WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For some amputees in a rehabilitation exercise room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, recovery means choosing to return to active duty in the U.S. Army.
Outfitted with computer-powered artificial limbs, one in five of about 350 soldiers whose cases have been considered by a medical review board after their treatment for injuries in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars aims to rejoin their unit.
More than 700 U.S. troops have lost limbs in those wars and have been treated either at Walter Reed, the premier military hospital in Washington, or other military facilities around the country.
At least six to eight of the Walter Reed patients have gone back to Iraq, said Chuck Scoville, a retired colonel who runs the rehab program for army amputees.
The army has altered how it rehabilitates amputees who are otherwise young, healthy and often athletic. It sets the bar higher, encouraging them to reach for an active and challenging life, he said. Sometimes that means returning to the army.
“We have a lot invested in their training and skill set,” said Scoville. “This is a volunteer army. These are professional soldiers ... We’ll retain those who want to be retained.”
Walter Reed has been at the center of scandal this year over outpatient care as well as its therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder and related ailments.
Congress held hearings and President George W. Bush appointed a commission to look into the complaints and the leadership of the medical complex was shaken up, but the practical rehabilitation program still enjoys a strong reputation.
A visiting Reuters reporter and photographer were escorted by a press officer at the facility and could not interview patients at random.
Working out in a state-of-the-art therapy room outfitted with gym equipment, weight machines, therapy tables and a rock-climbing wall, patients told of their recoveries, their psychological challenges and the ties that still bind them to the U.S. Army.
Bryan Florence, 23, of Louisville, Kentucky, had been in Iraq with his National Guard Army unit for four weeks when his leg was blown off below the knee. One of his friends was badly hurt in the blast. Another was killed.
Florence sees himself as one of the “lucky ones.” He has no serious brain damage and lost only a part of one leg, below the knee. In rehab, soldiers call that a “papercut.”
Now with his first baby on the way and a worried wife by his side, Florence isn’t sure what to do. Getting back to U.S. soil, “seeing American churches and trees” feels good, he said. After being a soldier, he can’t see himself going back to his old job as a building contractor but he can’t see himself sitting at a military desk either.
“He’ll either stay in or retire. We don’t know,” said his pregnant wife Emily, 21, who left her job in a hair salon.
Saul Bosquez, 22, ran track and field in middle school and played baseball in his Michigan community college. He enlisted less than two years ago. His lower leg was blown off in Iraq last August. Now he is getting used to his artificial leg, and he grins as he soars over some small hurdles laid in a makeshift track.
Bosquez will start an internship at the Pentagon soon. He hopes that will help him figure out his future. He is trying to get his clearance raised from secret to top secret. Maybe if he can’t return to the battlefield, he can go into military intelligence — or perhaps the CIA or FBI.
Lt. Col. Gregory Gadson, 41, has known nothing but the army since he stepped into West Point Army Academy more than 20 years ago. A father of two and a combat veteran, he lost both legs when an IED blew him up last spring. “In my heart, I still feel I’m a soldier,” he said. “I plan on staying in.”
Gadson is a large athletic man testing a new “power-knee” prosthesis that can help him walk unassisted. He says faith, family and physical therapists have helped him come this far.
“I don’t have a smile on my face every day,” he said. “But I’m alive.”
Editing by Howard Goller