The return to service of amputees
In the blur of smoke and blood after a bomb blew up under his Humvee in Iraq, Sgt. Tawan Williamson looked down at his shredded leg and knew it couldn't be saved. His military career, though, pulled through.This is something of a throwback to the days when sailors on wooden ships continued to serve with peg legs and eye patches to compensate for injuries in combat on the wooden world of the ships of that day. British Adm. Nelson was a good example. We may not be at the stage of the "Six Million Dollar Man" who can do things better than those who have not been injured, but we are not for away. There was a recent controversy about a sprinter with two artificial legs who was competing head to head with other races and people were concerned that he had a competitive advantage with his high tech prosthesis.
Less than a year after the attack, Williamson is running again with a high-tech prosthetic leg and plans to take up a new assignment, probably by the fall, as an Army job counselor and affirmative action officer in Okinawa, Japan.
In an about-face by the Pentagon, the military is putting many more amputees back on active duty — even back into combat, in some cases.
Williamson, a 30-year-old Chicago native who is missing his left leg below the knee and three toes on the other foot, acknowledged that some will be skeptical of a maimed soldier back in uniform.
"But I let my job show for itself," he said. "At this point, I'm done proving. I just get out there and do it."
Previously, a soldier who lost a limb almost automatically received a quick discharge, a disability check and an appointment with the VA.
But since the start of the Iraq war, the military has begun holding on to amputees, treating them in rehab programs like the one here at Fort Sam Houston and promising to help them return to active duty if that is what they want.
"The mind-set of our Army has changed, to the extent that we realize the importance of all our soldiers and what they can contribute to our Army. Someone who loses a limb is still a very valuable asset," said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesman for the Army's Human Resources Command at the Pentagon.
Also, just as advances in battlefield medicine have boosted survival rates among the wounded, better prosthetics and treatment regimens have improved amputees' ability to regain mobility.
So far, the Army has treated nearly 600 service members who have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan without an arm, leg, hand or foot. Thirty-one have gone back to active duty, and no one who asked to remain in the service has been discharged, Arata said.
Most of those who return to active duty are assigned to instructor or desk jobs away from combat. Only a few — the Army doesn't keep track of exactly how many — have returned to the war zone, and only at their insistence, Arata said.
To go back into the war zone, they have to prove they can do the job without putting themselves or others at risk.
One amputee who returned to combat in Iraq, Maj. David Rozelle, is now helping design the amputee program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He has counted seven other amputees who have lost at least part of a hand or foot and have gone back to combat.