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Injured in Iraq, a Soldier Reclaims His Independence

Armed ConflictsDisasters and AccidentsTransportation DisastersAir Transportation DisastersSportsDeathFamily

Bryan Anderson emerged from an elevator in the airport terminal here, a diminished figure in a wheelchair. Both legs were gone, and most of his left arm — all severed when a roadside bomb hidden in a curb demolished the Humvee he was driving in Baghdad last fall.

Anderson was never a big man — 5 feet 6, 125 pounds. Now he was down to 80 pounds, spare and wiry, as he rolled through the terminal in late May to begin a 10-day visit with the soldiers who were with him the day his life changed irrevocably.

Those men — who dragged him from the Humvee and stopped his bleeding Oct. 23 — would see more than a fragile young man in a wheelchair. They would see a stubborn survivor who had transformed their lives, and his own, in a way none of them could have imagined.

The young military policeman who had been confined to a hospital bed when he arrived on Ward 57, the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was now — seven months later — able to travel alone on a commercial flight.

He had been eager for the soldiers to see him walk off the plane but had injured the stump of his leg getting out of a car. So he was stuck in his wheelchair, feeling frustrated and marginalized.

As he rolled through a terminal exit, Anderson stopped suddenly. He strapped on his metal legs and struggled to his feet. He stood straight up, grimacing but triumphant, a cigarette dangling from his lips, as his friends rushed to embrace him.

"Hurt like hell," he said later. "But I had to show them I could do it."

A daily drumbeat of news reports tracks anonymous American soldiers and Marines wounded by improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Of the 18,700 troops wounded in the war, 57% have been hit by IEDs. On Oct. 23, the soldier injured in downtown Baghdad happened to be Bryan Thomas Anderson, a cheerful kid from suburban Chicago with a mother named Janet, a stepfather named Jim and a twin brother named Bobby.

Spc. Michael Wait was in a Humvee ahead of Anderson's when the bomb exploded. In a side mirror, he saw Anderson's Humvee crumple and burn as it careened into a curb.

Wait, a trained combat lifesaver, ran to the wreck but forgot his medical bag and weapon. He had to run back for them. "I kind of lost my mind, because I knew they were hit bad," he recalled.

Three soldiers escaped the Humvee, two of them wounded. Anderson was trapped inside the burning vehicle. He was stunned and in pain, choking on smoke. He remembers screaming: "I need air!"

Wait used an extraction tool to pry off the heavy Humvee door. He heard Anderson scream: "Help me!"

What Wait saw took his breath away: "I saw his legs were gone and his hand was missing and all the blood under the radio mount, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' "

Wait and another soldier dragged Anderson out. The fresh air seemed to revive him. Anderson remembers a calm and solitary thought: "My life is really going to change now." Wait applied tourniquets to both leg stumps, struggling to close off the femoral arteries. Another soldier tied a tourniquet around Anderson's left arm.

Later, surgeons at Baghdad's Combat Support Hospital said the tourniquets were the most effective they'd seen. Anderson would have bled to death in minutes without them, they said.

"He had three, almost four, arteries wide open, and he didn't go into shock," Wait said. "So I know God was there."

A medevac helicopter flew Anderson to the hospital a few miles away. Wait drove there and saw Anderson's shrunken, bloodied form pierced with medical tubes. He broke down and cried.

Sgt. Kevin Murray arrived with one of Anderson's severed legs, but surgeons told him reattaching the limb was impossible.

Anderson, 25, is among 432 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have undergone amputations. Seventy-three have lost two limbs. Anderson is the fourth to lose three.

With faster and better medical care, and improved body armor, soldiers who would have died in previous wars are surviving. More than 8,500 have been wounded so grievously that most of them will never return to duty, and the amputation rate in Iraq is nearly double that of previous wars.

In January, in the cafeteria at Walter Reed, Anderson was barely able to hold a can of Dr. Pepper in his injured right hand, bracing it against the stump of his left arm. His stepfather, Jim Waswo, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fed it to him. Waswo also had to help Anderson with the toilet and the shower.

But Anderson already was getting around on his own, negotiating crowded hospital corridors in his motorized wheelchair.

He spent mornings with Capt. Jon Verdoni, an occupational therapist, operating a computer program designed to train him to use residual muscles in his left upper arm to manipulate a prosthesis. Connected to sensors, he flexed the muscles to move a car icon through road barriers on a computer screen.

"Relax. Extend. Open. Flex. Close — good," Verdoni said.

Anderson visualized opening and closing an imaginary hand.

"I pretend that my hand is still there," he said. "I squeeze to close my hand and think about actually closing it. My muscle contracts, and it'll actually close the hand."

In a few months, Verdoni predicted, Anderson would be bilateral — able to use both hands for everyday tasks.

Anderson was also learning to walk. One day in early January, he eased himself for the first time onto a pair of short prosthetic legs known as "stubbies," training legs to prepare him for the full-length microprocessor-controlled legs.

There were scabs and scar tissue on Anderson's stumps, still sore and tender from the amputations. He wobbled as a prosthesis specialist, Michael Corcoran, helped him stand. Anderson muttered something.

"Don't get discouraged, Bryan," his stepfather said.

"I'm not," Anderson said. "I just don't know how to help him help me."

He struggled to balance on the stubbies, which raised him to the height of a grade-schooler. He took a step and grimaced in pain. He was unsteady, but still standing.

Corcoran was impressed. "To be up and standing in just six weeks — it's remarkable," he said.

Since then, Anderson has undergone punishing physical and occupational therapy six hours a day, five days a week, pushing himself beyond his pain threshold. From the moment he found himself confined to a hospital bed, he said, he was determined to use his arms and legs again — even if they weren't the ones he was born with.

His therapists say some amputees take weeks to overcome shock and depression before starting physical recovery. A few never recover. But Anderson's recovery began at once, they said, and progressed rapidly because of his relentless optimism and capacity for pain. He did not complain, for instance, when 3 more inches were cut from his left arm so that his prosthesis fit properly.

"They think it's amazing, but I think it's just me being me," Anderson said during a therapy break. "I came in here and saw all these soldiers who had been amputated and they're all recovering, and I thought, wow, I'll be able to do that too. Later in life you're not going to even be able to tell I have prosthetics."

Anderson, who says he's had about 20 surgeries, blames no one for his misfortune: "Sometimes I'm like, 'Man, why did this have to happen to me?' But then I'm like, 'Well, I'm alive, you know? I am alive.' "

He did not see his friends Murray and Wait again until late January, at a Ft. Hood ceremony upon the unit's return from Iraq. Anderson flew in with his parents and arrived in his wheelchair, in full uniform.

When he spotted Wait, Anderson pushed his wheelchair through a crowd to reach him. Anderson had received a Purple Heart from a commander, he told Wait, but it meant nothing to him unless the man who saved his life pinned it to his uniform.

Wait found himself crying again as he pinned the medal on his friend.

Anderson's mother, Janet Waswo, a credit union loan officer, and her husband, Jim, a carpenter, took leaves from their jobs to live with their son at Walter Reed. Janet tried to let him do as much as possible for himself in the cramped two-bed quarters the family shared.At first, they were sustained by what Janet calls "an adrenaline rush" when they learned their son had survived despite devastating injuries. That euphoria quickly faded, she said.

"Now it's, 'Oh my gosh, this is the rest of our lives. It's changed everything. It's big,' " she said. "He's going to need special care for the rest of his life."

She was certain of one thing: "He's not going to sit in a wheelchair the rest of his life, I'll tell you that."

Anderson's family and friends held a fundraiser to build a handicappedaccessible home for him near his parents in Rolling Meadows, Ill., raising $150,000, said his aunt, Carol Schar. The Waswo home is being modified as a temporary residence for Anderson, who is determined to complete his rehabilitation at Walter Reed by Christmas.

Jim Waswo joked with his stepson during therapy, trying to relax him. The focus of his life now, Waswo said, was helping Anderson keep his spirits up and become self-sufficient. "This isn't a sprint," he said. "It's a marathon."

The war in Iraq will be with the family forever, he said. He understands why American troops have to be in Iraq, but it pained him to be reminded, every day in Ward 57, of the price paid by his stepson and other amputees.

"I'm bitter, yeah," Waswo said. "But there's no time to be bitter or angry. I have to put all that aside and focus on Bryan."

Anderson does not dwell on what happened in Iraq. That was his previous life, he said. "Regardless if you have legs or not, you've got to be happy," Anderson said. "That's what life is all about — being happy."

At some point, he intends to work again, perhaps at American Airlines, where he was employed as a ground crew chief. He said the airline offered him a job training new employees.

Even if he had not been wounded, Anderson said, he would not have stayed in the Army when his enlistment expires in September.

"I hated it," he said. "It just wasn't for me…. I've seen vans with seven people in them with their legs just hanging off, body parts everywhere. And I don't need to see that anymore."

On most days, Anderson is optimistic and energetic. But he has slipped into depression a few times. After a bad week in January, he and his mother flew to Las Vegas for a brief vacation to cheer him up.

By early spring, he was comfortable with his prostheses, able to walk for considerable distances. He had mastered his prosthetic left hand. He cooks his own meals, takes showers on his own, lights his own cigarettes.

In April, he went skiing and rock climbing in Colorado, using a bucket-like device clamped to skis and a special rock-climbing harness. His hands bled from climbing and his prosthetic arm fell off at one point, he said, "but I did it, and that's what counts."

By late May, he was back at his unit's base at Ft. Hood, ready to continue the reclamation of his life.

The men of the 411th Military Police Company had known Anderson as high-spirited, energetic and driven. They were not surprised, from the moment he strapped on his legs at the airport, to see that he was still that same man.

"He's actually more upbeat now than he was before," said Sgt. Kenny Olson, 24, who helped rescue Anderson and was one of two other soldiers wounded in the attack.

During the soldiers' reunion in May, there were no regrets, no sorrow, no pity — just a celebration of Anderson's new life. The veterans razzed and teased one another. They guzzled beer, swapped stories and wolfed down cheeseburgers.

They took Anderson tubing on a lake, lifting him in and out of the tube. He drove a Jet Ski, supported by a friend sitting behind him. He played catch with a baseball for the first time since losing his limbs.

"I want to do everything I used to do," Anderson said, sunburned and sweating from a half-hour spin on the Jet Ski. He wore a T-shirt printed with the word "Stumpy." For his girlfriend, who would arrive the following week, he had brought a T-shirt that read "I'm With Stumpy."

When a fellow soldier complained that he could no longer raise his arm above his shoulder because of a bullet wound suffered in Iraq, Anderson shrugged. He raised both arms over his head — his good right arm and his prosthetic left arm.

The soldier laughed so hard he spit out his beer.

When an officer sought help lifting a barbecue grill by yelling, "Somebody give me a hand," Anderson silently waved his prosthetic left hand. His buddies loved it.

Murray, 22, the sergeant who recovered Anderson's leg inside the crushed Humvee, found comfort in watching his friend.

Wait, 23, the soldier who saved Anderson's life, said Anderson's Humvee was in Wait's usual spot in the convoy that day. "I feel it should've been me, and I don't think I could've handled it," Wait said. "I would've given up."

The first night of the reunion set the tone for the visit. Anderson was sipping on a beer, sitting stage-side in the VIP section as the guest of country singer Tracy Lawrence at a concert outside Ft. Hood. His fellow soldiers had arranged it, including renting a special handicapped-accessible van that Anderson had learned to drive.

They helped themselves to Lawrence's private stash of iced beer. The soldiers surrounded Anderson, whooping and hollering as huge speakers blasted Lawrence's down-home, patriotic elegies.

Anderson sat with carbon fiber amputee sockets exposed on each thigh. On one socket he had inscribed an epithet regarding the war in Iraq, on the other, "Freedom Isn't Free." On his right wrist he wore a bracelet his friends had given him, inscribed with the names of three unit soldiers killed in action.

Anderson drank and smoked, handling the bottles and cigarettes with his good right hand and a left hand prosthesis equipped with a hook-like grasping device. (He also has a lifelike, computerized "myoelectric" prosthesis modeled on the left hand of his twin brother; it matches Anderson's skin tone and includes hairs from his own right arm.)

His friends, eager for Anderson to assert his independence, were careful not to be overly solicitous. They fetched his beer, pushed his wheelchair over rough ground, and steadied it so that he could swing himself into a car seat or onto a sofa. But otherwise, they let him fend for himself.

At the concert, Anderson savored his time with his fellow soldiers. He had forgotten how much he missed being with them, he said. Murray promised that they'd be friends forever, living on the same street someday, telling war stories.

Between songs, Lawrence introduced Anderson to the crowd, thanking him for "the ultimate sacrifice." He dedicated a song to Anderson titled "If I Don't Make It Back," about a soldier killed in Iraq.

"It's probably going make you cry, Bryan," Lawrence said.

Anderson didn't cry, not even when strangers reached across a barricade to hug him and kiss him and thank him. When taps was sounded and the Stars and Stripes was illuminated by a yellow spotlight in the black Texas night, he appeared on the verge of tears, but he did not weep.

He saluted with his good right hand and cradled a beer with his new left hand. When taps was over, he raised his beer and let out a whoop, just another soldier-survivor back from Iraq, letting loose with his battle buddies.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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