After losing both his legs to an IED in 2019, Marine special operations veteran Clint Trial is taking to the skies. Photo courtesy of Clint Trial/Instagram.
Clint Trial looked down at the parachute harness cinched across his lap and wondered if he was making the right decision. After all, most people brave enough to leap out of a perfectly good airplane don’t have the added concern of doing so without their legs. But Trial, a special operations veteran and double amputee, wanted this.
He also couldn’t think of a single animal that uses their legs to fly — so why should his injuries stop him from squeezing every drop of adventure out of his life? Thus, in the spring of 2022, and while leaning on two of his closest friends and former teammates for support, Trial boarded the small aircraft. Soon enough, the pit in his stomach dissipated as his mind wandered back to his first jump, years earlier.
“All right Clint,” his father had said. “Let’s see how big and badass you really are.”
Trial was a rebellious teenager, always pushing the limit of his father’s patience. His dad, a Vietnam veteran, had finally called his son’s bluff and suggested they go skydiving together. In an effort to prove his mettle, Trial had enthusiastically agreed. Now, looking out the window at the patchwork of fields 13,500 feet below, Trial was scared shitless. With nothing but a parachute on his back, he was forced to make a choice: Either balk and admit to himself he wasn’t the badass he once thought, or jump and ignore the fear burning a hole through his gut.
He took one last lungful of air from inside the plane and launched himself into the void. As Trial plummeted toward earth at 120 mph, a single thought surged through his brain.
I love this shit.
That first, fateful leap propelled Trial into a career in the armed forces that spanned more than three decades, two branches, and a litany of the most elite units the US military has to offer.
Clint Trial jumps in the spring of 2022, for the first time since losing his legs in combat three years prior. Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.
Beginning his journey in uniform in the early 1990s, Trial enlisted in the Army National Guard as an infantryman. A few years later he left the Guard and joined the Marine Corps, where he served as a Recon Marine. From there, Trial moved on to Special Operations Training Group, an exclusive unit charged with training Marines in various special operations capabilities. In 2005, Trial helped stand up the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, now commonly known as the Marine Raiders. As a plank holder for the Corps’ most elite unit, Trial deployed around the world in support of the Global War on Terror. His impressive climb up the Marine Corps pyramid culminated with an appointment to Joint Special Operations Command, where Trial served in teams comprising members from every military branch.
Having spent the entirety of his adult life training for combat or in it, Trial had already experienced all of war’s horrors and triumphs by the time he deployed back to Afghanistan in 2019. As part of a special missions unit, Trial and his team were hunting high-value targets. Meanwhile, Islamic State group militants and the Taliban were duking it out against one another in the “graveyard of empires.”
“That whole flock was there fighting each other,” Trial told Coffee or Die Magazine. “Part of the brilliance of that was we’d go right into that slot and clean up both sides. Take advantage of information from a tactical and strategic viewpoint and kill two enemies with one stone.”
Afghanistan was cold in January, but Trial was sweating under the weight of the ruck he was shouldering across the towering terrain on the border with Pakistan. The steep slopes were coated in loose shale and uneven boulders, making each boot placement an exercise in precision. One poorly placed step could mean tumbling down jagged rocks until a boulder or the bottom stopped you. “That terrain will absolutely fuck you up four ways from Friday,” Trial opined.
Otherwise simple movements in Nangarhar province regularly resulted in twisted ankles and bruised knees — but Trial’s final mission would prove much more permanently scarring than any minor bump or bruise.
Listening to the gut instinct he’d sharpened over a lifetime, Trial took it upon himself to explore some dead space near their patrol that concerned him. Climbing carefully into a nearby wadi for a closer look, his suspicions were confirmed. He saw a hidden room dug into the rocky earth. Before he could relay what he’d found, the ground beneath Trial’s feet exploded in a fountain of mud and rock. His foot had found a pressure plate, triggering several pounds of homemade explosives.
The blast destroyed Trial’s legs and knocked him unconscious. When he awoke, he immediately got on his radio to call for help and directed his teammates on where to orient their fire.
“I remember repeating myself over and over. At first I was yelling loudly on the radio, but as I kept repeating it, I could tell I was losing the energy to keep yelling. My voice became a fucking whisper almost,” Trial said.
Just as Trial thought he was going to slip out of consciousness from blood loss, he felt the firm grasp of a teammate’s hand on his kit.
“I give all lifesaving credit to my friend Kurt and his immediate response. He’s the guy that saved my life. He’s a fearless freakin’ warrior, man.”
Clint Trial with Black Rifle Coffee CEO Evan Hafer. Photo courtesy of Black Rifle Coffee Company.
The pain told Trial his body was badly damaged. He’d been honing his warfighting skills for nearly 30 years, yet nothing had prepared him for the levels of pain he suffered while bleeding out in that boulder-strewn wadi.
“It was a whole different spectrum of pain that I didn’t even know existed,” Trial recalled. “It was all kind of raging through my body in the most excruciating way, to the point where it’s overwhelming and you don’t know how to deal with it. You almost wish you could pass out.”
Before his wish could come true, Trial’s teammates managed to stabilize him and call a medevac. They carried and dragged his inert weight up the rocky terrain to an area flat enough for a helicopter to land. That they managed to do so without suffering any more major injuries among their number was a minor miracle. As Trial toed the line with consciousness, he thought he was in the best hands in the world. If his teammates couldn’t save his life, he could rest peacefully knowing they’d done everything possible to save him.
Trial was first flown to a forward surgical team. He then transferred to Bagram Airfield before finally settling at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he began the long road of learning to live without his legs. Doctors made it painfully clear that his life would never be the same. They also talked a lot about Trial learning to walk again with prosthetics — but they never said anything about flying.
Just three years after stepping on an improvised explosive device, Trial decided it was time to take to the skies again. Legs or no legs, he was ready to spread his wings.
“I started feeling the bug again,” Trial told Coffee or Die. “I went ahead and called up my buddies to see if it would be possible for them to join me. They all dropped what they were doing and came out to jump. It was fucking awesome.”
Assisted by two of his former teammates, Trial jumped from an aircraft for the first time since losing his legs. Weightless and rocketing toward the landing zone, the warrior reflected on the journey that had led him back to that moment.
“When you first start out jumping, you see very little. The very first jump of my life, I didn’t see jack or shit. All I saw was this little fucking patch. I’m gonna land right about there, and that’s gonna be my demise. That’s my death. No other landscape, just that little patch because you’re overwhelmed by the event. I think in a lot of ways, that’s kind of like life, right? You gotta get used to the experience, all the gear, and be able to use that information overload. The more you jump though, the more your aperture opens. And just like with jumping, the older you get, the more your aperture opens about the world in general.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as "You Don't Need Legs To Fly."
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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