Patient Employs Good Humor in Recovering From Wounds in Iraq
By Jamie Reese
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 26, 2003 Army Spc. Brian Wilhelm has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here since Oct. 11, exactly six months from the time his unit crossed into Iraq. His lower left leg was amputated as a result of being severely wounded in Iraq.
Wilhelm is assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Fort Carson, Colo. He has served for 3 ½ years, a combined Army National Guard and active duty time.
Wilhelm was wounded Oct. 7 by a rocket-propelled grenade during a 30-minute firefight with Iraqi forces. Wilhelm was transported to the 21st Combat Support Hospital in Balad, Iraq, before being taken to Baghdad and then to Germany. He was then transported to Walter Reed, which according to spokesman Bill Swisher, receives about 50 casualties a week.
At the center, Wilhelm works every day with Spc. Harvey Naranjo, an occupational therapy assistant. Wilhelm is one of about 10 patients Naranjo sees each day. During an interview, Wilhelm and Naranjo shared their stories on the friendship they've formed while maintaining their therapist-patient relationship.
Army Spcs. Brian Wilhelm, left, and Harvey Naranjo, an occupational therapy assistant, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Wilhelm has been a patient there since Oct. 11, after being wounded in Iraq. Photo by Jamie Reese.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The thought of losing his leg "was something that occurred to me on the spot, but everyone along the way kept thinking that I would be able to keep it," Wilhelm said. In the end, he explained, "I told them that I wanted to get rid of the leg and get on with life."
Stopping in mid-sentence, Wilhelm displayed a picture of his 3-month-old daughter, Allison Michelle. "This is why I got my leg cut off," he said. "The doctors told me that they could do surgeries for two or three years, transplanting muscles from here to there. But in a couple of years I want to be able to play with my daughter."
Naranjo, who'll be assigned to Walter Reed until September 2004, said, "I have to try and motivate a lot of guys, especially at the beginning. They go through stages of anger and then acceptance."
"Not me," Wilhelm interrupted.
"Well," Naranjo continued, " everybody is different, but with most of them it is hard to get started. Once they see the pictures and they see the other guys around, you can't keep them down."
"He's awesome," Naranjo said, referring to Wilhelm. He explained how he "tries to engage Wilhelm in conversation about how here at Walter Reed it is one thing, but at home, friends that he had may not react to things as well as he has. I try to explain that other people may be a bit more 'stand-offish.' But he keeps such a positive attitude. He deals with it all through his sense of humor."
"I have a good sense of humor, but I also like to stay in touch with reality at the same time," Wilhelm said. "It depends on the day."
Both he and Naranjo encounter different attitudes from people daily.
"I go through a sense of guilt sometimes," Naranjo began, "At the end of my day, I'm not worried about anyone shooting me with an RPG. That's why I never complain. I've worked early mornings, late nights and weekends since I got here."
He said he goes above and beyond because he's aware of the situations that others are faced with. He added that his friends back home don't quite understand. They tell him "the war is over."
"I'm dealing with the effects of war every day here, so I don't like the comments, but I can't place blame (them), because they just don't understand," Naranjo said.
Wilhelm offered his view of Walter Reed: "It's an indescribable place and there are indescribable situations that occur as a result."
He sat down and continued to adjust his prosthesis. "You know, yesterday I spent the whole morning in therapy just trying to get my leg on because it was swelling up so much," Wilhelm said. "It felt like a glove in the afternoon, but it is way too tight today."
Instead of getting frustrated with the struggle to get a good fit, Wilhelm said, "If I don't put every ounce of energy that I can emotionally and physically to try and recover, I'll suffer that much longer."
"The more I put into it, the more I get back," he added.
The short-term goal for Wilhelm is to get back to his unit. "I'd like to go back to Iraq, but that's not going to happen because they start clearing in January and then to Kuwait before coming back to Fort Carson, so I won't even be able to go back with them," he said.
Looking ahead five years, Wilhelm said that he hopes to be finishing college. "I want to be able to make an effect on people's lives," he pointed out. "After working with the people I've gotten to work with, I'm seriously thinking that I'd like to go to school for engineering or do some hands on work with prosthetics."
"It's amazing the things they are able to come up with," he continued, "and I'm the guy who can recommend some even better ideas on how to improve what we already have."
"Worse things have happened to better people over lesser causes," he commented as he worked to adjust his leg and device, "and I think it would be a really good thing to give back a little of what I've learned."
Not missing a beat, he then turned to Naranjo and asked if he'd like to talk about how he beat him wrestling. "I let you," Naranjo said quickly, "I didn't want to hurt you."
Laughter echoed around the table as Wilhelm continued to razz Naranjo. In return, Naranjo tried hard to keep Wilhelm focused by noting that the patients have therapy for an hour a day.
So other than "wrestling" and therapy, Wilhelm said, "I honestly don't know what I do all day, but it takes me all day to do it."
"Humor is a good thing," Naranjo responded between the laughter.
During the interview, Wilhelm spoke solemnly about the Oct. 7 attack, spoke proudly of the presidential coin that he received, bragged about his family, and kept everyone laughing.
Naranjo, tried to keep him on track, stayed patient and expressed the passion he has for his job and for his patients.
Wilhelm was leaving for the Thanksgiving holidays to go home to Fort Carson to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the families of the soldiers who are still in Iraq. "I just want to help my buddies out so they know their wives aren't going to McDonald's for Thanksgiving dinner," he said.
Naranjo turned the discussion back to the task at hand one last time. "It's definitely a mentality," he said about physical therapy, adding it's "90 percent psych and 10 percent rehab, because it has to be up to the mentality and the goals of the patient."
Wilhelm pointed to his head and to his heart and said, "It's all right here."
(Jamie Reese writes for DefendAmerica.mil.)