Updated: December 16, 2009 at 12:00 am
Nearly three years ago, Air Force Academy Cadet Thomas Avolio shattered his body in a 200-foot fall along a popular hiking trail.
As he lay in a coma for 3 ½ weeks, few stopped to ask if his catastrophic injuries would sideline his career as an Air Force officer. Some doubted he would survive.
Any remaining questions about Avolio’s future were answered Wednesday morning at a ceremony at the academy’s Arnold Hall, where the 24-year-old was granted his diploma a year-and-a-half late, but in good standing and with an Air Force lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders.
“My time here wasn’t done,” he said afterward in a matter-of-fact tone.
Avolio’s improbable story began in April 2006 as he hiked with two friends at Eagle Peak, a 9,368-foot mountain on academy grounds.
After losing his footing along a dangerous path, Avolio plummeted an estimated 20 stories, setting into motion a desperate, five-hour-long effort to rescue him from a remote ledge. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, broken wrist, dislocated ankle, optic nerve damage, cuts, punctures and bruises.
He lay unresponsive through it all, his life hanging in the balance.
After emerging from his coma at Penrose Main Hospital, Avolio endured nearly two years of medical treatment and physical therapy, including a lengthy stay at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Palo Alto, Calif. He staved off a faltering memory and kept his mind sharp by studying when he could.
Avolio, of Des Moines, Wash., was readmitted to the academy in early 2008, after his story reached the secretary of the Air Force, who had to give his approval.
As Avolio approached the dais Wednesday, the watching crowd featured a veritable who’s who of those involved in his recovery, including an emergency medical technician who climbed Eagle Peak to treat him, an El Paso County search-and-rescue team leader who cleared the way for his evacuation by Blackhawk helicopter, and a flight nurse who tended to him on the way to Penrose.
“These guys saved my life,” Avolio said.
Victor Avolio, his father, broke into tears while greeting the rescuers and hospital staff who attended the ceremony.
“If everything hadn’t gone exactly the way it did, he wouldn’t be here,” he said, his voice choking with emotion.
His mother, Barbara Ann Avolio, said the journey has been “overwhelming.”
“He just kept going forward day after day,” she said. “He’s very laid-back, but he doesn’t stop going forward.”
Avolio’s rescuers said they shared that sense of awe.
“It’s an honor to be a part of this,” said Mikel Gabriell, an American Medical Response emergency technician who tended to Avolio on Eagle Peak. “To see him go forward and serve his country is incredible.”
Liz Dienst, the flight nurse, said she was struck by Avolio’s “will to survive.”
“He is a very determined young man who inspired many people along his journey,” she said. “One of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”
Avolio, who received a bachelor’s in political science, will report to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Tex., to begin training in military intelligence. Becoming an officer was a childhood dream, he said.
“I’ve always wanted to serve, and I knew that I had to come back to the Air Force Academy do that.”
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