New facility is caring for war’s worst wounded

Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Marine Sgt. Jordan Pierson, who lost his left leg to a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, had a request for the therapists at the Naval Medical Center here. He wanted a prosthetic leg that would let him play golf like he did before his injury.

“I’m huge into golf,” he said Friday. “So they made me an ankle that will allow me to follow through.”

Pierson, 23, is one of the first group of amputees to receive treatment at the hospital’s newly finished facility for the most severely injured military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan, including amputees. Thirty amputees are receiving care there, with more expected to arrive soon.

The 30,000-square-foot facility cost $4.4 million to build, and about that much to outfit and staff.

The formal grand opening, to be attended by admirals and Marine generals, is set for Monday. But reporters were allowed to tour the facility Friday and meet some of the therapists and outpatients.


Among the patients was Marine Lance Cpl. Brandon Mendez of Santa Ana, who lost his left arm below the elbow to a suicide car bomb in Saqlawiya in Iraq’s Anbar province. Now he’s learning skills to help him regain his independence -- everyday skills like cooking.

Mendez, 20, is also waiting to get a special attachment for his artificial arm so it can be fitted with a boxing glove. “I can’t wait to get back into the ring,” he said.

The goal of the Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care (C-5) facility is to allow wounded service members from the West Coast to be closer to their families during what otherwise could be months of separation while they underwent treatment and rehabilitation at military hospitals in Texas, Maryland or Washington, D.C.

The Naval Medical Center upgrade and the $50-million rehabilitation center that opened this year at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio are part of the military’s effort to assist a larger number of grievously wounded patients than were anticipated when President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

In some cases, patients are able to be brought directly to San Diego from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the U.S. military’s hospital where the Iraq wounded are taken, rather than spending months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio or Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the military’s two other amputee centers.

Rear Adm. Christine S. Hunter, commander of the Naval Medical Center San Diego, said the new facility is meant to be “at the forefront of wounded warrior care.”

Included at the facility are a 3,500-square-foot obstacle course, a 30-foot-high climbing wall and a technologically advanced training apartment.

The apartment, including kitchen, bedroom, living room and bathroom, allows patients, including amputees, to learn to navigate a living space with reduced mobility. On Friday, Mendez was baking cookies using his artificial arm, adorned with a Marine Corps decal.

The new facility includes therapy rooms for sessions with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The ethos of the C-5 center is twofold: include patients’ families in the recovery process and treat patients as athletes who have suffered injuries but are still capable of achievement.

“Without the people here, I don’t know where my husband would be in terms of his recovery,” said Sarah Martinez.

Army Spc. Saul Martinez, 22, whose legs were severed by a roadside bomb in Diyala province north of Baghdad, likes to climb the 30-foot wall, while doctors watch and marvel at his recovery. His wife appreciates the chance to talk to spouses of other patients.

“That helps sometimes better than talking to counselors, who are good but they haven’t been through an explosion so they really don’t know,” she said.

Army Maj. Brian Belnap, a doctor who transferred to the Naval Medical Center from Walter Reed, said one strategy with amputees is to get them physically active as soon as possible. The center has organized ski trips, a surfing clinic and river rafting expeditions.

“Some guys get here and they think their life is over,” said Belnap. “We try to dispel that notion. We tell them, ‘If you were a skier before your injury, you’re going to ski again.’ ”

The hospital, the busiest in the U.S. military system, has also added staff, including its first full-time prosthetist, an expert in making artificial legs and arms and in guiding patients on their use. A computerized “gait-training” center will help patients fitted with prosthetics gauge their walk.

Amputations are one of the signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan. With improvements in personal protective gear and battlefield trauma medicine, many soldiers, Marines and sailors who might otherwise have died are surviving but with limbs lost.

One study shows that 2.5% of battlefield injuries result in amputations.

Most of the outpatients at the new facility are living in military housing. For unmarried service members, a barracks adjacent to the hospital is available; the hospital plans to increase the number of such rooms.

The new center is opening at a key time. In the next three months, 11,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton are set to return to Iraq.