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Pentagon Channel Documentary Checks up on Wounded Warriors

By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 7, 2007 – A new Pentagon Channel documentary, “Finding Their Way,” revisits wounded warriors further into their recovery to see how they are doing.

Medical advances used by critical care specialists on the front lines and in military hospitals have resulted in more troops surviving war injuries than at any point in history. From the end of World War II until the end of the 20th century, at least one out of every four service-members wounded on the battlefield died.

The Army-wide survival rate now averages 91 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to statistics provided by Fort Sam Houston, Texas. While vastly improved care has resulted in far fewer fatalities, it has also forced many servicemembers to face lives with missing limbs and other significant physical and emotional wounds that in past wars would have seemed insurmountable challenges.

Yet many of these wounded warriors are either returning to military service or living full lives in other professional capacities that inspire awe in fully able-bodied observers. In order to track the progress of some of these wounded warriors, the Pentagon Channel sent a crew to revisit troops viewers first met just home from war. The Pentagon Channel wanted to see how these wounded warriors are “Finding Their Way.”

“Two years ago, “Recon” visited military hospitals and talked with servicemembers severely wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Daniela Marchus, host of the documentary series. “They all had heart-rending stories to tell, yet most projected a remarkably positive attitude about their injuries and their futures,” she said. “We decided to see how some of them are doing in 2007.”

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jay Fondgren’s life changed forever in Iraq. He remembers the moment vividly. “The platter charge skipped off the road and came up through the bottom part of me and just took both legs off,” he said. “There’s days when I miss having my legs, but when I look back at what we accomplished and the freedoms we’ve given the Iraqi people, it was worth it. I don’t regret anything.”

The trauma of losing both legs and the arduous recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., prepared Fondgren for his current role: a veterans service representative in Waco, Texas. “I’d gone through the process, and I knew the steps,” he said. “I knew working here I could help veterans get their claims established.”

Pentagon Channel producers not only followed wounded servicemembers during their professional workdays but also were granted access to their personal lives, which have been dramatically altered by severe injuries. Thanks to technological advances, these veterans have been afforded a surprising degree of normalcy.

Viewers of “Finding Their Way” will see how disabled troops are able to negotiate daily chores that most people take for granted, like driving a vehicle. “It took me a while to get proficient at hand controls,” Fondgren said. “It was a level of freedom I hadn’t known since I’d gotten hurt … to be able to go to the store when I wanted, go places without having to ask somebody to pick me up.”

This new “Recon” allows a glimpse at the intensely personal and emotional reality of severely wounded servicemembers who have to explain their permanent disabilities to their own young children. “The oldest is starting to realize I’m not like everybody else’s daddy,” Fondgren said. “I’ll put my prosthetics on and he’ll say, ‘Daddy walk! Daddy walk!’ That’s what he calls my prosthetic, ‘Daddy walk.’ When we say ‘Where’s mommy’s foot?’ he’ll point at her foot. We say ‘Where’s daddy’s foot?’ He’ll either point at my stump or if my prosthetics are in sight he’ll point at them.”

“Finding Their Way” also offers a view of the challenges faced by spouses of severely wounded servicemembers like Fondgren’s wife, Anne, who permitted Pentagon Channel crews to videotape their home, which has been specially designed to accommodate her husband’s wheelchair. “We have doors on our doors now,” she said. “At our old home we had to take the doors off the bathroom to our bedroom just so Jay could get in and out.”

Retired Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Joe Dan Worley was on patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device ripped through his unit. Worley applied a tourniquet to his severed left leg in order to save his own life. The trauma has failed to stifle the former corpsman’s optimism. “Just about everyone who is an amputee or is injured down here has an absolutely awesome attitude and takes it really well,” Worley said. “Strangely enough, you’d expect a couple of these guys to be salty or angry about it, but no, everyone’s awesome about it.”

Worley invited Pentagon Channel cameras into his life to view some of the blessings that have aided his recovery, including a brand new dwelling, built by the “Homes for Our Troops” organization, and college education under way that the former corpsman hopes will put him on the path to becoming a doctor.

“I love the way my life is right now,” Worley said. “It’s hard. It’s not easy. But it’s content. I really just don’t regret it one bit. I was glad I went over there. I was glad I did my part.”

Army Sgt. Kortney Clemmons was getting ready to ship home from Iraq and separate from the military. During his last two weeks of service, the star cornerback was showing replacement troops the lay of the land in Baghdad and dreaming of a pro football career. During the orientation tour, Clemons came upon an overturned Humvee and three wounded servicemembers. As the medic and his trainees began to help, an improvised explosive device detonated, ripping off Clemmon’s right leg. “I really couldn’t picture anything that bad happening to me,” Clemmons said. “I was just really thinking it was a bad dream and I was going to wake up from it.”

What Clemmons woke to was the reality of doing what he could with what he had, which thanks to medical technology, was a “c-leg.” This highly advanced computerized prosthesis controls balance, strike and other aspects of mobility that has allowed Clemmons to regain his athletic prowess and focus his energy on setting records on the track at this year’s elite Parapan American Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and next year’s Paralympics in Beijing, China.

“Whether I win the gold or not, it’s just the journey, just getting there,” Clemmons said. “Once I walk away at the end of the day I know I gave it everything I have.

“And it’s going to help me when I go out into the workforce, because we’re going to be competing for the rest of our lives, whether it’s for jobs of whatever,” he added. “So actually this helps me put things in perspective and teaches me a lot of patience.”

“Finding Their Way” debuts tomorrow at noon Eastern Time on the Pentagon Channel. The documentary will encore on the channel over the next four weeks. It also will be available via podcast and video on demand at www.pentagonchannel.mil.

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