A Calling Beyond the Battlefield: One Soldier’s Determination Reshapes the Future of Burn Care
This article was originally published on the Access+ portal for ByrdAdatto Access+ members in April of 2020. As we enter the July 4th weekend to celebrate the birth of the United States of America, we wanted to highlight one of its patriots, Ryan “Birdman” Parrot, former Navy SEAL and founder of Sons of the Flag. Enjoy this free access.
COVID-19 is pushing all of us in ways that we could not anticipate. During these difficult times, we hear stories of heroism and determination reminding us of the tremendous impact one can have on people. Yet, we do not forget those who have been changing lives since before this pandemic. They also inspire us today. Their stories of determination and perseverance are examples we can model. That’s Ryan “Birdman” Parrot, former Navy SEAL and founder of Sons of the Flag, one of the most well-known burn foundations in the country. “I’m not going to wait for people to do something,” Parrot says. “This is why burn care is the way it is.”
What began as a mission to understand why burn care seemed to take a second seat to other care in hospitals turned into a calling to fix it. A burn survivor himself, Parrot’s nickname isn’t just an offshoot of his last name. During his first deployment to Iraq in 2005 Parrot’s Humvee was hit an IED, ejecting him from the turret and into the sky. “I was a big fireball, straight up, and because I went flying, I got the nickname Birdman,” he says.
While Parrot Birdman suffered first- and second-degree burns, his fellow teammates, locked inside the Humvee, weren’t quite as lucky. “Everybody inside was severely burned,” he says. But their story was one of survival. “We all lived and every single one of us continued to fight.” Parrot’s Birdman’s fight, in fact, continued long after his eight years in the service concluded. His new battlefield, burn units, his battle objective, to make burn care more a priority.
For Birdman, this path became clear in 2011 while living in Dallas. There he met a fellow vet who was severely disfigured by burns from an IED explosion during deployment. “He spent the rest of his military career in the hospital’s burn unit,” Birdman says of the Army Captain, Ranger and West Point grad. “My burns were so superficial and his were so deep, I had to ask questions.”
After talking to the veteran about his experience in recovery and treatment, Birdman left with more questions and an unsatisfactory answer. “He said, ‘oh man, I’ve had three surgeries and this is as good as it gets,’” Birdman explains. “It was earthshattering to me to have him look me in the eyes and say, ‘look at me.’ Even though he wears his wounds with honor you know down deep that hurts, not just physically but mentally.”
According to Birdman, that’s the moment he switched gears. “This injury, it needs help, and anytime I hear somebody say, I need help, that’s a call to action,” he says. Act he did. Without any medical background at all, Birdman went home to study up on burn care. What he learned was that few resources were actually available to these burn survivors past initial trauma care. His own injury, paired with those more critical suffered by his fellow soldiers, fueled his desire to help. “I called him the next day and said I’d like to start an outfit on your behalf,” he says of the wounded vet. So was the springboard that launched Sons of the Flag.
Where Birdman landed next was outside the box, looking in on a stagnant system. In his preliminary research he discovered just how far behind burn care lagged. Although acute burn care in the U.S. is considered the best in the world, follow-up care, reconstruction and cosmetic advancements are lacking. Birdman points to the innovations in prosthetics that today help provide a sense of normalcy for amputees. He wants the same for burn survivors.
“Burn care as a whole, doctors were telling us, [was] about forty years behind the curve. They really hadn’t made any advancement since Viet Nam,” he says. While this detail made him angry, Birdman saw it as his cue to mobilize. Sons of the Flag now brings together community leaders, physicians, service members and first responders to advance its mission. But it wasn’t always easy, and he didn’t always make friends.
“Whether it’s a different group or union related to burns, I walk in the door and I say why are we failing? I’ve called people out,” he says, referring to his refusal to accept the status quo. “All I care about is the patient. I will never let a soldier or first responder say to me there is nothing they can do for me. I don’t want to hear that anymore.”
Revolutionizing burn care and quality of life for veterans and first responders, Sons of the Flag provides funding, not only for research and development, but for competitive fellowships, extending post-surgical training in trauma surgery and critical care. “We [are] going to become the household name for burn fellowships in the U.S.,” he says. “This year we signed a contract that brings us up to 50%, we are hiring half of the burn surgeons in America in 2020.”
Birdman sees these fellowships as critical building blocks, laying foundation for the next generation of burn care. He refers to the program as a ‘force multiplier’— a military term indicating an added force to increase potential and success. “By training more doctors to become reconstructive burn surgeons, you can force multiply that. And that way they will have to be three steps ahead for the lifespan of that patient.”
From a macro level, Birdman expects the same of his organization—to get ahead of the curve. “We help infiltrate the system so that when someone gets burned, they have somewhere to go. Forty years from now people will be saying I’m glad that Sons stepped up to the plate—it’s turnkey and click for a better quality of life after the burn,” he says.
While the organization is moving at pace focused on the future, it also offers current patients immediate action. Sons of the Flags’ program, Mission Reconstruct Freedom, marshals some of the top reconstructive burn surgeons in the country to build treatment plans and execute surgeries free of charge. “Functionality is number one and then we work on aesthetics and mental health with other partners,” he says of his growing network and volunteer team of doctors.
“It’s amazing how many people have come to the table. I really can’t take credit for anything in this entire organization, minus just, we’re doing this,” says Birdman. Although he may downplay his role, Birdman has led the charge.
The same explosion that gave him his nickname propelled him to do so much more. Fifteen years after he and his teammates suffered burn injuries, the group still keeps in touch, recounting the incident. “We joke about how I lost my mustache that day,” he says, referring to one of the casualties of his burns. “They’ll say, ‘dude, remember when you lost your mustache?’ Oh yeah, I remember.”
Little did Birdman know that whatever he lost that day would one day turn into tremendous gains for other burn survivors.
ByrdAdatto is proud to partner with non-profits, like Son’s of the Flag that help our veterans and first responders.