Goal met: 358 days to return to ‘normal’

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Wayne Woolley
  • 444th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
With chest heaving, arms pumping and pink running shoes a blur on the pavement, Senior Airman Ashley Chytraus crossed the finish line at her annual Physical Fitness Test on June 14.

Although the 25-year-old crew chief with the New Jersey Air National Guard's 108th Wing scored an "excellent," she admitted being disappointed that her run time and pushups were a bit off her usual standards.

But she was willing to forgive herself.

Only 358 days earlier, Chytraus was on a medevac helicopter being carried away from the scene of a horrific motorcycle crash. She died and was revived on the helicopter and then spent the next month in a medically-induced coma.

She'd been on her way to drill on her pink and blue Honda CBR-1000 when the driver of a silver Cadillac made an illegal turn and crossed into her path. The collision broke two vertebrae in Chytraus's neck, crushed her hand, mangled the quadriceps tendon in her leg and forced two splintered ribs into her liver. It was the worst liver laceration the hospital had ever seen, she was later told.

"All I remember is turning the corner down the street and waking up a month later," Chytraus said. "I'd been sleeping for so long that the wounds and the surgeries just turned to scars."

Although Chytraus said she was comforted when she woke up because she was surrounded by her parents, siblings and the man she eventually married, she couldn't shake the thought that her Air Force career was over.

She'd enlisted at 19 while attending Burlington Community College, which is along the flight path of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The young woman who was uncertain about her future found the answer by simply looking up.

"Planes were flying overhead and I was like 'What am I doing?'," she said. "I knew that's what I wanted."

She became a crew chief and mechanic with the 108th Wing, which flies the KC-135R Stratotanker. It was a natural fit. A self-proclaimed "gear monkey," Chytraus grew up around her father's automotive repair shop, fixing cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Chytraus had come to love the controlled chaos of the flight line, turning wrenches, dragging fuel hoses and making last-minute checks on aircraft before sending them into the sky.

From her hospital bed, with a tracheotomy tube in her throat, the flight line seemed very far away.

But Chytraus made it clear to her doctors that if there was a way back, she was going to find it.

"Something that people realize when they get to know me is my attitude and my drive. I want to go forward in my life," she said. "There are challenges you come to in life and sometimes the guy upstairs says I'm going to give you this challenge and see how well you do."

Chytraus began her journey back to the flight line by relearning to walk. The combination of the damaged tendon in her leg and the loss of 30 pounds of muscle required a gradual progression from a walker, to crutches, and finally, a cane before Chytraus could walk on her own.

Immediately after the crash, the doctors were most concerned about the two broken vertebrae in Chytraus's neck.
"Most people who break those end up paralyzed or die from asphyxiation," Chytraus said. "For some reason, I wasn't paralyzed and the bones healed on their own. It's something I can't explain."

But as her rehabilitation progressed, the biggest threat to a full recovery emerged from an injury that at first appeared miniscule compared to the rest of the trauma Chytraus suffered - a hairline fracture near her elbow. As it healed, her arm locked at a 90-degree angle and remained that way for nearly six months.

"It was the biggest scare," Chytraus said. "Being in the military, you can't not have an arm. I thought I might be medically discharged. It was stressful."

A surgery to unlock the elbow was successful. But Chytraus was still too weak to return to her job.

Her rehabilitation efforts intensified. Her therapist, an Army Reservist, developed a routine that incorporated all of the motions required of Chytraus's normal duties; turning wrenches, screwdrivers and changing aircraft tires.

She returned to her job as a full-time technician with the 108th in May. She took the physical fitness test a month later.

Chytraus says both came to pass because she had good luck -- and never wavered from her objective.

"Goals. I wanted to get back to work and be able to do my job," she said. "Goals. I wanted to take my test without any waivers and at least come close to my score last year."

She's uncertain which goal is next. She's considering finishing her undergraduate degree and becoming an officer.
Chytraus is sure at least of this.

"I died and came back," she said. "What could be greater than that?"

Chytraus got engaged three weeks after she was discharged from the hospital and married two weeks later to the boyfriend who had been at her bedside every day of her coma. That relationship, and the thought of the strain her crash and recovery put on her family, provides the answer to the question she gets asked all the time:

"Do I want to get back on?" Chytraus said. "The answer is yes. Of course. It doesn't scare me. I'm still alive. But there's other people in my life now that, after all this ... it's worth staying around and not risking it."