Laurel “Buff” Burkel addresses the audience during her presentation for the Air Force element resiliency stand down Sept. 27, 2019, at U.S. Forces Korea Headquarters on Camp Humphreys, South Korea. Throughout her address, Burkel includes photos of of her rehabilitation after her neck was broken in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Austin Fox/Released)
Laurel “Buff” Burkel addresses the audience during her presentation for the Air Force element resiliency stand down Sept. 27, 2019, at U.S. Forces Korea Headquarters on Camp Humphreys, South Korea. Throughout her address, Burkel includes photos of of her rehabilitation after her neck was broken in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Austin Fox/Released)

Resiliency as a team sport: Wounded warrior shares story with Pacific troops

by Sgt. Austin Fox
DMA AFN Pacific Bureau-Korea

CAMP HUMPHREYS, SOUTH KOREA- A helicopter achieves flight similarly to how a plane does; generation of the aerodynamic force of lift. Helicopter components differ vastly from those of planes, but the basic concept remains the same.

Most helicopters use two rotors, and although pilots have flown and landed with a damaged tail rotor, the results are usually catastrophic.

It doesn’t take much to inhibit the tail rotor. In some cases, a small bird can force a mayday call, and in others, small arms fire may be the culprit.

Over the Afghan capital in October 2015, it was neither a bird nor enemy fire that brought down a Royal Air Force Puma HC Mk2 helicopter. It was a tether.

The tether, attached to a surveillance balloon, was roughly one half of an inch in diameter. Comprised of fiber optic wires wrapped in copper power cables, and then wrapped in Vectran, an insulation five times stronger than steel, the tether seemed an unlikely foe.

After impact with the tether, pilots did their best to stabilize the aircraft while the occupants awaited their fate. According to the investigatory report conducted by the U.K. Defence Safety Authority, the helicopter was descending at a rate of 21 meters per second in a near nose dive.

Of the nine people on the aircraft, five were killed and four sustained major injuries. One of those injured was Laurel Burkel. At the time, Burkel was a U.S. Air Force colonel who happened to be hitching a ride across Kabul to attend a meeting at NATO headquarters.

Burkel was pulled from a twisted heap of metal that seconds before had been a fully functional aircraft. Her neck was broken during the crash.

Now retired and volunteering as an ambassador for the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, Burkel shares her story with anyone willing to listen. For a military battling suicide across all branches, the themes of recovery and resiliency are especially timely.

Burkel brought her message to the Pacific, Sept. 27, 2019, speaking with service members from U.S. Forces Korea at Camp Humphreys, South Korea during the Air Force element resiliency stand down.

Burkel believes that her message is crucial on the Korean Peninsula. Service members often deal with an extreme workload and in many cases are away from family.

Burkel said connecting with people through her experience and pain is the ultimate goal.

“To share and help people connect and to help people find and tap into their resiliency,” Burkel said. “If I can do that, I’m honoring my two folks that aren’t with us anymore.”

The two folks—Air Force Maj. Phyllis Pelky and Air Force Master Sgt. Gregory Kuhse—did not survive the crash.

When Burkel shares her story, Pelky and Kuhse often take center stage. For many people, the sting of talking about two people lost in such a way would be debilitating; for Burkel, she said she uses their legacy as fuel to continue her work.

Though not physically imposing, Burkel emits an intensity that commands a conversation. Short blonde hair sits just above a volatile brow line, presiding over eyes that dance between welcoming and fierce. Burkel speaks deliberately, with a certainty in her chosen words, breaking only to share a smile that radiates warmth. Perpetually moving hands accompany most of her words, and will make contact with any table or desk in her area, especially for areas of emphasis.

Air Force Master Sgt. Tara Reyna, an airman with U.S. Forces Korea, witnessed Burkel’s message during the safety stand down.
“It’s a really amazing story, that no matter what is put in front of you, you can overcome it,” Reyna said.

Reyna said one of the highlights of Burkel’s message was that there are different types of support for different people.

The idea of specific support for specific people and events is something Burkel said is paramount in her message.

She said that two people who may be dealing with similar adversity will need different support.

“How to care for you, and how to enable your recovery is going to be different,” Burkel said.

For Burkel, recovery began the night following her injury. After her diagnosis and a short stop at the hospital at Bagram Airfield, medical staff were preparing to transport her to Germany for further medical treatment.

When Burkel realized she would be placed onto a stretcher for her transport to the plane that would eventually take her to Germany, the colonel took issue.

“I am an air crew member, and air crew members don’t get littered onto planes,” Burkel said. “I lost two people in that crash and I wanted to respect and honor them by walking out.”

Though it was a risk, Burkel said that the medical team respecting her wish to walk onto the plane that night began her healing process.
Air Force Col. Russell “Bones” Cook, U.S. Forces Korea Air Force element section commander, said Burkel’s message coincides with the greater resiliency message of the Air Force.

“In that story, she’s got all the people interspersed that help make her and keep her going,” Cook said. “For her to bring that message here is a great way to remind us that it’s not a single person—it’s a team effort.”

Cook noted that Burkel’s ability to connect to different people in different ways is what made her words resonate with her audience.

Perhaps Burkel’s most noteworthy characteristic is her eagerness. She’s quick to display a metal screw that she carries with her, which she uses to showcase the hardware that was surgically implanted into her skull following her injury.

The former navigator will also explain how before her surgery, the head coach of the University of Michigan football team, Jim Harbaugh, sent her a message of good luck via email.

As a former Michigan Wolverine, Burkel was especially grateful.

She is eager to share her story, she is eager to help people and she is eager to thank those who have helped her.

Helicopters remain in the air by generating lift. Rotors continually push air in a certain direction to raise a fuselage up or down. In October 2015, less than an inch of tether caused a rotor on Burkel’s helicopter to cease.

Her neck may have been broken, and she may have lost people she cared about, but four years later Burkel is generating lift for those who are willing to listen.

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