Gary started much like he had done over the course of his career. He was on the night cycle so he got up late in the afternoon and worked out, then checked on the probable missions and prepared to carry out an assignment that was "very typical of what we were doing at that time."
"The ground force was going to go in on a target, and our job was to provide close-air support so we flew down to Baghdad and did face-to-face coordination with the guys that were going in on the ground, came up with a game plan. We were going to take off from our base near Baghdad, fly into the vicinity of the target and go into a holding pattern, and when the ground force went in on the target, they might call us in if they needed us, they might not. From there, it just kind of develops."
The helicopter occupied by Gary and his co-pilot was in its holding area when a mechanical failure occurred. A coupling on a drive shaft failed, causing the engine to lose power, "and out of the sky we came," Linfoot said.
"From the time we lost the drive shaft to impact was probably 10 seconds," he recalled. "That's all it takes, so in that time you're automatically going through the procedures to get the aircraft on the ground, adjust the flight controls and make that auto-rotational descent and landing in what you hope is a good landing zone.
"Really, for the conditions of that night, the weight of the aircraft, our air speed, our altitude, where we had to land, it was a successful landing but we were just very heavy and the aircraft couldn't take that hard of a landing," Linfoot added. "I guess basically what happens is under the seat of the aircraft, you sit on a crush box and it's designed in a crash sequence, it's supposed to crush just like you're sitting on a cardboard box to absorb some of the impact. We had some black boxes under the crush seats, so when it came time to crush, it wasn't able to, so all that impact went to the next weakest link and that was my back and I had a burst fracture at (the L1 vertebrae). As soon as we hit, it was immediate. We hit the ground, I felt, it was like an explosion in my back and immediately I was paralyzed."
After Linfoot did an emergency shutdown, he grabbed the door frame to pull and step out. His legs didn't move.
"I remember sitting there and checking my legs and hoping that we hit so hard that maybe I busted my legs up real bad and my body is in shock, but I could feel my legs and they were in-tact, no broken bones," Linfoot said. "I can remember being in the cockpit, thinking about what I knew of paralysis, what I had seen in movies and heard about it, that if I was paralyzed, life was going to suck. I can remember thinking those thoughts or something very close to that. So many things go through your mind, and you think about what that's going to mean for the family, what kind of changes is that going to mean, how are you going to be a dad, how are you going to be a husband? So many thoughts went through my head in such a short period of time, and then I'd start thinking about the immediate situation, start coordinating with my co-pilot, who was hurt as well. He broke his back, but was able to egress the aircraft. You could tell after talking to him that he had received a pretty good concussion because he was loopy."
Rangers arrived via two Blackhawk helicopters and were able to remove the co-pilot within 20 minutes, but Linfoot's rescue required special equipment that was delivered by the Air Force to extract him and place him on a backboard to take him to field hospitals before transferring him to Landstuhl, Germany, where he underwent surgery.
Mari spent a substantial part of May 31, 2008, at her daughter's softball tournament. She still remembers swinging by Kroger to buy a carton of that year's Titans-themed flavor of Purity ice cream. When she walked in the house, the phone was ringing. It was Gary to explain what happened.
"My son was here, and when I was on the phone with him, that's when my daughter came in and they both got to talk to him, which was good," Mari said. "Our son talked to him and when he hung up, said, 'Mom, this means he'll never have to go back, right?' "
Gary came back to America within 72 hours of the crash, but the return to his home was more elongated. He spent 18 days at Walter Reed before being transferred to Tampa for more than a month and then spent about a month in Atlanta.
The time in between began the transitional period for the Linfoots.
"It's really your first glimpse. That first year of recovery is when you really figure stuff out," Gary said. "Initially, the things you work on are adapting the house, adapting the vehicle. You may get home, but that first year is when you start to figure out what it means. It kind of settles in and becomes very permanent, and you just start figuring out the little things you've never thought of, getting around the community or flying on an airplane."
The Linfoots have found great enjoyment in attending sports events. They've had Titans season tickets for almost 10 years. One of their favorite games occurred in December 2006 when a 60-yard field goal helped Tennessee defeat Indianapolis 20-17. Mari said LP Field's accessibility is good and joked that Gary has become so adept at navigating through the crowd that she could draft like a NASCAR driver closing in on the leader.
"As you're going through the crowd, you start to pick up subtle hints of which direction somebody is going to go or what they're going to do," Gary said. "People get out of your way, too. They don't want to get hit by somebody in a chair."
Gary received on-field recognition for his service in December 2008 when he and Col. Clay Hutmacher received game balls from the Titans and an ovation from the crowd when the Titans defeated the Steelers.
"I guess I felt it wasn't directed toward myself and Col. Hutmacher," Linfoot said. "It was just the crowd cheering on the soldiers, and we were just the two guys representing them that week. Titans fans are definitely patriotic fans and always show tons of support for the military."
The day was more special to the Linfoots because of the pre-game reception they also received from former Titans TE Frank Wycheck, who was the honorary captain for the coin toss. Wycheck came over to visit them before the coin toss and took off his jersey, autographed it and gave it to Gary.
The first time Gary sat in the cockpit to fly a helicopter, he was amazed at how many more movements were possible than when flying a fixed-wing aircraft.
"I just felt like that was really flying because a helicopter seemed to do everything: up, down, left and right," Linfoot said.
Since the last time Linfoot flew a helicopter the direction that's been most important to Linfoot is forward.
Linfoot has done so with the help of Mari and their three children, and is now moving in ways that many thought would have been impossible several years ago thanks to improved technologies and organizations that wanted to provide him with advanced devices. The first was an iBOT motorized wheelchair that can climb stairs and balance upright on two wheels to raise his face level to the height of about 6 feet.
"That's pretty awesome to be able to use that and go to a function, especially something where you're in the crowd mingling and you're upright," he said. "It makes conversation a lot easier."
The most recent device Gary has received is an exoskeleton suit that was created by Ekso Bionics that allows Gary to stand from his wheelchair and take steps on an approved flat surface for about an hour a day, five days a week. Gary first demonstrated an Ekso suit in 2012 at American Airlines' Sky Ball, an annual fundraiser to benefit efforts for members of the military. He walked across the stage in front of his family and about 4,000 attendees (click here for a video about Gary's steps). This past fall, the Linfoots found out that a grant was going to provide them a suit, which costs about $100,000, that will be his to keep after participating in a one-year clinical trial. He began using this suit in January and recently made his 100,000th step in it with help from Mari and their son, who safety spot for Gary as he walks through their home and at a retail store in a former warehouse with concrete floors in Clarksville.
Gary said the device is currently more therapeutic than for mobility, but he's thankful to be one of eight people in the world that are part of the trial. He hopes this launch will do for therapy (increased movement is expected to help maintain bone density, improve circulation and provide other health benefits) and mobility what the Wright brothers did for aviation with their first flight in 1903.
"The exoskeleton is kind of where I see the future of mobility devices potentially progressing. This is really the first stages and first steps of it," he said. "I guess you kind of compare it to the Wright Flyer. Who would have thought that 111 years after their first flight we'd be where we're at with aviation?
"This is really the first step and I think we're really going to see this technology progress in another five-10 years, maybe less," Gary said. "I think they're going to go a long way with it. They've got a lot to figure out, but 10 years ago, it probably would have been unheard of for a paraplegic to be able to walk and stand in any capacity, and now, here we are doing it."
Gary's mechanical mind was focused on the workings of the machine and he was concentrating on balancing himself with the crutches the first time he put the suit on, but Mari was able to capture the moment so Gary could see its significance.
"I thought he was tall and looked so handsome," Mari recalled. "I was taking pictures and recording it and couldn't get them out fast enough to the kids."
Gary was a Chief Warrant Officer (CW5) at the time of his retirement in 2010, but has stayed connected to his calling. He works as a civilian contractor who helps run a flight simulator that trains the pilots who are entering the 160th and embodies the "Night Stalkers Don't Quit" aspect of the unit's creed.
"There's definitely the satisfaction that perhaps what you're teaching them will have a positive effect on them and possibly even help them work through a difficult situation in the event of some kind of mechanical malfunction of the aircraft," he said. "It's just that satisfaction of being in the mix and in some way contributing to the mission that they are doing."
Gary also tries to mentor other wounded soldiers — many a lot younger than him — to guide them through difficult times and pass along help that he received to ease their transitions. Mari sees it as an opportunity for Gary to continue his service.
"What I want to never get lost is Gary chose to be a soldier, and he was first and foremost," she said. "By all accounts and everything I'm told, he was pretty darn good at it. Things changed, and now, maybe this life as an advocate has been chosen for him. He's accepted it, and we've accepted it and we've tried to move on and do that the best way we know how. "Moving on and being positive should never be confused with it being easy," Mary added, "but it is better."