Injured soldiers look for peace of mind

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His war wounds were mainly hidden. Then he walked. He moved with a young man’s limp, like he was shrugging off the damage and pain from a roadside bomb attack in Iraq more than two years ago that destroyed his left knee.

Copas, 25, is part of Fort Richardson’s Warrior Transition Battalion, which helps injured soldiers heal and recover, so that they can return to active duty or prepare for life outside the military.

On Sunday, the unit’s soldiers and their families were invited to a day on Finger Lake in Wasilla put together by Challenge Alaska — which helps people with disabilities enjoy sports and recreation — and the Palmer Elks Lodge.

One of the Elks involved with helping wounded warriors the last couple of years is Tony Shelton of Wasilla.

"My connection got real heavy when I lost my son in ’07, in January," Shelton said. "He was a medic in the Army and he took a round in the neck. He died over there." His stepson was Now Shelton tries to make life better for the injured soldiers who make it back.

More than a dozen came on Sunday, plus their families.

Copas, who had his knee replaced last year, eyed the Jet Skis, but opted instead to tool around the lake with a group in a pontoon boat. The pretty lake reminded him of a lake back home in Virginia where his family hangs out. There also was tubing and water skiing with special skis, including one the skier sat on and another designed for quadriplegics.

The soldiers now in the Fort Rich transition battalion all can walk, but some suffered serious wounds like damaged vertebrae and ruined joints. For some, the worst damage is emotional.

"Most of it is invisible. PTSD. Joint problems. Back problems. Behavioral health issues," said Jeff Dick, a therapeutic recreation coordinator with Challenge Alaska.

"This is the barrier," Dick said, pointing to his head. "The rest of it, we’ll figure it out."

 

A BLAST IN THE DARK

Wearing a Bob Marley shirt and sipping a Rock Star, Copas talked about his time in the Army and how he was injured.

He enlisted in 2005, right after his 22nd birthday. He wanted a way to provide for his infant son and to see the world. He was tired of being cooped up in the small Virginia town he grew up in. In basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, he was an honor grad. He went to airborne school and became a paratrooper.

"I wanted that maroon beret," he said, only half joking.

He ended up at Fort Richardson on April 1, 2006, part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. He deployed to Iraq that November.

The attack happened March 13, 2007, on the outskirts of Baghdad. It was night, darker than dark.

"We were out on a convoy mission. I knew it was a really, really dangerous road. It was infamous for people getting hurt," Copas said.

The mission: Recover a Humvee blown up earlier.

The convoy crawled along. The men were cautious. Some soldiers patrolled on foot, looking for roadside bombs.

Copas’s buddy was in the vehicle ahead. He was a gunner, like Copas, who manned a .50-caliber machine gun through the turret in the roof.

"His truck got hit first. Then I was getting out of the truck to, you know, assist him, or pull security for him, that’s when our truck got hit. And it flipped over a couple of times and blew me out of the turret and messed my knee up pretty bad."

The blast from the roadside bomb left a hole in the road 8 feet deep, 10 feet across. Shrapnel from the exploding Humvee hit his face, his leg. The vehicle burned up. His helmet flew off.

Insurgents probably activated the makeshift bomb remotely, Copas’s squad figured later.

A small-arms battle erupted. Copas’s hand was grazed by a bullet and another one cracked the armor plate protecting his back. He could do little to protect himself. His machine gun was in the burning Humvee and his M-4 was broken into pieces in the crash.

Five other Army trucks and a wrecker were part of the convoy. Some Iraqi Army soldiers were there, too, and helped the Americans fight back, Copas said.

No one was killed but others were badly hurt too. Copas’s friend ended up with metal rods in a leg and later, a "bionic man" tattoo.

For a couple of months after the attack, Copas operated radios and did other light-duty chores.

Then, he started back on patrol. He walked, sometimes 12 miles, hefting his machine gun. His knee still hurt but he didn’t want to stay behind.

"Just drive on with the mission," Copas said. "You look at it like if you didn’t go out on the mission and one of your friends dies or something, maybe you could have been there to help or maybe you could have prevented it."

The soldiers living and fighting together aren’t just a military unit, he said.

"When you’re in Iraq, the people you are with, you deploy with, you become a family. … You take care of everybody and everybody takes care of you and has your back. It’s just really important you watch your brother’s back over there."

 

HEADED HOME WITH NEW GOALSIt wasn’t until he got back to Alaska and had more sophisticated tests including MRIs that he realized how badly his knee was damaged. Lots of scar tissue. Cartilage ripped and gone. Bone chipped.

In February 2008, he got his knee replaced at the hospital on Elmendorf Air Force Base. The aftermath of surgery hurt far more than the original injury.

"I have a metal rod going up into my femur bone and part of my joint is, like, titanium," Copas said.

He likes to swim and used to love to play basketball and baseball, but can’t run and jump anymore. He’ll still shoot hoops but only plays half court.

He’s healing but not done with it. He lost friends in Iraq. He can’t sleep well. He has nightmares and flashbacks about the worst of it.

In a few weeks, he’ll be getting out of the Army. He’ll rejoin his wife and son, now 4, who are living in the small town in Virginia he left so long ago. His wife is going to be a teacher. He used to work construction and loved the feel of making something from wood.

He doesn’t think he can be a laborer anymore. The Army considers him 60 percent disabled, which means benefits for life including medical. Maybe he’ll be an inspector or maybe he’ll fulfill his dream and become an architect.

He’s leaving Alaska, a Purple Heart in his duffle bag. He’s looking ahead, not back.

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