Originally published June 30, 2018 at 06:08p.m., updated July 3, 2018 at 11:17a.m.
Billy Dunham pushed himself as a Rogers Mountie athlete. He learned how to keep motivated as a three-sport standout and two-way player on the football team.
Those experiences didn't launch him to the college gridiron, as he hoped, but rather to an Army base where he became a Ranger. He's used that drive and motivation to overcome a serious injury suffered in the line of duty.
At A Glance
SPORT Football, basketball, track and field
YEAR GRADUATED 1987
EMPLOYED BY Hanger Clinics
CURRENT RESIDENCE Tulsa, Okla.
NOTABLE Played football, basketball and ran track at Rogers High. … Enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 1987. … Became an Army Ranger and took part in the invasion of Panama as part of the mission called Operation “Just Cause”on Dec. 20, 1989. … Was shot in the invasion in a friendly fire incident and subsequently had part of his right leg amputated above the knee. … Currently lives in Tulsa and is employed by Hanger Clinics where he receives his prosthetic care. … Married to his wife, Brenda, for 15 years. … Served as the chairperson to the Oklahoma Rehabilitation Council for the past four years. … Was also part of a team that recently raced from Tampa to Cuba and Mexico with the Warrior Sailor Program.
And he relies on it still today to help others.
Dunham dreamed of playing college football.
Weighing only 160 pounds upon graduation at Rogers High coupled with what he termed a "less than stellar" academic performance erased that opportunity.
He instead enlisted in the Army and utilized lessons learned in athletics to excel like he did on the football field, becoming part of the third Ranger Battalion and earning the coveted black beret.
"I exceeded a lot of expectations," Dunham said. "I graduated basic training with honors and next went on to Airborne School. I didn't know what an "Airborne Ranger" was. Most people at that age want to do exciting stuff. I just knew I wanted to jump out of a plane.
"My drive I had in athletics and some of the coaches I had inspired me. I just kept pushing myself to excel and do the right thing. My parents were a very important part of that process. I'm glad I had that upbringing."
But seven months before his 21st birthday, Dunham lost part of his right leg in a friendly fire incident during the invasion of Panama known as "Operation Just Cause" on Dec. 20, 1989.
Dunham was the leading rusher on a Rogers football team, which won only one game his senior season.
He had a big part in keeping the Mounties from going winless in the fall of 1986. Dunham returned the second-half kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to help Rogers earn a 13-12 overtime victory at Russellville.
"That bus ride home was so much more enjoyable," said Dunham, who played some linebacker and strong safety along with running back. "We only had 11 seniors, and only about half those started, so we were really young on the field."
Barney Hayes, Dunham's position coach for three years on the football team and his track coach, called him an overachiever.
"He was hard-nosed and a hard worker," Hayes said. "He was what I'd call just a good high school football player. He looked at the military and had a distinguished career. He really had some hard going and some serious injuries. He told me one time football really helped him get through some of that.
"It was a different time than it is today. We put them through some tough two-a-days."
Into the military
Dunham went through even more strenuous training to become an Army Ranger. He recalled the first morning being in formation in Fort Benning, Ga., in January 1988, with around 150 men.
"They want to weed people out, and I remember the instructors saying, 'If you don't want to be here, just fall out and we'll have coffee and doughnuts for you,'" Dunham said. "We lost like 30 or 40 at that moment."
He was one of 60 to graduate from the Ranger Indoctrination Program.
Dunham said he and his unit went through lots of preparation earlier in 1989, but combat became reality just before Christmas.
"I was headed to the pay phones to call my parents, and the CQ asked me where I was headed," Dunham said. "I told him I was going to call my parents, and he said, 'No, you're not. We're on lock-down.' I didn't get to make my phone call."
Two days later he boarded a plane bound for Panama. Dunham was one of the last to jump from the plane, and he could see bullets flying. He was one of five soldiers hit by friendly fire in the invasion, according to multiple reports.
"My squad leader died," Dunham said. "A young kid next to me, I saw him take his last breath."
Dunham was hit by machine gun fire. He moved away from his ruck sack minutes before it was blown to pieces.
"I got peppered with shrapnel, and my ruck blew up," Dunham said. "It was fortunate I had to disseminate some information. A few minutes earlier, and it could have been completely different.
"They said I was shot five times. I know there were a lot of holes. I was awake the entire time until I got back to the States. I was in a lot of pain. I remember that."
He remembers waking up in Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio with tubes everywhere and unable to speak. Dunham was able to write down his name and his parents' phone number.
Dunham also received a visit from President George H.W. Bush, who presented him with his combat jump wings in the hospital. The visit with the President and First Lady Barbara Bush was special, Dunham said.
"She spent five or 10 minutes with me before the president came in," Dunham said. "She's a tremendous lady. I wanted to present the President with a small flag. I knew he had jumped out of a plane in World War II. He still has that flag, they say."
Dunham underwent a significant number of surgeries over a three-year period, and he lost a lot of weight.
"It was a shock to my body," Dunham said. "It was very challenging. I was probably 190 pounds when I got hit and dropped to 140 in a matter of two or three months."
He received a prosthetic limb and now works for Hanger Clinic, the company that produced it.
The injuries haven't slowed Dunham down. He returned to school, earning a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and a master's degree in defense and strategic studies from Missouri State.
Dunham also still jumps from planes and has served as a parachute instructor and earned his private pilot's license. He snow skis and is an avid sailor.
Dunham also beta tests prosthetics to aid the designers in improving how the devices work for those living with limb loss. The 49-year-old currently lives in Tulsa with his wife, Brenda, and manages 10 Hanger Clinics in Oklahoma.
Most rewarding for Dunham is getting the chance to help others and see them overcome amputation.
"I've been fortunate to work with some amazing people who went through limb loss that inspire me," Dunham said. "Some of the most horrific things you can imagine. But with the human spirit, no matter how bad it gets, people figure out how to make it work."Preps Basketball on 07/01/2018
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