Fighter pilot continues brother’s legacy
Published: Sunday, October 7, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 8, 2012 00:10
Ed Woodward, a graduate student studying medical sciences, used to fly fighter jets.
“It was pure freedom,” he said. “Some of the best days I’ve ever had in my entire life were Friday when you get a solo flight. You get a handed a twin engine supersonic jet to go do whatever you want to do, (it’s) the best feeling in the world.”
Woodward served in the U.S. Air Force for more than six years, fulfilling his dream to be a pilot and fly the F-15 fighter jet, but he doesn’t fly planes anymore.
He was medically retired on Sept. 24, 2008.
Woodward suffered a stroke because of a blood clot in his brain. His injury was related to the gravitational forces that pilots experience while flying and a whirlwind of other circumstances, Woodward said.
After a series of medical and physical evaluations and years of rehabilitation, Woodward was deemed “undeployable” and retired from the Air Force.
“I used to feel robbed of my plane, my aircraft, my career,” he said. “I worked so hard to get there and then have it taken away from me.”
His plane was not the first thing taken from him.
Tragedy and Loss
Woodward grew up with a twin brother, Gene. While Woodward joined the military, his brother went to medical school at USF.
On June 13, 2000, a week after Gene completed his first year medical school exams, Woodward was driving his brother and two friends home after celebrating in Hyde Park, when a drunk driver on Interstate 275 hit them from behind.
The Ford Bronco they were riding in rolled, and the car landed upside down.
“I remember being upside down (and) when we finally came to rest, the smell of gas was everywhere,”
He climbed out of the car and yelled for everyone else to do the same. Standing on the barrier in the road, Woodward remembered realizing his brother hadn’t gotten out of the car.
“I went back to the truck and I could see his leg,” he said. “Then something lit the gas, and the truck basically exploded in my face and another bystander pulled me away.”
Woodward’s brother was the only fatality. Their two friends suffered minor injuries; Woodward was not injured.
The accident occurred a week before Woodward was supposed to be commissioned as an officer,
but it was pushed back due to the circumstances surrounding the tragedy and the loss of his brother.
“I used to feel a lot, but it’s not there anymore,” Woodward said. “There was a part of my brain that stopped working, some kind of mental connection. I don’t mean to say we had ESP, but it was definitely a hole, not just the sorrow, but a hole in my mental processing.”
A ‘damn good idea’
His brother’s death gave Woodward a clearer path after his own career plans came to a halt.
“The transition out of the military was real tough, I thought I was going to do that forever,” Woodward said. “I had my whole life mapped out and that is how I was going to proceed.”
After his rehabilitation, Woodward was working on earning his MBA from St. Petersburg College, but soon
realized he had no interest in business. His grandfather proposed the idea of finishing his brother’s dream of becoming a doctor.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you finish what Gene started?’ and I thought, ‘that sounds like a damn good idea,’” Woodward said. “So I said that’s what I’ll do.”
‘He’s got a winner’
Woodward came to USF in Spring 2012 and began a master’s degree program in medical sciences. This summer, he was named one of two Tillman Military Scholars at USF, a prestigious scholarship given to veterans by the Pat Tillman Foundation.
“When I first met him, I had not seen any of the application, (but) when I heard his story, I knew if he could communicate it half as good on paper, he’s got a winner,” Larry Braue, director of Veterans Services, said. “His story is extraordinary.”
Woodward went through an extensive process including two interviews, an essay and was judged against the other 14 schools that participate in the program.
“It was one of the best things that happened to me,” Woodward said.
The scholarship helps veterans financially while they go back to school.
This means allowing Woodward to take care of his family. He and his wife, Manda, have a five-year-old son named Tyler.
“That has been the biggest challenge,” Woodward said. “My son doesn’t understand why I can’t play with him. He doesn’t understand why I can’t be there.”
Woodward’s friends, though, think his son is learning work ethic from his father. Many of Woodward’s friends knew his brother as well, and his son gravitates towards them.
“Tyler almost feels like they are surrogate uncles, (he) gravitates toward them and listens to their stories about Uncle Gene,” Woodward said. “My favorite stories to tell him are things he kind of does like him.”
Other than teaching his son work ethic and other character traits, Woodward’s goal is to attend medical school at USF and become a doctor, possibly a neurologist specializing in traumatic brain injuries, and work with other veterans.
“I feel a responsibility to help guys like me,” Woodward said. “The goal is just to become a doctor and establish my own practice and be in a position where I can give my time to those who need help who may not be able to afford to get it.”
Despite debilitating migraines, difficulties focusing and paying attention in class and other distractions, Woodward continues to work toward his dream. He will be taking the MCAT next spring and applying to medical school. He said one of his driving forces is still his brother Gene.