Army vet beats paralysis to become hotshot recruit
Originally from Arizona, Kenny Bower was friends with Andrew Ashcraft, one of the 19 Hotshots killed in the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Kenny Bower stood on a steep, grassy hillside overlooking the Waldo Canyon burn scar with his ear cocked toward his radio.
His firefighting tool was still by his side while he listened to the transmission - winds were picking up, humidity was dropping and nearby trees were starting to ignite. He called out the warning to his crew and bent back to his work cutting a line into the dirt up the hill.
The fire burning a slope behind the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs was make-believe as part of a weeklong wildfire training program at the university.
But Bower, a former Fort Carson sergeant and combat veteran with two Purple Hearts who gave up a 12-year military career to become a firefighter, is the real deal.
Watching him swing a tool, it’d be hard to guess that the jocular and smiling Bower, 31, was left paralyzed from the neck down after a bomb blast in Afghanistan. It’d also be hard to guess that he’s missing a chunk of his left calf muscle and that his body is riddled with shrapnel.
His recovery from two severe injuries during three deployments to Afghanistan comes down to willpower, Bower said.
“I try to never let it get to me,” he said Wednesday.
The 28 members of Bower’s firefighting class were among hundreds of firefighters in Colorado Springs this week for the Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy.
But as beginners, Bower’s class learned the basics of watching weather and containing a spreading wildfire without hoses, water and other equipment. Their classroom could not have been a better setting for learning the trade. The grassy knoll had a perfect view of the snow-covered foothills in the burn scar of one of the state’s most destructive fires.
“If this were a good day for a fire to burn, fire would move rapidly up hill,” instructor and Montrose wildland firefighter Tyler Campbell told the class. He pointed to steep drainages that would funnel flame up the hill.
“This house would be a real big problem to us just knowing there’s a fire,” he said, gesturing to a home perched nearby.
The class’ task for the day was to cut two shallow dirt trenches around an imaginary fire. Unlike city firefighters, wildland crews don’t always come loaded with water and hoses - and the UCCS class had just backpacks, shovels, picks and rakes.
“We actually have no water,” Campbell said.
Bower worked at the back of the line. He called for the crew to watch its spacing, dig less and move faster. The freshly broken ground smelled moist - something that might not have been typical during heat of a fire. Digging also wasn’t as easy.
“It’s a little hard because it’s frozen, I know,” Campbell called out to the crew has they hacked at the ground. “We brought out imaginations today, remember?”
Within a few minutes, a lookout told the crews to get out while the fire roared in. Bower and his crew scrambled back down the hill and fumbled for their fire shelters, reflective bags designed to protect firefighters from heat. They are meant to be a last resort.
But fire shelters can’t stop death, and it was a firefighter’s death that partly inspired Bower to seek a medical discharge from the Army and go into firefighting. Originally from Arizona, Bower was friends with Andrew Ashcraft, one of the 19 Hotshots killed in the Yarnell Hill fire there in 2013.
“I decided to pursue something that I saw as a kid growing up in Arizona and California,” he said.
He’ll be Arizona-bound again for fire season - within days of the wildfire academy’s start, Bower had secured a job with the Gila Interagency Hotshot Crew, he said. His good luck had earned him a reputation - not only did he secure a job overnight, but he got $100 for winning crew bean-bag-toss competition during training week.
For an Army soldier who once spent six months paralyzed, that’s not half bad.
“I used to wake up every day just looking forward to leading soldiers,” he said.
Now he hopes to lead firefighters.
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