FORT WORTH — Adam Keys dreams of being a sailor and working the ropes of a racing sloop, while Ferris Butler’s flights of fancy put him behind the controls of corporate jet.
Not unusual fantasies for two, vibrant young men with the rest of their lives ahead of them.
Except that Keys and Butler are not your typical daydreamers, but U.S. veterans blown apart by improvised explosive devices during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two men have survived almost 200 agonizing surgeries between them, with the end result being the amputation of one arm and all four legs.
But Keys’ and Butler’s hopes of sailing and flying will soon be fulfilled with the help of the first Fighting Spirit Scholarships being awarded by Lockheed Martin and celebrated during halftime at the Bowl on Friday at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium. Keys is receiving a $6,000 scholarship; Butler $8,000.
I was lucky to come home in the first place, Retired Staff Sgt. Adam Keys about his injuries suffered in Afghanistan
“I think the most important thing to say is that programs like these are allowing our veterans to find paths of reintegration into society,” said Butler, a retired captain who has worked as a real estate developer and entrepreneur.
Keys, a retired staff sergeant who travels the country with his mother giving “One Step Forward” motivational speeches, said he is honored to be getting one of the first scholarships and that he is always “encouraging people not to give up.”
“I was lucky to come home in the first place,” Keys said.
Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said, “These two recipients embody the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who serve our nation. … Lockheed Martin is honored to provide these heroes opportunities to take to the skies and conquer the seas.”
‘Just keep fighting’
Keys, 32, was injured in Afghanistan in 2010 during his first tour of duty. In the country for about seven months, Keys was on patrol when he hopped out of his vehicle to do a search just as an explosive device ignited. He was the only survivor of an incident which killed four others, including one of his best friends from home.
Keys said he barely survived the initial blast, went into a coma and began to experience organ failure. Keys admits, “I was a mess in the beginning.”
Several days after the blast, doctors determined that the damage to his body was so extensive that his left arm and both of his legs below the knee were removed. They were the first of about 130 operations. He has also endured five years of grueling physical therapy. Still, Keys doesn’t complain and plainly states: “I don’t think it has been too bad.”
Keys has said that he doesn’t look at his injuries as an obstacle, and tells anyone struggling with hardship that “whatever your fight may be — just keep fighting.”
A resident of Annapolis, Maryland, Keys already had already attended classes in the Warrior Sailing Program when he was nominated for the scholarship. Operated by the U.S. Merchant for injured veterans, the program offers introductory level to competition sailing classes. Keys wants to be certified for a professional racing team.
“I’m ready to get back on the water,” Keys said.
The sky is the limit
For Butler, 38, the event that changed his life forever happened almost 10 years.
Like Keys, he was patrolling in a vehicle, but in Iraq. The mission started as the sun was setting. They had driven down a road, turned around, and were on their way back in the dark when the right tire hit the explosive device.
About everything that could be broken down there was broken, Retired Capt. Ferris Butler
The blast left him with shattered ankles and feet. “About everything that could be broken down there was broken,” he said.
Over the next year and a half he underwent more than 50 operations as they tried to fix his broken feet, but Butler said he ultimately decided to have them both amputated, along with portions of his legs up to the knees.
It would have been better if it had been more catastrophic than “trying to fit together stuff that was not going to work again,” Butler said.
Making the adjustment wasn’t easy — Butler had been an going 100 miles an hour, commanding men who counted on him. Now he was going “negative 10 miles an hour” and “trying to figure out what his life was going to be like.”
If there was a bright spot during his time at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, it was that he met his future wife, Laura. His last surgery was in 2008, and he medically-retired from the in 2009.
Butler and his wife, who were helped by nonprofits during his recovery, have tried to pay it forward through “Blasting for the Brave,” a sporting clays shooting tournament they founded. Its proceeds go to help create handicap-accessible homes for disabled veterans and to a fly-fishing program that offers physical and emotional rehabilitation.
During this busy time, Butler also thought about how he “always longed to fly.” He was drawn to it not only by the technical challenge of it, but new career opportunities it could provide. He talked to two friends who had gone through the Able Flight Program and everything eventually fell into place.
“The plane doesn’t care if you don’t have all of your limbs. It will do whatever I tell it to do,” Butler said.
Able Flight, a non-profit founded in 2006, offers flight training and aviation career scholarships to people with disabilities, including wounded and disabled veterans. Butler will take the group’s six-week flight school at Purdue University. He will receive a call sign, a pilot’s license and his wings at an airshow in July.
If Butler has learned anything in the past 10 years, it’s that the sky is the limit if you work hard enough.
“Don’t limit yourself to what you think you are capable of doing. If you put your mind, heart and soul into anything, you can accomplish anything,” Butler said.
Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB
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