Sergeant Chris Gschwendtner felt fortunate that he had suffered “only a concussion” after an explosion destroyed his vehicle on the infamous “IED Alley,” the highway from Baghdad to the city’s international airport. It was Valentine’s Day of 2008, and the young infantryman had escaped with body and spirit intact. But not for long.
Less than five weeks later, he was in the shower room at his base when insurgents fired a rocket into the compound, and when he came to, covered in glass and building debris, he wasn’t able to respond to the questions of his rescuers. After being airlifted to a hospital, he learned that he had sustained a second Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the common but hidden injury so prevalent in modern war.
After his recovery and return to the States, Chris joined the Army Reserves and continues to serve. Because of his injuries the Army has continually denied his request for a transfer to an Army flight training program. So, at his own expense, he earned a Sport Pilot certificate by training at Chesapeake Sport Aviation at the Bay Bridge Airport near Washington, DC. And though studying no longer comes as easily as it did before his injuries, Chris re-doubled his efforts and excelled in his training.
Learning to fly fulfilled a childhood dream for Chris, and created another, that of becoming an aviation mechanic. With his selection as the second recipient of an Able Flight Career Training Scholarship, he’ll soon begin training at Rainbow Aviation in California for certification as a Light Sport Repairmen with a Maintenance Rating.
Chris plans to use his accomplishments to encourage other wounded veterans to explore aviation as a way to challenge themselves. In his application essay he wrote, “I feel like if I win this scholarship I can inspire people not to give up. Especially since TBI has become one of the most common injuries resulting from the war on terrorism. I have learned if there is something in life that you want, you have to have the drive to make it happen no matter what. You can make your dreams a reality; no one else is able to do it for you.”
Able Flight is a national aviation nonprofit that provides flight and aviation career training opportunities for people with physical disabilities and is the only one of its kind in the United States.