Cover Story

Walking wounded

"Walking wounded" Continued...

For decades leading up to 2001, most amputees treated by the military medical community involved older, inactive patients who suffered limb loss due to disease. But during the last 10 years the flood of young amputees requires treatments and devices to help them regain the active lifestyle they so suddenly lost. Seeing these soldiers as wounded athletes rather than patients, the military has modeled the recovery program after a sports medical clinic.

On one of the days I visited the clinic, two double amputees dribbled and passed a soccer ball. A third amputee threw a football over the hospital beds with a therapist. One patient sidestepped ankle high hurdles while another lifted his new legs over a row of rubber sports cones, tapping the tip of each small cone with his prosthetic foot before setting it down on the other side. Occasionally someone fell onto the red and blue rubber track. Always they got back up without asking for help. 

The newest generation of artificial joints better approximates the human knee and ankle. A knee embedded with a battery-powered microprocessor carries angle sensors that adjust for walking up a flight of stairs, running down a hill, or jumping over a curb. This smart knee technology comes with a remote that allows its wearer to switch between modes for such activities as golfing and bicycling. Its battery charge lasts for up to five days.

I’m almost thankful about this injury. ... Now I get to spend every day with my wife, which is awesome.
—Andrew Smith

During therapy as the soldiers learn to play with their new knees, young wives or girlfriends linger nearby. One stands right behind her husband and wipes sweat from his brow with a white towel as he slowly makes his way around the track holding a weighted exercise ball over his head. Two parents looking like someone has gut-punched them stand beside one of the beds as their son goes through stretching exercises to strengthen his core. The dad occasionally snaps a few pictures. The beds are the first phase of training for the new patients.

Smith graduated from the beds by July. But on this day he can only manage to slowly walk down a rubber mat with the help of waist high handlebars that run alongside the mat. After a couple of feet he calls for his wheelchair. He slumps down into it.

When Smith landed at the Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan in February 2012, the first thing he noticed was bullet holes covering the old terminal’s walls.

“This is real,” Smith said to himself. It had been a long journey.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened during his freshman year in high school in Chattanooga, Tenn. Smith spent the next four years yearning to join the military just as his grandfather had right after the start of World War II. He enlisted in 2010 not long after graduating from Tennessee’s Lee University. Smith found himself on the war’s center stage as a member of a brigade combat team in the 82nd Airborne Division.

In Afghanistan Smith got used to life inside tents the size of multiple basketball courts, sleeping on mattresses that looked like they had been there since the U.S. Army first arrived.

When an air raid siren went off while Smith and his unit took an orientation class on improvised explosive devices, some of the troops who’d been there awhile laughed it off, promising the fresh faces that any missiles launched couldn’t reach deep inside the base. But the sudden alert followed by the rush into the nearest concrete bunker was sobering to Smith.

“The Taliban is still here,” he thought.

Commanders assigned Smith’s company to a combat outpost in southwest Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The soldiers passed rumors that Alexander the Great had once built a fortress there during his conquest of the area.

But there were no fortresses there in 2012. Smith’s squad of less than 20 soldiers took over a patrol base outpost south of the main outpost in the area. For protection they had a few tall sand-filled barriers, a couple of makeshift guard towers, concertina wire and a truck blocking the lone entrance. Baby wipes replaced showers. Canned soup and Gatorade bottles replaced hot meals.

The picket duty placed Smith’s squad near a hornet’s nest of Taliban fighters who trekked back and forth over the nearby desert from Pakistan bearing lethal supplies. Commanders tasked Smith’s squad with interdicting this smuggling. His part in the mission lasted only one patrol.

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