Great Attitude Carries Double Amputee Through Recovery
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 18, 2005 If Kevin Pannell doesn't answer his cell phone, you'll get the message, "You've reached the coolest amputee in the world."
Army Spc. Kevin Pannell, a double amputee from Iraq, and his wife, Amanda, and son, Hunter, pose for a picture during a visit to the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Kevin and Amanda Pannell
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Ask for his e-mail address and he'll say, "Brokendownyoung."
"He signs his e-mail messages 'Kevin "Stumpy" Pannell,'" his wife, Amanda, said with a hearty laugh.
The 26-year-old Arkansas Army National Guard specialist who lost both of his legs and was nearly killed by two hand grenades in a narrow alley in Baghdad, Iraq, prides himself on maintaining his good attitude.
Instead of being bitter, Pannell is upbeat, self-confident and fun-loving. He said he's just happy to be alive and even jokes about having eight pairs of legs.
"I can change legs any time I want to," he said with a chuckle. "I've always been a positive, good-natured guy, but I am even more so now. I'm not under any illusions that I shouldn't be here with all the things there were wrong with me and all the injuries, blood loss and infections. There's a reason I'm still sticking around. You've only got one life, so live it up."
Pannell's trek to Iraq started when he joined the National Guard in 1996, while a junior in high school. He wanted to be an infantryman. "I thought it looked really cool to do," said Pannell. "I was young and naïve, but I'm glad I joined."
He served an active-duty stint in Kuwait for five months in 1999-2000 then was called to active duty again in September 2003. "We went to Fort Hood (Texas, for training) on Halloween and trained through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve. We got into Iraq on April 1, April Fool's Day, and I was hit on June 13 -- which was Friday the 13th -- and I got my legs amputated on Father's Day."
A member of the Arkansas Army National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade, Pannell's company was attached to the 1st Cavalry Division.
"We were out on foot patrol through northern Baghdad when I got hit," he said. The patrol had turned down an alley when Pannel heard two "clinks" behind him. He said the sounds were grenades landing at his feet.
"I turned around and started to yell, 'Grenade!' but somebody else beat me to it," he said. "By the time I got 'gre' out of my mouth, one of them had rolled up between my feet and went off. Then another one went off beside me."
Insurgents threw the two grenades at Pannell and three of his comrades in the 12-man patrol in the part of Baghdad the soldiers called "Little Fallujah."
"Two of them took shrapnel to the legs, but nothing really serious -- just a couple of days in the U.S. hospital in Baghdad," Pannell noted. "I was the most seriously injured."
One of the grenades rolled against Pannell's right foot and exploded, knocking him down and ripping his legs apart. "I almost had a traumatic amputation of my right leg, but it was still attached," Pannell said. "My left leg was still attached, but both of them were really messed up."
One of his buddies tied tourniquets on his legs and right arm to help stop blood loss, but estimates are that he left about six pints of blood in that narrow alley, which equates to more than half the amount of blood in an adult's body. He was taken in a Humvee to the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad's "Green Zone."
The next two days saw him transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where his wife and parents arrived shortly after he did.
His wife, mother, father and brother paced the floor at Walter Reed while surgeons amputated his left leg above the knee and the right leg below the knee.
"When he came from under sedation, he asked his mom, 'How bad am I?" Amanda said. "The doctor told him the bad news, and he closed his eyes for a second, opened them and said, 'I can live with that.'"
Pannell said he is thankful that he was wearing a Kevlar helmet and flak vest reinforced with steel plates. "Never leave home without it," he quipped. He credits the protective gear with saving his life. "When I lift my arms up, you can see the outline of the vest on my right side -- it definitely saved me," he said, adding that he has been through 15 surgeries at Walter Reed.
Today Pannell has eight prosthetic legs; among them are legs specifically suited for swimming, a set with conventional knees, and a set of C-legs -- computerized artificial limbs -- as well as limbs with running legs and running feet. "I can change legs anytime I want to," he said.
Speaking at recent landmines survivors' convention, Pannell told the audience that disabilities are a state of mind. He said he had just watched the movie, "Warm Springs," which centers on a pivotal time in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's life. "In FDR's day, if you were in a wheelchair you weren't even taken seriously," Pannell said. "We should be grateful for all the disabled people years ago who helped raise the awareness of disabled people today."
Pannell is a certified member of the Amputee Coalition of America, which seeks to "reach out to people with limb loss and to empower them through education, support and advocacy." The certification means he can go to any hospital in the nation and speak to any amputee and other severely injured people.
When he visits Walter Reed, he tries to encourage new amputees. "A lot of people have misgivings about their condition," Pannell said. "You'd be surprised how many amputees don't know anything about the prosthetics they're going to get. So I like to take my extra legs with me and show them some of the stuff they can get."
Since he's both an above-the-knee and below-the-knee amputee, Pannell said, he can relate to other amputees with either condition. "An above-the-knee amputee might have trouble relating to what a below-the-knee amputee is going to go through and vice versa," he noted. "When I was learning to walk with my prosthesis on the parallel bars, a fellow 'AK/BK' amputee told me, 'You know, until I saw you do that, I never thought I'd be able to stand up again.'"
Pannell said new amputees are usually in a lot of pain when he first meets them. "When they finally get over their pain, ... I tell them to get out as much as possible," he said. "The more you keep yourself in that bed, the worse off you're going to be."
A certified plumber, Pannell said he had contemplated opening his own utility business after his active-duty service. Losing both legs changed his plan. Now he plans to earn a college degree in public speaking and creative writing and become a writer and motivational speaker. He said he wants to work with athletes with disabilities and help provide wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs to people in developing countries.
"Just because you lose a limb, or two, you don't lose your life. You gain a lot, really. I've gained more than I've lost with these two legs. I've got a complete new appreciation for life," he said.
"I'm so proud of him, and I'm glad that he hasn't let it get him down," Amanda said.
She said losing his legs changed her husband. "He wants to help more people now and wants to live life to the fullest and go out and do everything, so he's kayaking, snow skiing, snow boarding, and has ridden a hand-crank bike in a 26-mile marathon," she said. "He wants to help other disabled people in sports."
DoD Reserve Affairs Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Holland said Pannell is "a great spokesman for the great work that's going on in Iraq helping the Iraqi people."
"The rehabilitation people at Walter Reed use him as an example of what amputees can achieve," Holland said. "Every time I talk to him, he's usually in the rehab room with someone trying to encourage and motivate them."
Pannell said he'd like to call attention to the fact that blood donations are needed by the Armed Services Blood Program nationwide and locally at the Pentagon, National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Walter Reed.
"During my recovery time, I myself used 41 whole-blood units and eight units of platelets," he said. "Our men and women are still returning home wounded and need our care and support."