Injured in Iraq, Sergeant Sets Sights on Paralympics, Duty
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2004 Army Sgt. Brian Wilhelm was near Balad, Iraq, on a logistics mission in early October 2003 when his unit was ambushed by "a fairly large element" and engaged in a 31-minute firefight. He was struck by a rocket- propelled grenade through the lower left leg. The unit returned fire for about 31 minutes before Wilhelm was medically evacuated.
He spent a couple of days at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before being transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. He said he's had lots of support from his family, which includes his wife, also in the Army, and his 13-month-old daughter, born just before he was injured.
The RPG hit tore out his calf muscle and caused multiple fractures to the tibia and fibula. While repairing the leg was possible, Wilhelm said he didn't want to wait and hope that surgery would get him moving normally again. He ultimately made the decision to have the leg amputated.
"I felt I could recover faster as an amputee and be able to move on with life more normally as an amputee than I would have been by trying to kinda feel bad for myself and hope maybe a miracle surgery would do it," he said. "I knew (amputation) would work for sure and went with that."
The attitude of making the best out of every situation is part of being a soldier, he said. You can feel bad for yourself and let your surroundings dictate your attitude, or you can take control of your situation and turn it into a positive.
Wilhelm, an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, out of Fort Carson, Colo., would like to do just that. He hopes to remain on active duty as an infantryman and even get back to leading soldiers in Iraq eventually.
This, he thinks, is completely possible. He is competitive physically: meeting Army fitness standards, running two miles in just over 14 minutes, completing a five-mile run in less than 40 minutes, and completing road marches.
"I've done everything I need to do to remain an infantryman. I've surpassed (the standards)," he said. "They say it's just down to the last little bit -- for people in the right places to realize what I've done and how I've done it."
Wilhelm also is looking to early summer 2005, when he hopes to head to Fort Lewis, Wash., with the Army's World Class Athlete Program to start training for the 2008 Paralympics. In this endeavor, he is in good company.
Fellow servicemember Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Casey Tibbs, the first active- duty Paralympian, took the silver medal in pentathlon and the gold in the men's 4x100-meter relay at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
Wilhelm's decision to take the sports path was influenced by seeing other amputees succeed, but also by his desire to lead by example.
"I'd seen what other amputees, not necessarily all military but amputees in general, have been able to do, how they've recovered, the impact they were able to make for other amputees," Wilhelm said. "I also figured being a noncommissioned officer, a leader, it's my job to do what I can to help those below me.
"I feel that as an amputee, if I'm put into a position where I can go compete for the U.S. in international games of that nature, then I can also help the morale of other amputees and show what they can do. And I'll have the opportunity to talk to other troops out here at Walter Reed and stuff and actually help them realize how much more there is out there in life and that a minute injury isn't the end of everything."
It didn't hurt his decision when one coach told Wilhelm that he really felt the infantryman had potential and offered to do whatever he could to help him. The coach suggested the pentathlon would be a good fit for the soldier.
He's already working toward his goal. "I've been running. I run pretty much every day," Wilhelm said. "But my biggest thrill is to surpass the able-bodied people when they're running, just go cruising right on by them."