Healing War’s Wounds

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The Pentagon is testing a new approach to mending the growing number of severely injured soldiers: extreme sports. A ride on the rugged road to recovery.

“Hey, have any of y’all seen the crocodile that got my arm?” U.S. Army Maj. Anthony Smith hoists his prosthetic hook, tied to a paddle, as he floats down Idaho’s Salmon River in a large blue raft, manned by a cackling crew of fellow amputees. Momentarily rattled, a group of rafters resting onshore stare as Smith’s boat glides by, before someone on the beach points down the rapids and yells, “He went that-a-way.” Smith, digging his paddle back into the water, growls with mock pirate glee. “You should see what happens when I’m in a restaurant and I say to the waitress ‘Can you give me a hand?’ “

The Pentagon has recently begun testing more experimental methods, rehabilitating wounded service members with extreme sports designed to build muscleand self-confidence. Early next year the Center for the Intrepid, a privately funded $45 million rehab facility featuring rock-climbing walls and an indoor surfing tank, will open on the grounds at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, offering lifelong privileges to those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. At BAMC, wounded soldiers are encouraged to get moving as soon as possible, a strategy that promotes independence and wards off depression. Learning to accept their disfigured bodies is “an immense emotional challenge,” says Dan Blescini, a psychiatric nurse at BAMC. “They want to know ‘Am I a man? Is someone going to love me?’ This isn’t exactly the stuff you expect the Army to talk about, but this is what’s on everyone’s mind.”…

     

The Pentagon has recently begun testing more experimental methods, rehabilitating wounded service members with extreme sports designed to build muscleand self-confidence. Early next year the Center for the Intrepid, a privately funded $45 million rehab facility featuring rock-climbing walls and an indoor surfing tank, will open on the grounds at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, offering lifelong privileges to those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. At BAMC, wounded soldiers are encouraged to get moving as soon as possible, a strategy that promotes independence and wards off depression. Learning to accept their disfigured bodies is “an immense emotional challenge,” says Dan Blescini, a psychiatric nurse at BAMC. “They want to know ‘Am I a man? Is someone going to love me?’ This isn’t exactly the stuff you expect the Army to talk about, but this is what’s on everyone’s mind.”

Patients who work out regularly, lifting weights and yanking pulleys from their wheelchairs, often with burned and mangled limbs, are rewarded with all-expenses-paid outdoor expeditions. It was just such an invitation that brought Smith, two other wounded service members and their wives to the Salmon River last month. They were the guests of Sun Valley Adaptive Sportsone of several private nonprofits consulting with the Pentagon. On the week’s agenda: white-water rafting, paragliding, rock climbing and horseback riding. With the group is Erik Schultz, a backcountry sports enthusiast who was paralyzed in a skiing accident eight years ago. During his darkest depression, says Schultz, friends “literally dragged me” on a camping trip. After a week in the wilderness, “I was bursting with self-confidence. Things didn’t seem that hard anymore.” He hopes that his presence in a wheelchair, fly-fishing from a rocky beach and whooping his way down the river, will help “demystify” disabled life for the wounded service members.

Free from their hospital routines, and the weight of their wounds, Smith and the others spend their days splashing like kids. U.S. Marine S/Sgt. Damion Jacobs, who lost his right leg below the knee to an IED near Fallujah six months ago, removes his prosthetic and props it in the sand like a coffee table; he leans against it while watching the show. Jacobs plans to take his Marine Corps physical and return to active duty. Army Spc. Andrew Soule, an intense, dignified 25-year-old who has emerged as the star of BAMC’s rehab program, says that before his injury, he wasn’t “much of an athlete.” A year ago Soule lost both legs and suffered a severe arm injury in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. Now he kayaks, hand-cycles and surfs. On the first day of the river trip, one of Soule’s carbon-fiber prosthetics is fractured. He tosses the limb aside and, for the next five days, kayaks legless, dragging his body over rocky beaches, even climbing stairs, with his arms. “People have this tendency to overreact,” says Soule, who left Texas A&M after 9/11 to join the Army. “They don’t know how much you can do for yourself.”

Even Soule is amazed by how far he has come. As he lay tourniqueted on the ground last year next to the wreckage of his Humvee near the Pakistani border, waiting for a helicopter to rescue him, Soule’s squad leader leaned over him and instructed the young soldier to repeat over and over, “I’m going to live. I’m going to live.” It’s a lesson he carried with him, down the Salmon River and beyond.

The Pentagon has recently begun testing more experimental methods, rehabilitating wounded service members with extreme sports designed to build muscleand self-confidence. Early next year the Center for the Intrepid, a privately funded $45 million rehab facility featuring rock-climbing walls and an indoor surfing tank, will open on the grounds at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, offering lifelong privileges to those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. At BAMC, wounded soldiers are encouraged to get moving as soon as possible, a strategy that promotes independence and wards off depression. Learning to accept their disfigured bodies is “an immense emotional challenge,” says Dan Blescini, a psychiatric nurse at BAMC. “They want to know ‘Am I a man? Is someone going to love me?’ This isn’t exactly the stuff you expect the Army to talk about, but this is what’s on everyone’s mind.”


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