When Army Sergeant First Class Dana Bowman lost both of his legs in a parachuting accident in 1994, the retired Special Operations soldier and member of the Army’s elite parachute team, the Golden Knights, refused to accept his new label of “disabled,” and set out to prove what he was still able to do.
On Monday, June 22, 2015, Bowman will parachute into the track and field event at the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games to the applause of more than 600 veteran wheelchair athletes also determined to prove Bowman’s long-held motto – “It’s not the disability; it’s the ability.”
“There was doubt in people’s minds about what a person with disabilities could do, but I never considered myself disabled at all,” says Bowman, who has performed more than 4,000 jumps over the course his lifetime.
As a double amputee, doctors assured Bowman he would live the rest of his life differently and that the things he once enjoyed to do – water skiing, snow skiing, scuba diving and flying airplanes and helicopters – he would never do again.
But Bowman refused to accept that the doctor’s grim prognosis. While the average double amputee takes up to several weeks to stop using crutches and canes to walk, Bowman was walking independently in just three days. He immediately began helping doctors design special prostheses that would enable him to return to his active life as he had known it.
And he did. Just five months after the accident, Bowman left Walter Reed Army Medical Center to skydive as part of a Golden Knights wedding ceremony, and a few months after that, he became the first double amputee to reenlist in the Army. Not only that, he reentered his service by skydiving with his commander into the ceremony.
“There are a lot of veterans who have overcome tragedies whether in the line of duty or not, whether they’re blind, quadriplegic, paraplegic or have another disability,” Bowman says. “I’m just part of the team.”
Bowman retired from the Army after 20 years of service, performing his final jump as a Golden Knight into the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. His many awards and honors include a bronze star for valor in 1989 during the conflict in Panama as well as Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year in 1995.
Further still, Bowman’s decades-long commitment to service continued after his military retirement. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in commercial aviation at the University of North Dakota in 2000 and resolved to spend the rest of his life serving his fellow disabled veterans – on the ground and in the air.
“I don’t have any legs, but I can fly multi-million dollar helicopters,” says Bowman, who remains the only double amputee instructor pilot in the world. “I can do anything I want to do, and I want to encourage veterans, kids and anybody to imagine what they can do.”
Aside from visiting his fellow amputees and other disabled veterans at military and VA hospitals, Bowman in 2007 hosted the first Wounded Warrior Hog Hunt for 10 wounded warriors and 70 volunteers. Following the success of that event, Bowman resolved to do more, and in 2012 stood up the HALO for Freedom Warrior Foundation, which encourages the physically challenged to excel in today’s society and military.
In 2015, Bowman and the HALO Foundation team stood up HALO for Freedom Realty, which offers 10 percent of the commission for each home sold to the HALO Foundation. It also helps veterans who would like to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to obtain a real estate license and work on the HALO Realty team.
“With HALO Realty, we’re going to be able to raise more money to help veterans, and we’re always looking for more veterans to come aboard to be an agent,” he says.
Above all, Bowman hopes to continue his lifetime of service by inspiring veterans and all with disabilities to live their best lives. Through his motivational speeches, inspirational jumps and spirit of giving back, Bowman is showing that even in the face of disability, he – and all people with disabilities – are anything but useless.
“It takes time to heal, but times are changing for the better,” Bowman says. “Each and every one of our warriors who are injured left, right, front or center all have an incredible story to tell. Whether they were injured in the line of duty or not, we’re all one big team and all believe it’s about the ability, not the disability.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.