The Magazine

Tough Americans

The inspiring stories of soldiers wounded in Iraq.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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In the film Home of the Brave, a soldier who lost her hand in Iraq is asked if she underwent physical rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "Yeah, Walter Reed," she says. "Talk about tough Americans." Tough Americans, indeed. When I visited that same ward, the first soldier I met was Sgt. Luke Shirley, who had stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) blowing off his right side limbs and spraying him with shrapnel. "It kinda sucks not having an arm or leg," he told me, "but it hasn't bothered me like you'd think it would." I was dumbstruck. What kind of person is this?

That's why I visited Walter Reed's Orthopedic Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Ward in Washington, D.C., along with the surgical inpatient ward at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. (At Bethesda the men and women aren't yet ready to be sent on to Walter Reed or elsewhere for rehabilitation.) I wanted to meet these tough Americans and tell some of their stories. It was something I had long put off, because I go to war zones as an embedded reporter. I have no problem facing my own mortality for, as Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew Fred observed, we are all "fellow-travellers to the grave." But losing an arm or leg or eye--ah, that's another thing entirely. I believed I would come away from the wards feeling sick and more hesitant about upcoming embeds. Instead, each time I walked out it was with a feeling of elation at the attitudes I saw in Americans who not only refused to see themselves as victims but embraced their injuries as challenges.

Please note that at neither hospital was I allowed to pick interview subjects. For instance, while I asked for a female interview subject, and there were female patients, I couldn't talk to any. Further, there was an administrator with me at all times. Surely there were disgruntled patients in both wards at that or some other time. But the Walter Reed ward I visited was in no way implicated in the recent scandal, which concerned a completely different building, and I don't doubt the sincerity or veracity of those whom I did interview.

Sgt. Luke Shirley, U.S. Army

I got only a few minutes with Shirley before he had to leave. A member of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) from LaBelle, Florida, he was at 28 the oldest person I interviewed. He joined the Army in 1998 because "I got tired of having a normal job." A few days before Christmas last year he was on a foot patrol south of Baghdad. "We were looking for people who attacked our unit. I was lead and couldn't see much," he said. "Suddenly an IED threw me about 25 feet. I didn't know the extent of the damage until I got to the hospital. All I asked was 'Is my "stuff" still there?'"

By "stuff," the sergeant was referring to his privates. He'd lost his right leg above the knee and his right arm below the elbow, with lesser damage to his other limbs. But yes, his "stuff" was still there. And so is his spirit. I simply could not get him to keep a straight face when I took his photo. He was also enraptured with his wheelchair, called a LEVO combi. It is probably to any wheelchair you've ever seen what an F-22 Raptor is to a Sopwith Camel. "This thing rocks!" he exclaimed.

The goal at Walter Reed isn't to put people into wheelchairs but whenever possible to attach prosthetic limbs. These aren't the peg legs and single hooks of yesterday, either. Some of the leg prosthetics are purely mechanical and passive; others are motorized with rechargeable batteries; and yet others are bionic, meaning "a fusion of electronics, mechanics, and human physiology." Most of the limbs I saw had embedded microprocessors that can do such things as help maintain balance. None of these give wearers the powers of the Six Million Dollar Man, but they're impressive in their own right. Generally speaking, each amputee receives a set of three: one for walking, one for running, and one for swimming. They slide on easily over the limb and can be attached or removed in seconds. Each is adjusted to the individual's gait.

The amputees I met expressed surprise and delight with how technologically advanced their new limbs are. But what I found most compelling was the comment of Joe Miller, the chief of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Service at Walter Reed. He told me that while lower-limb amputees are sometimes given curved bands of carbon fiber called Flex-Sprint , bands designed for longer distances, called FlexRun , "are more commonly prescribed." He explained that his patients will "need to do a two-mile run for their physical fitness tests."

President Bush more or less gave the government's imprimatur to retaining disabled service members when, in a December 2003 address at Walter Reed, he announced: