Col. Laurel Burkel has no recollection of her first meeting with Air Force civil engineer Greg Gangnuss.
But some 20 months after a British Puma Mk 2 helicopter crash at the NATO base in Kabul, Afghanistan, claimed the lives of five coalition members, injured five others and nearly decapitated her, Burkel finally met, in person, the man who helped save her life.
The two shared their story for reporters from major print and online publications at the Pentagon for Magazine Day June 21.
“I had talked to (Greg) on the phone, we exchanged emails, but I’d never met him before,” said Burkel, who is stationed at Scott AFB. The events surrounding the crash, both from memory and as told to her by rescuers, she described as “amazing, powerful and tough.”
An advisor to the Afghan air force and deployed to the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, Burkel deployed as part of Resolute Support Mission.
She recounted that after a few months living and working on the forward operating base in the capital city, she had just finished a major project on the fateful day, Oct. 11, 2015, having revamped the Afghan air force’s manning documents to bolster their force structure.
She and three of her teammates would take a short, routine flight from Kabul International Airport to NATO headquarters to meet with the defense minister the next day.
“The enemy dictates that we fly in a helicopter because it’s not safe to drive,” Burkel said.
With their planned overnight stay they figured they’d take a little time to shop and have dinner with U.S. embassy friends at the dining facility before their meeting.
But as the two-ship of helicopters approached, things went awry when the pilot lost sight of the lead helicopter after each had to divert from their original landing zone, which about 40 Afghans used as a soccer field that day.
Within seconds, the helicopter pilot found his rotor entangled with a surveillance and reconnaissance balloon tether—which though only about half-an-inch thick—managed to grow taut and render the aircraft unable to fly.
Within a few seconds, things went from bad to worse aboard the aircraft.
“We hit the ground at over 4,000 feet per minute,” Burkel told reporters, showing them an image of the mangled wreckage soaked in almost 800 pounds of fuel upon impact. “This is what Greg ran out to. This is what I was inside of.”
Meanwhile, Gangnuss had a voluntary role as a senior environmental adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. From his small office, the hum of rotors was typically no cause for alarm. But that day, he recounted, the noise seemed a little too close for comfort.
In an instant, his worst fears were realized, as he scrambled outside to witness hell on Earth—a dizzying haze of dust and debris that encompassed the crushed aircraft.
“Many folks there said to me, ‘Why’d you do it?’” Gangnuss recalled. “They had basically vacated the area; they really thought the helicopter was going to blow up with the amount of fuel (that had spilled). I just knew when I saw it there were people hurt, they needed immediate help ... and I was there.”
Of the nine people aboard the helicopter, the pilot, door gunner, a French contractor, and Burkel’s teammates, Maj. Phyllis Pelky and Master Sgt. Gregory Kuhse, perished. On the ground, a Turkish colonel sustained injuries.
During the harrowing rescue of more than 90 minutes, Gangnuss and two other rescuers risked their lives to crawl in the cramped, suffocating space to retrieve Burkel, a Lithuanian soldier and two others from the wreckage. Covered in fuel, fire extinguisher chemicals, blood and dirt, Gangnuss and those who helped made desperate efforts to pull the survivors out from over the bodies of the deceased.
Burkel was air lifted to Kabul for further medical evacuation aboard a C-17 to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. As news of the crash trickled out, and Burkel regained consciousness en route, the colonel said she leveraged the power of social media to respectfully let friends and family members know her status.
“How do you tell your family you’re okay when there’s people’s families we haven’t told yet that their family members have been killed,” she lamented.
From Landstuhl, where she’d remain for the next several months, Burkel posted a photo of her and the former Bagram Air Base vice wing commander. Her caption was a clever play on words based on her rank and circumstances: “One tough bird.”
Since then, Burkel said she’s continued to use social media to keep her legions of supporters aware of life updates.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Months later, NATO and coalition officials erected a monument at the crash site honoring those who lost their lives as Burkel fought to regain her strength, sense of normalcy and return to flying status.
But she faced a damaged C2 second vertebrae, a crushed C5 disc and a spinal cord incursion, which doctors described as a near complete internal decapitation.
“I have friends whose husbands looked at this picture and went, ‘She’s probably not going to survive, and if she does, she’s probably (going to) be in a wheelchair,’” Burkel said.
But her friends surprised those less optimistic, with miraculous news that instead, Burkel was already upright, out and about, “running around all the Christmas markets and doing stuff.”
For three months she wore a halo for stabilization and endured large screws in her head and neck to facilitate healing of her spinal injuries which she said definitely took some adjustment. “To this point, I’d never even had an IV or surgery in my life.”
Friends and family arrived to Landstuhl and took shifts to help her with mundane tasks such as washing her hair. But soon, Burkel returned to her fitness regimen, even completing four-minute planks during her recovery.
“I didn’t let some freakin’ halo get in my way of getting some workouts in,” she said.
In July 2016, she moved to Scott where just over one year since the incident she became fully qualified to fly again. While most in her situation would’ve opted to retire or at least get on a medical profile, Burkel said she instead carries the cloth ranks and career field badges of her fallen colleagues in her pocket, and wears similar pins on the inside of her flight cap.
“It’s about respecting, honoring and celebrating them every day,” Burkel said in gratitude for their sacrifices and the unwavering support of her friends and family. “Support is such a powerful thing; you have no idea during the day that something you say or do for somebody can empower them to reach into that resiliency and courage.”
As their stories to the magazine reporters concluded, Burkel and Gangnuss stood up and faced each other.
“I’m going to break protocol here, I’ve never hugged a colonel before,” Gangnuss said as they embraced.