Cover Story

Walking wounded

"Walking wounded" Continued...

Tori sits nearby talking with some of the other wives. When her husband grabs a basketball, Tori jumps up and starts filming with her cell phone camera.

What happened was a tragedy. It was terrible. But God has turned it into a blessing. To know that he is here because God spared him, it is hard to complain about anything.
—Tori Smith

Showing off his moves, Smith dribbles the basketball while walking around the track. He sends the ball between his prosthetic legs and around his back without breaking his dribble. He finishes by spinning the ball on his fingers.

“You are doing great, babe,” Tori says.

“Thanks.”

Smith is focusing on learning how to move without having to think about it. “I had no idea [of] all the mechanics involved in walking,” he says.

After receiving some instruction on the use of his hips, Smith walks toward a full-length mirror so he can study his movements.

Amputee patients at Walter Reed are usually walking by nine months and running by 13 months. When they leave Walter Reed after somewhere between nine and 18 months, the soldiers walk into a future with few limitations.

More than 300 amputees from Walter Reed have returned to active duty, including 53 who have gone back to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. This summer an officer wounded in Iraq in 2007 became the first double amputee to assume the command of a major military installation.

Dunlavey says former patients return all the time boasting about their exploits: One ran a 10-mile race just 11 months after losing his legs. Others have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. McKinley.

“Maybe I could be the first amputee to do the Appalachian Trail. Has anyone done that?” Smith asks Dunlavey. “Two thousand miles of mountains. That would be perfect for me.”

But first Smith wants to hike from the therapy room to his apartment without his cane. It’s a 10-minute route that will take him over sidewalk curbs, around cars in a busy parking garage, and up a steep hill. He carries his cane but doesn’t use it. Instead he twirls it with one arm as if it’s a baton. Tori follows behind pushing his empty wheelchair.

“Another beautiful day,” Smith says as he marches up the hill. “You are doing great walking,” Tori responds. It’s two more months before his brother’s wedding.

Paralympic champion

Larry Hughes
Handout
Larry Hughes

Nine hundred runners dressed in track suits and spandex ran last month in a McLean, Va., 5K created to help provide wheelchair-accessible transitional housing to veterans recovering from their wounds. But I was particularly drawn to one of the 400 spectators who gathered to watch, encourage, and cheer the runners.

Larry Hughes, a muscular man with a white-tinged black beard and thick, rectangular glasses, was wearing a gold U.S. Marine Corps pin and sitting in a wheelchair because of shrapnel wounds suffered in the Vietnam War. Hughes trains wounded veterans in track and field events, including shot put, discus, and a “running bike” built for those with disabled legs.

Hughes’ injury helps him understand what the injured war veterans are going through. After his injury 44 years ago, he says he “had to find myself.” He realized that others perceived him as “other than us,” and that made him “question my integrity of being a citizen.” Overcoming his doubts, he went on to compete in the international Paralympic Games. In 1996, he won a gold medal for America in discus.

Hughes says, “To see someone with a disability running alongside, in front, and behind you in a race may make someone feel sorry for them and ask, ‘How can they do it?’” His answer: “They can do it like anyone else who has a desire to do it.” And he was right. More than 20 wounded vets were among those who crossed the finish line, some with a graceful stride, some with clenched teeth.  —David Fisher

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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