San Antonio airman is back on the job with an artificial foot – San Antonio Express-News

Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin runs through a check list during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October. Martin is heading back to his old job after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident. It’s a rare triumph. Most airmen that severely injured do not return to duty.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin runs through a check list during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October. Martin is heading back to his old job after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident. It’s a rare triumph. Most airmen that severely injured do not return to duty.
On the right is Master Sgt. Freddie Kondoff.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin runs through a check list during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October. Martin is heading back to his old job after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident. It’s a rare triumph. Most airmen that severely injured do not return to duty.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October. Martin is heading back to his old job after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident. It’s a rare triumph. Most airmen that severely injured do not return to duty.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October. Martin is heading back to his old job after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident. It’s a rare triumph. Most airmen that severely injured do not return to duty.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October. Martin is heading back to his old job after losing a leg in a motorcycle accident. It’s a rare triumph. Most airmen that severely injured do not return to duty.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident but obtained college degrees and now is headed back to his previous position.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident but obtained college degrees and now is headed back to his previous position.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident but obtained college degrees and now is headed back to his previous position.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident but obtained college degrees and now is headed back to his previous position.
On a spectacularly sunny spring day in 2017, Stuart Martin prepared to ride his Harley-Davidson Sportster to the University of Texas at San Antonio main campus to study at the library for finals.
Eyeing the vintage-style bike, which he’d washed the day before, he took a snapshot of it before jumping on it to head out. Approaching an intersection, Martin kicked the Sportster into neutral and slowed.
He’d just switched gears after the traffic light turned green when he saw the driver of a truck next to him slam on his brakes to avoid a white Chevrolet Suburban rolling like a bowling ball into oncoming traffic.
“You’ve just killed me,” he thought, looking at the SUV. That’s about all the time Martin, then 26, had before he was thrown over the handlebars. He got a nasty case of road rash on his arms and had trouble moving his fingers.
The ligaments were damaged. Martin looked up at the driver and was about to yell at her when he saw a shocked expression on her face. She was staring at his left leg.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost his foot in a motorcycle accident.
“At the time, I didn’t feel any pain yet. So I looked at her, started looking around, looked down and just saw my foot basically entirely disconnected,” he said.
An Air Force reservist, Martin knew he’d miss drill weekend with his C-5M Super Galaxy crewmates at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He didn’t yet know how profoundly the injury would change his life.
He lost his left leg just below the knee. There was a time when that would have ended his Air Force career on the assumption he couldn’t do the job.
But Martin has made it back to the 433rd Airlift Wing and his C-5 crew. Fitted with a prosthesis, he’s spent much of this year on active duty so he can requalify as a loadmaster.
A former boss said Martin has taken his strength of character to another level.
“I knew that he was always an individual with a very positive attitude and a great, optimistic perspective on life,” said retired Air Force Reserve Col. Daniel King, a C-5M pilot who commanded the wing’s 68th Airlift Squadron. “This challenge solidified that impression on me.”
As a loadmaster aboard the C-5M, the Air Force’s largest plane, Martin’s job is to make sure equipment and cargo are safely balanced and tied down in the aircraft’s cavernous cargo bay. The job is critical. A shift of weight in a plane during flight can cause it to spin out of control and crash.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident but obtained college degrees and now is headed back to his previous position.
If Martin hasn’t quite made it back to the life he had before the accident, he’s isn’t settling for whatever he can get, either.
He has career goals to reach — and yes, he is seriously thinking about buying another motorcycle, with a route in mind for a long, mind-clearing ride to Colorado and on to Yosemite National Park.
The Air Force Reserve now limits Martin to flying in the U.S., rather than going on overseas trips, in case there’s trouble with his leg.
That’s a point of frustration for the first C-5 loadmaster amputee in the Air Force. Now 30, Staff Sgt. Stuart Alexander Martin wants to do his duty like everyone else.
He has, after all, come so far.
While still in a lengthy rehabilitation program, he returned to UTSA a few months after the accident, earned a bachelor’s degree and later got his master’s.
In Houston, he was once invited to a 5K run and walked the entire distance. He lifts weights and now runs 5K races and half-marathons.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin runs through a checklist during a pre-flight exercise on a C-5M Super Galaxy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland last October.
None of it came easily. The first hours and days after the accident were among the darkest, starting with the moments after the collision.
“It’s funny that some old training kicked in,” Martin said. “We did first aid, self-aid and buddy care, and immediately I started looking around yelling for someone to call 911. The moment that I saw someone do it, I rolled on my side … and crawled my way over to the curb to be out of traffic.”
Numbed to the pain initially, it quickly consumed him, going well beyond 10 on the 1-10 scale. Martin, who was conscious throughout the incident, soon got a damage report — sprained thumbs, road rash, partial fracture of his right shoulder and left leg badly torn up below his knee.
A talk with a surgical resident on duty at University Hospital brought the picture into a clear, and harsh, focus. Martin’s mangled foot had been mostly severed, but all the pieces left behind at the intersection had been recovered. Surgeons could attempt to reconstruct the leg, but there were a number of risks and the prospect of tremendous, constant pain.
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
Martin remembered the doctor “going down this laundry list.”
“‘We could attempt to reconstruct your ankle, but here’s all the potential risks: It may become necrotic, we may not be able to get neurological or vascular response to it, we’ll probably fuse and all that,’” he said. “I actually interrupted her. I just said, ‘If it’s gone, it’s gone.’”
When he awoke from surgery, his mom and dad were there: Timothy Martin, a hospice chaplain, and Debbie Martin, an assistant referral coordinator at a hospital near Comanche. They had driven four hours from their home in Desdemona.
King, the retired squadron commander, and Master Sgt. Mike Lopez, also in the 433rd Airlift Wing, were waiting as well. Others soon followed, many of them Martin’s buddies from the wing who included crew chiefs and loadmasters.
He had done both jobs since starting there in 2010.
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“When he got out of surgery he was still very much under sedation, and I don’t think he comprehended everything. But after coming back the next day or two days later, the realization was setting in,” said King, 44, a FedEx pilot. “But even then, he still had a positive outlook on this.
“His attitude was, ‘I can overcome this.’ And I don’t think everybody has that type of mentality immediately, but he certainly did.”
Martin’s support group was a big factor in his recovery from six more surgeries and rehab that ran nearly three months.
Members of a motorcycle club he rode with came by the hospital, including some he’d never met. They did a fundraiser. Airmen he knew in Hawaii mailed a care package. Friends from the 433rd went to Martin’s upstairs apartment and cleared it out in just a few hours, moving his furniture, clothes and other effects to the next place he would live.
“The way the Air Force stepped up is indescribable,” said Debbie Martin, 63.
Stuart Martin spent 30 days at University, nearly half of them in initial recovery and therapy so he could move around in and out of a wheelchair.
“My chief at the time told me, ‘The nurse just pulled me aside and to ask who you were and why you were so special,’ because there were several hundred people that had come through in just a couple of days,” Martin said.
“That encouragement and that support system was so major, and I think really what helped me so quickly and through the long haul to mentally stay motivated was knowing that I had all those people behind me.”
Staff Sgt. Stuart Martin prepares for his workday as an Air Force Reserve loadmaster at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident but obtained college degrees and now is headed back to his previous position.
Obstacles to getting back to normal were everywhere, creating daunting challenges. For every step forward, there seemed to be two steps back, but Martin was at last mobile and halfway toward a bachelor’s degree.
He also had a big edge — a single-mindedness his mother says the Air Force helped mold.
“He wasn’t a person that really loved school,” she said. “But in the hospital that day it was like, ‘I want to get out of college. I want to finish.’”
The way ahead took him back to his parents’ home in Desdemona, which wasn’t designed with handicapped people in mind and where those obstacles quickly revealed themselves. Doing even simple things in a wheelchair, such as using the bathroom, was difficult. He found the most narrow wheelchair possible so he could get in and out.
In time, Martin got on crutches. Driving was out of the question because of the medications he was on, which meant being dependent on others to get him around. When he finally got into a car, he drove one with an automatic transmission, while his mom used his car, a Mazda 6 with a standard transmission.
Tackling school meant overcoming other barriers. Martin had spent two years majoring in kinesiology, the study of human body movement, before taking a break from classes and serving on active duty in the reserves for about 18 months.
Back at UTSA, he had changed majors to construction, but the accident shut it off as a career choice. What next? Would the Air Force allow him to remain?
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Because Martin was further along toward his degree in kinesiology, he went back to his old major, returning to UTSA that fall in his wheelchair. He spent about 10 weeks at Warm Springs Rehabilitation Hospital of San Antonio, finishing just short of the first anniversary of his accident — May 4.
He also went to a gym at Lackland, arriving late at night or early in the morning so no one would help him.
Martin got his first prosthetic limb in mid-December 2017. On the last day of finals that semester, he walked without crutches into the classroom.
“It was definitely a huge relief and accomplishment because in those months there was a lot of frustration of going for a wound care checkup and (saying), ‘Hey!’” Martin recalled. “‘I think it’s going well, maybe they’ll start talking about prosthetics,’ — and they’d say, ‘Nope, see you again in two weeks.’
“That was a really difficult time, just … wanting that full independence again,” he said. “Beginning to walk again was that relief of, ‘I’m not on crutches, I’m not in the wheelchair, I can carry something in my hands, I don’t have to carry a backpack.’ But the big thing was learning to walk again, and even still, some days I think of every step.”
Martin bought another motorcycle after learning to walk again. Riding was therapeutic to a point, but he conceded it also was an “anxiety trip” because of traffic and bad roads. He sold the bike a year after buying it.
The years that have followed his accident are a bit of a blur. Martin graduated from UTSA in December 2018 and did an internship with a medical group at Lackland’s Medina Annex. That was his first exposure to an athletic training career but cemented his decision to pursue it.
In spring 2019, he got a running prosthesis and was pursing a master’s in athletic training at Tarleton State University in Stephenville. That was another step forward with a step back, requiring Martin to move in with his parents again because their home is 25 miles from the school.
Then the Air Force called.
Cleared for flight duty and offered six months of active duty at Lackland, he began to recertify as a loadmaster. Martin is now finishing up that training and looking for a civilian job in San Antonio.
Like everything else, he’s optimistic. So optimistic he’s thinking of the next motorcycle.
Oh, and there’s the trip west, at once a vacation and adventure. Call it a celebration of sorts and, yes, a chance for closure on the long road home.
“People ask me about my leg all the time … and just like, ‘Yeah, hey! Look what I can do! I’m missing a foot, but I’ve finally done some half-marathons, done some weightlifting, doing my job as a loadmaster pushing pallets and cargo and maintaining currency and qualifications, taking care of injured athletes or injured patients in athletic training,’” he said.
“If it weren’t for the support of everyone around me and the encouragement I get from them, I don’t know where I would be at today.”
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Sig Christenson covers the military and been with the Express-News since 1997. He embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 Iraq invasion, and reported from Baghdad and Afghanistan seven times since. A University of Houston graduate, he covered the Branch Davidian siege, 2003 space shuttle breakup, 2009 Fort Hood shooting and its subsequent legal proceedings, as well as hurricanes, tropical storms and floods since 1986, including Rita, Katrina and Maria. He’s won awards from Hearst Newspapers and the Associated Press, was named “Reporter of the Year” by his peers in 2004 and is a co-founder, former president and former board member of Military Reporters & Editors, established in 2002. 

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