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Face of Defense: Deployed Physical Therapists Keep Soldiers on Their Feet

By Army Spc. Rick Rzepka
Special to American Forces Press Service

TIKRIT, Iraq, May 29, 2008 – Many of the physical tolls professional athletes face are mirrored in professional soldiers. Pulled muscles, back pain, and sprains are just a few injuries soldiers face while conducting day-to-day operations in Iraq.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Staff Sgt. Gaither, physical therapy noncommissioned officer in charge with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, checks on a soldier with back pain at the combat support hospital at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Iraq. U.S. Army photo
  

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

Enter the Army physical therapist -- a mobile, hands-on medical professional who works with soldiers to alleviate their neuromusculoskeletal problems in the thick of the fight here.

“We see our guys on the line as professional athletes,” said Army Capt. Christine Iverson, a physical therapist with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.

Iverson, who has been an Army physical therapist since April 2006, earned a doctorate of physical therapy from Baylor University and has been helping Screaming Eagle soldiers reach their peak performance ever since.

She and her mobile physical therapy team have helped more than 2,500 soldiers get back on their feet since being deployed here in September.

The Bastogne physical therapy team handles an array of soldier’s injuries, from acute battle wounds to chronic orthopedic pain, Iverson said.

“You name it, we’re here to fix ‘em,” Iverson said.

“Physical therapy is not to be confused with massage therapy,” said Iverson, who describes her operation as a one-stop shop for relieving soldiers’ aches and pains.

The physical therapy team here specializes in joint mobilizations, manipulations and exercise therapies. They use sophisticated machines, modalities and braces to help debilitated warriors get back on their feet across the Salahuddin province.

Iverson said her team spends an average of 20 days a month traveling to forward operating bases here providing treatment and giving advice to soldiers on how to avoid injuries.

“As we are trying to do more with less, it becomes important for our line soldiers to get the best treatment we can give them,” she said. “We want them to leave here as better soldiers.”

A large portion of the cases Iverson’s team deals with concern back pain. As soldiers are being asked to carry a heavy burden here, they carry equally heavy loads on their backs.

Core strengthening is key to avoiding back issues, Iverson said. This entails building the muscle that acts as a weight belt underneath the superficial layers of muscle around your core, she said.

For many soldiers, the physical therapists here have been instrumental in helping them recover.

“It’s awesome because you don’t have to go through a whole deployment in pain,” said Army Spc. Thomas Heppler, who suffers from chronic back pain.

Heppler said he appreciates having a physical therapist at the brigade level instead of having to seek help elsewhere. “It makes it easier on me to have them here,” he said. “They make themselves real accessible.”

For Iverson, there is no better place for a physical therapist to be, than at the heart of the fight. “We belong down at the line units,” she said. “We owe them that.”

(Army Spc. Rick Rzepka serves with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, in Multinational Division North.)

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