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Rehab Means Amputees Lives Can Go On

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2005 – Servicemembers who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan often are awestruck and spellbound when they visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center's physical therapy rehabilitation center here and see other amputees jumping, running, biking, swimming and ambling around on high-tech prosthetic legs.

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After hard rehab work that starts at places like Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, wounded servicemembers enjoy real-world sports activities. Here, Army Sgt. Adam Replogle prepares to hit the slopes in Vail, Colo., on a monoski during an "America Supports You" event sponsored by Vail Resorts in February. Replogle was wounded in the war on terror. Photo by Brian Natwick

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"These guys are coming down from their wards in their PJs, and decide that they can't feel sorry for themselves any more because they see that hard work will end up becoming good success," said Army Lt. Col. Barbara A. Springer, chief and research coordinator for Walter Reed's physical therapy service in the orthopedics and rehabilitation department.

Many wounded men and women initially visit the rehab center thinking amputation is an ugly word meaning a lifetime of restrictions and dependence upon others to get around. Watching other amputees work out shows them that the life they knew before losing their limbs isn't over. But to be successful takes a long and painful struggle, with hours of grueling rehab, starting with learning to walk, and then learning to run and swim, with the prosthetics.

Springer said sometimes when patients who have lost an arm, a leg, or, maybe both legs, are asked to participate in a sport, their initial reaction is, "I can't do that!"

"But they get encouragement when amputees who have been skiing, for example, come back and say, 'You can do it. They train you and they have excellent instructors,'" the colonel said.

Amputees don't have to stand up on their prosthesis to ski. Springer said they can either ski with one leg, with outriggers on their ski poles, or they can sit in a monoski. "They even have blind skiers out there," she noted.

Springer said participating in sports gives the amputees a feeling that they can be more normal and feel like they're able to participate in life and have a better quality of life. "It also helps build their self-esteem and self-efficacy for all activities," she said. "Just learning how to do one activity gives them inspiration to try other activities. It gives them that hope that they can do it."

Sports provides the amputees with other benefits too, Springer said. The rehabilitation helps to keep them strong and healthy. "It also helps them mentally and gets them out into society doing things with everybody else," she said. "It integrates them into the community again."

She said those who have just lost a limb could get a prosthesis within three weeks and get pretty good at walking on it in about one to two months.

"We encourage family members to come in -- kids, parents, spouses -- because that also gives the patients some support systems to be there with them and to encourage them," Springer said. "You want to have someone watching you when you get up and walk for the first time and taking video and pictures. They get so excited, and in the whole room you can feel the excitement in the air when they're getting up and doing these great things.

"Plus, the family members want to be part of it," she noted. "It wouldn't be good if they were left out."

Springer said the good thing about being out in a big open room is that all the patients, especially the brand new in-patients, can see other people in different stages of recovery, and their family members can see that as well. That gives them hope. And it gives them a goal: "If he can do it, I can do it."

She said Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Project provides basic expenses, including airfare, lodging, ground transportation, adaptive equipment, instructors and meals, for disabled soldiers to participate in outrigger canoeing, cycling, golf, fishing, water skiing, snow skiing, snowboarding, track and field kayaking and adventure sports. Future events include shooting, basketball and rock climbing.

Playing sports has been Army Staff Sgt. Hilbert E. Caesar's passion most of his life, including shooting a few hoops and weightlifting. But he thought the fun and good times on the basketball court and pumping iron in the gym ended on April 18, 2004, when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq and he lost his right leg.

Arriving at Walter Reed on April 27, Caesar went through several surgeries and was later fitted with a prosthesis. The 27-year-old former Army artilleryman was initially in awe when he visited the hospital's physical therapy center. He watched in amazement as his fellow amputees were climbing steps, walking up and down inclines, riding exercise bikes, using various exercise equipment and doing all kinds of things two-legged people do.

Then someone asked him if he'd like to go skiing with some of the other amputees. "I used to watch people on sports programs skiing with two legs and I said, 'With one leg? No way!'" Caesar exclaimed.

But he changed his mind after being told that not only do amputees snow ski, they go downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, water skiing, kayaking and striped bass fishing. They also participate in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and shooting sports. Swimming is part of their regular rehabilitation training.

"When I first came in here, it seemed impossible to do some of these things," said Caesar, who went to Iraq in May 2003 with the 27th Field Artillery, 1st Armored Division, from Baumholder, Germany. "But when I went skiing, I did pretty well. I amazed myself. It boosts your confidence."

Medically retired on Jan. 29, 2005, Caesar is living in the Mologne House hotel on the Walter Reed campus while being treated as an outpatient. "When I went on a ski trip with these guys, it was like brothers in arms," he said. "It felt like a family again, going out having fun with these guys -- falling down -- just having a good time. It boosts your morale and makes you feel appreciated again, especially by these disabled sports organizations and everyone else that helped put this program together."

Army Pfc. Oscar Olguin, 19, thought his sports days were over after losing his right leg in a suicide car-bomb attack in Iraq on Oct. 13, 2004.

Arriving at Walter Reed on Oct. 20, the 3rd Infantry Division soldier went through surgeries and was later fitted with a prosthetic leg. "I had to learn how to walk, and was told that I would also be able to go skiing, kayaking and participate in other sports," Olguin said. "At first, I wasn't too open to doing sports. I asked them, 'How am I going to do this when I've only got one leg?' But it was a real experience. They've got outriggers and other equipment we can use with our prosthesis or with one leg."

Olguin said going skiing "made everything seem a lot better because now. I know I can do stuff. And I'm a lot more confident in the things I can do. I know I can play basketball, dance and a lot of the things I did before."

Noting that the amputee sports program has been around for a long time, Springer said, "Now, with this new breed of veterans, it has just taken off and gone running."

She said she has experienced many touching moments with the amputees. "Some of the most heartwarming remarks that are consistent are that they want to get better and get back with their unit." Springer noted. "They want to get back to Iraq, because they feel like they're needed over there. To me, that's just so patriotic. Some want to stay in the service, but it's OK if they don't. There are some who are going to try to stay in, and they're not doing it for the money. They're doing it because of their patriotism. That really warms my heart."

Springer said she also finds it gratifying when she sees amputees struggling at the beginning of the week and then showing a lot of progress by the end of the week. "We have triple amputees, and they're just heartwarming because when they first get up and walk for the first time -- that's just amazing, fantastic and exciting," Springer said.

Springer said she always is concerned about her staff getting burned out, because she said working with the patients "is pretty traumatic."

"I ask them how they're doing, and do they want to switch jobs, and they go, 'No!'" the colonel said. "They feel bad because of what these people have been through, and they also feel very honored to work with this patient population."

Many veterans in the Walter Reed sports program are slated to participate in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village and Aspen, Colo., from April 3 to April 8. More than 400 veterans from across the country, including 71 who recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq, will be competing. The oldest competitor fought in World War II. The Department of Veterans Affairs, Disabled American Veterans and others sponsor the annual games.

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