Surviving A Broken System

By Dan Dutcher

Chief Warrant Officer (CW2) David Daniel Ortiz is flying back to the forward operating base Salerno, Khost, Afghanistan, where he is stationed. He is the co-pilot of an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter, a two-seated aircraft used mainly for reconnaissance missions and ground support. In fact, the two pilots just finished a reconnaissance mission in which they were looking for a machine gun nest rumored to be near the runway. They found nothing, but fired test shots in the area to send the enemy a message. “We’re looking for you.” On the way back to the base, the helicopter had engine trouble and they started to make an emergency landing. Ortiz blacked out when they were 20 feet from the ground.

Finding the Right Fit

David Daniel Ortiz was born on May 25, 1982, in Rapid City, S.D., the oldest son of David and Evelia Ortiz. At the time of his birth, his father piloted B-52s and his mother attended college. After graduating from Derby High School, Derby, Kan., in 2000, he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Air Force. Because of his asthma, they turned him down. So he decided to go to the University of St. Thomas in Houston, eventually earning joint Bachelor of Arts degrees in International Studies and Business Administration in 2005.

“My life has always been one of service,” Ortiz said. “After graduating, I worked disaster recovery with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross for six months. After that, I continued my work with Catholic Charities as a case manager for a year.”

That wasn’t enough for Ortiz. In his search for a more direct way to help people, he took a job at the Mayor’s office in Houston. Even though he loved the job, he said it still wasn’t what he was seeking.

“I wanted to do something more,” he said. “My dream job always has been and always will be to become a college professor. However, I wanted to contribute something tangible and real to society before I retired to that ivory tower.”

Ortiz continued to hunt for the job he felt he was called to do. He applied for a position with the Central Intelligence Agency and, at the same time, applied to the United States Army. The Army answered first and Ortiz had to make a decision. The window to join the Army was not open indefinitely and the CIA was still a possibility. In the end, he chose the Army because his dad was in the military and Ortiz knew what that life looked like. He said he chose the Army over the other branches of the military because he knew he wanted to fly helicopters and the Army’s helicopters supported ground troops more directly than any other aircraft. This decision to serve was fueled with the same reason as every other big decision in his life: the desire to help people.

“You always need a friend like that,” said Jason Sanders, one of his best friends. “He’s the guy you always want on your side.” Sanders met Ortiz as a junior in high school and they remain close friends. A decade ago, while Sanders was attending the University of Kansas, he met Sara Zafar who, in turn, was introduced to Ortiz.  Zafar describes Ortiz as a very funny guy who does his own thing.

“He’s very passionate about everything,” Zafar said. “Anytime he talks about anything he’s very into what he’s saying and he wants you to be interested, too.”

Sanders and Zafar also describe him as very intelligent and strong-willed. So, when he decided to join the Army, many people, at first, wondered why. He could do so much with his degrees as a civilian. At the same time, everyone knew it was what he wanted to do and they supported him in his decision.

“He’s always wanted to be in the military,” Sanders said. “It was what he was called to do. I told him to go for it.”

He joined the Aviation Warrant Officer program in January 2008 and finished flight school in 2010. He was officially an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilot. In September of 2011, the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, which he was assigned to, deployed to Afghanistan. Ortiz is no stranger to international travel. In college he studied abroad in Mexico and Chile and, while on a mission trip with the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, taught chemistry and algebra in Africa. This, however, was not a mission trip or a college study program. This was the front line of Operation Enduring Freedom. The danger was real and it wasn’t long before that point was driven home.

An Unforgettable Day

June was the bloodiest month of 2012 for Operation Enduring Freedom. For the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, that translated to an attack by insurgents on the forward operating base and two helicopter crashes.

“On the fifth of June, a Kiowa went down in Regional Command East after taking fire supporting ground guys,” Ortiz explained. “Both pilots perished. It was the first loss for us during the deployment.” June 21, 2012, is a day Ortiz will never forget. His helicopter became the second Kiowa Warrior to go down in three weeks. Three helicopters went down during the 12 month deployment. Ortiz and his pilot-in-command were the only pilots to survive.

Human Spine

The vertebra David fractured is in the lower back. Photo courtesy of growyourheight.blogspot.com.

CW3 Byron “Mac” Meads and Ortiz both suffered major injuries in the crash. After being transported to the United States, Ortiz was admitted to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Upon his arrival he had pneumonia, a blood infection, two shattered and dislocated ankles, a fractured vertebra and spinal compression, among other injuries. Two hours after arriving at the medical center, he was in surgery, and would remain there for the next eight hours. Ortiz’s spinal column in his lower back was fused together, and two titanium rods installed, spanning five vertebrae. During the rest of the surgery, the surgeons worked on his ankles. A few days after his surgery, he received a visit from an unexpected guest.

“After they removed the tube [from my throat], I remember one of the nurses saying, ‘The president is going to come.’ I was so drugged up and not really with it,” Ortiz said, “I thought, ‘The president of what…the hospital…the medical association? Who are you talking about?’ They said, ‘No, the President of the United States.’ I was blown away. You’re talking about someone with so much on their plate and he’s going to make time to visit some wounded troops.”

The prognosis for Ortiz was not good. Five surgeons talked with him and two of them said he would never feel or move his legs again. Two said that 95 percent of people with his diagnosis never walk again. The last surgeon told him that his recovery depended on him. At five percent, the chance he would walk again was still slim, but it wasn’t impossible.

Unnecessary Obstacles

The doctors informed Ortiz that the Army didn’t have a specific spinal cord rehabilitation center and that he was going to a Veterans Affairs hospital. After asking which was the best, and being told they were all the best, he chose the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS) in San Antonio to be near his family in Texas. The problems that arose at that VA clinic were very basic, Ortiz said. During the eight-hour surgery at Walter Reed, the doctors placed exterior fixators on both ankles. Because of those, he couldn’t roll over, so to help prevent bedsores, he needed an inflatable mattress. He also used a special wheelchair so that his legs could stick straight out in front of him. At Walter Reed, he received both of these. Despite a teleconference with STVHCS a week before he left for San Antonio, neither of these items were available to him when he arrived.

“From day one, there were issues with incompetency at the VA,” Ortiz said. “They were not prepared for me to be there even though they had plenty of time to prepare.”

Another problem Ortiz encountered when he arrived at the VA is a change in medication. This is a fairly routine practice. Patients sometimes change medications for one reason or another. At Walter Reed, Ortiz was taking Oxycodone IR (instant relief) and Oxycodone SR (sustained relief), but the VA stopped carrying Oxycodone SR because of abuse by veterans in the 1990s. No one told him about that and it took a week to find the mixture of medications that worked for him.

“I was fed up,” he said. “I’m here for 24 hours and I’m already having issues with pain, bedsores and getting out of bed because you guys aren’t doing your job.” Ortiz gave the director of the spinal cord unit 24 hours to fix those things. He had the inflatable bed and the wheelchair by the next afternoon. That kind of thing is not unusual for Ortiz. He’s had to fight for many things he needs including the dumbbells that are now in the rehabilitation gym.

Hospitals are known for being clean and rightfully so. With patients who are more susceptible to illness, they have to be. But even hospital cleanliness was a problem for Ortiz. The simple task of sweeping and mopping the floor was not being done until he specifically requested it. Spinal injuries lead to other problems that you might not think of. One of those is bowel control. Muscle control is not the same after a spinal cord injury. Needless to say, accidents can happen. The room in which Ortiz stayed shared a bathroom with the room next door. One day Ortiz noticed feces on the floor of the bathroom. He notified the nurses, who said they would tell housekeeping. The next night, it was still there.

“This just goes to show you the quality of work, or lack thereof, that persists [at the VA],” Ortiz said. “It’s so bad that when I am honorably discharged and get disability I’m going to use it, not to buy food, but to buy private insurance. Because I will not, will not end up being cared for by the VA and be killed by them. I will not.”

The food at any hospital is infamous for being, well, not the best. It’s no different at the STVHCS and according to Ortiz, the food is worse so he decided to order out most of the time. One thing he did consume from the VA cafeteria is the milk. One day, in October, Ortiz received a carton of milk that was curdled even though it was not expired and he admits he made a big deal about it. The spinal unit director came in the next day and according to Ortiz, “tried to chastise me and make me feel bad for ‘crying over spoiled milk.’” Ortiz decided that maybe it was a one-time occurrence and left it at that. A couple of weeks later, he got another carton of spoiled milk, again, not expired. Now he felt justified in his first response and he made a big deal about it again. The director of food service did an inspection and concluded that everything was satisfactory. Three or four days later, he received a third carton of spoiled milk. Ortiz sums up the whole situation like this.

“You can come in here and give me lip service because you think no one’s going to care or do anything, and you may be right. But you are here for a reason. You should want to be here because you want to work and serve veterans who worked and served for you. For you to sit here and nod your head and say you’ve done everything you can when obviously there is a trend here of unsanitary conditions…is not acceptable.”

His strong-willed and determined personality came through and he asked people to be accountable for their actions. Ortiz asserts that the employees at STVHCS deflect that accountability and do the least amount of work they can while still keeping their jobs.

When Zafar read the comments on Facebook and heard about his troubles with the VA, she wasn’t surprised.

“Because, let’s be honest,” he said, “most of the people who go there are the elderly who are at the end of their lives and who, a lot of the time, don’t have the energy or the mental capacity to demand and fight for what they fought for so long ago.”

While it’s true that the average age of veterans who used services provided by the VA is 60, 54 percent of all users are 65 years old or younger.

New Mission, Same Goal

Despite everything Ortiz has been through, a helicopter crash that nearly claimed his life and a difficult, ongoing recovery littered with obstacles, he remains CW2 David Daniel Ortiz. The same David who searched for years to find an occupation in which he felt he was helping his fellow humans as much as he could, the same David who ignored the doctor’s orders and travelled because he wasn’t about to miss his best friends wedding and the same David who still wants to give and help as much as he can.

Ortiz recently started a website, www.davidortizwalks.com. Although it’s still a work in progress, he plans to make it a daily blog to share his experiences, good and bad, in the military and civilian healthcare systems. He also wants to encourage people to do their homework on their injury or disease. That’s something, he said, soldiers don’t do enough.

“Yes, they are doctors and healthcare professionals and it’s their job to try to diagnose and take care of you,” Ortiz said, “but at the end of the day they go home. They don’t have to live with that disease. They don’t have to live with that injury. I’m not saying they don’t care, it’s just to iterate to each individual that it’s your personal responsibility to learn everything you can about your disease or your injury and demand the best possible care you can get.”

Ortiz said his co-pilot, CW4 Byron “Mac” Meads, should’ve made a full recovery back to 100 percent. Instead, his foot and ankle were amputated because of a bone infection that Ortiz feels could’ve been prevented from advancing that far.

It’s hard to miss the inspiration in Ortiz’s story. All you have to do is look at his Facebook page, on which he is very active, and read all the comments he receives. That is another purpose of the website, he said, is to inspire people.

ASIA injury classifications

David’s injury is diagnosed as class A. Photo courtesy of American Spinal Injury Association.

“I sat there at Walter Reed, or laid there, you could say, and was told that I was never going to walk again and that I was never going to feel anything again. Nothing against the doctors, but it’s their responsibility to give you the numbers, to give you the facts. And the facts are that 95 percent of people diagnosed AISA-A do not walk again. They don’t. That doesn’t mean you sit in your chair and give up. You do everything that you can because I guarantee you if you do nothing, nothing will happen. So it’s just to inspire others to continue to push and work hard to make their lives better. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. Whether you have this kind of injury or whether you’re perfectly able-bodied and healthy. Life is too short. You have the responsibility to try and make the most of it that you can and contribute something.”

Finally, Ortiz wants to use his website to raise funds. At the moment, he’s not directly involved with that part of it because, as a soldier on active duty, he is not allowed to raise funds for himself. There are some things that the Army doesn’t pay for, he said, and I will need to pay for it on my own. Eventually, the funds raised on the website will go toward spinal cord injury research and nonprofit organizations that help soldiers. One organization Ortiz speaks highly of is the Semper Fi Fund. Semper Fi is a nonprofit organization started by military wives in 2003 to provide injured and critically ill service members and their families with immediate financial aid. The nonprofit has given thousands of dollars, no strings attached, to Ortiz to help with expenses. He is currently using a van with a wheelchair ramp that Semper Fi gave him. They’ve also agreed to donate thousands of dollars for a new car, with the controls on the steering wheel, that Ortiz will eventually need. But money is not the only thing they provide.

“I cannot tell you how helpful they’ve been,” Ortiz said. “They come to visit me consistently. There is one case worker out here, Ms. Cheryl Reed, whose son was injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She’s lived it; she knows it and has a personal stake in it. [Semper Fi] helped my parents adapt their house so I could go home for Christmas. They are an organization that you don’t see a lot of commercials about because they’re spending their money on the people they’re helping.”

Ortiz said Wounded Warrior Project, another nonprofit, was very active with him on the East Coast, but the only thing he’s gotten from them since going back to Texas is a bumper sticker.

Walking into the Future

The doctors told Ortiz that 95 percent of patients with his diagnosis never walk again. He is heading toward that slim five percent.

A couple more quotes from Ortiz

The confidence and determination Ortiz possessed before the crash has only grown stronger since that fateful day.

“He’s a cocky little bastard,” Sanders said, “and I say that because I love him. That’s the kind of person you want in the military. I’m lucky I didn’t lose one of my best friends. There are precious few people like him. He’s passionate about life, so if there’s anyone that can walk again, it’s David.”

You can continue to follow his recovery through his website, on Tumblr and by adding him on Facebook. Note: To view his partial profile, you must be logged into Facebook. To view his entire profile, add him as a friend.

I want to send a special thanks to Sara Zafar for helping me get in touch with David and Jason. And, of course thanks to David Daniel Ortiz and Jason Sanders.

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About dandutcher

I am an alumnus of the University of Kansas. Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!
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