- This story first published in the Daily Nonpareil's special section Honoring Our Veterans on Sunday, Nov. 10. Read the e-edition here.
An unfortunate accident during advanced U.S. Army training in January 1986 left Council Bluffs native Bryce Johnson, 53, paralyzed from the chest down.
More than 30 years later, Johnson, known as “Hop” to friends and family members, is quick to say, “I was — and still am — glad to be alive, but I do have some bad days.”
A 1984 graduate of Lewis Central High School, Johnson enlisted in the Army the following September. At the time he enlisted, he “planned to stay 10 years, if not 20.”
Following basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he completed advanced training as a light wheel vehicle mechanic. That was followed by three months as a recruiter.
After his stint as a recruiter, Johnson learned that his military occupational specialty with an airborne option — an option that if accepted added $125 a month to his paycheck.
Accepting the option, he was ordered to jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia, a one-month assignment during which he successfully completed his five qualifying jumps.
Johnson was then transferred to the 82nd Airborne Division and was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
On the night of Jan. 7, 1986, his company was ordered to complete a night jump that was scheduled to occur between 3 and 4 a.m. It was his 27th jump.
As Johnson parachuted toward the landing zone after jumping from the aircraft, he inadvertently floated over another soldier who had jumped with the group.
As he accidentally crossed above the other soldier, he lost the air in his parachute and began free falling toward the ground.
“It takes 90 feet for the chute — either the regular parachute or the emergency parachute — to redeploy and the accident happened at 70 or 80 feet above the ground,” Johnson said.
He said he was conscious after hitting the ground but didn’t really realize what had happened.
“The guy I floated over when I lost the air in my parachute ran over and asked if I was okay. I told him I thought I was okay but then felt some pain in my neck and told him I might have broken my neck,” he said.
“I remember being loaded into and taken out of a helicopter, but not much more,” Johnson said.
Transferred to an intensive care unit for treatment of the injury to his spinal column, Johnson said he was in a coma for two and a half weeks.
“I remember coming out of the coma about the time the space shuttle Challenger was lost,” he said, “because I had the only television and a lot of hospital staff members were watching it.”
Johnson spent a total of nine months in spinal cord centers in Virginia and Illinois before coming home.
“A lot of those guys were really down about their injuries, but I was glad to be alive,” he said. “I told the man upstairs as long as I was not on a breathing machine, I’d make the best of it I could.”
Those who know him are quick to say he’s done just that.