MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection," where this week we are on the move. So let's see, we've already done some late presidential road-tripping, some scientific strolling and in just a few minutes we're gonna do some skateboarding. First though, we're gonna meet some people who are working hard to regain their stride. They're injured soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. Emily Kopp stopped by the Amputee Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda to see what it's like to learn how to walk, and even run, after a devastating injury on the battlefield.
MS. EMILY KOPP
It's like your local health club, deep in the bowels of Walter Reed. There are treadmills, a climbing wall, reclining bikes and an indoor track that Staff Sgt. Christopher Ryan Walker says is just a bit different.
STAFF SGT. CHRISTOPHER RYAN WALKER
When you see the hangers hanging over there, where people put on the harness and you can actually walk without the fear of falling and stuff when you first start out, which is a big deal, especially when you don't have hands to catch yourself.
Amputees come here to meet their therapists and work up a sweat. They've got goals big and small.
I really want to get back to X-Box. I love sports, college football, of course, Florida Gators, that's my team.
Out of privacy concerns Walter Reed asked that we not reveal this soldier's name.
CAPT. ERIK JOHNSON
Pull, pull, pull, pull, pull. All right. We're gonna push a little bit more.
As he arm wrestles his therapist and his fiance listens in, he says there's another reason why the swelling in his reconstructed left hand has to subside.
I want to be able to wear my wedding ring. So I gotta get that thing down.
So he submits to something his therapist, Erik Johnson, calls torture tape. That means taping down every knuckle into a tight fist.
You're doing good. I know. That's the last one, that's the last one. Just hold what you got, hold what you got. Zero out of ten, what would you say?
Just remember 10 probably was when you got your legs blown off. So …
That's what I tell him.
At any given time, about 150 soldiers get this type of tough love at Walter Reed. Before the center opened, military hospitals usually performed the necessary surgeries, then sent the patients home. Major David Rozelle says that didn't work so well.
MAJ. DAVID ROSELLE
And then we're supposed to be taken care of, I guess, by our mothers in this 1950's system that was set up by the Veteran's Administration. I didn't want any part of that. So I went back to my unit, recovered at my unit, and then went back to war. While I was at war things were developing in D.C., the perfect storm with BRAC and everything else, to build this Amputee Center.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill saw injured soldiers weren't dying of these wounds. Researchers create a prosthetic that let amputees do things that had been impossible, like walking backwards. And a soft-spoken sports therapist, who saw amputees as no different than athletes, became the center's director, Chuck Scoville.
DR. CHARLES SCOVILLE
When I first come in we do a lot of the core strengthening, the balance-type drills. We get them into their prosthetic devices, starting them with walking. We do throwing a football around, throwing a Frisbee around, doing kind of rope pulls, things you'd see other professional athletes do in a sports facility.
Lose your leg below the knee? Scoville says treat it like an ankle sprain. Above the knee? It's just like an ACL injury, tough, but Scoville says it's all to get the patients where they want to be.
Our goal is when they leave they can do everything they want to do. For some of them that's summiting Mt. McKinley or summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. For over 300 it's been returning to active duty, doing what they did before they got injured there. Some of them, it's going out, starting their own businesses. Some have recently competed in the Paralympics.
Many amputees, though, want nothing more than their independence. Christopher Ryan Walker lost both arms and a leg in Afghanistan. He considers getting dressed by himself one of his first big achievements.
Shirts weren't too kind at first 'cause you kinda get lost in the shirt, but I've gotten it down now like just as if I had hands. I just put my arms through it and throw it over now. It's a little different taking it off. I've got to like bit it and pull it up and flip it over, but it's pretty easy. Like, pants, it's like a big routine. You gotta sit up, sit down, like lean against the wall to do this. And it's just work-arounds for everything.
He's not complaining. He says that's hard to do here.
Oh, yeah, because then you can see other people doing stuff. Instead of being like, well, I can't do that because I don't have arms. It's like, oh, that guy's doing it. I can do it.
That is something David Rozelle says amputees can't find elsewhere.
I guess it was two years ago now, I remember walking outside and listening to one Marine in a wheelchair with missing both legs above the knee, talking to another Marine in a wheelchair missing both legs above the knee, telling him to quit complaining and to get serious about his rehab. If he wanted to go back and fight with other Marines, he needed to get his head in the game and get ready for that.
About a quarter of the patients here eventually return to active duty. The rest move on. To prepare them for a life in a world of narrow grocery aisles, stairs and public restrooms, therapists lead tours of Trader Joes and other places in Bethesda. You may see them around town. I'm Emily Kopp.
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