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Face of Defense: Officer Works to Walk Again

By Heather Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, Nov. 16, 2009 – Five months ago, Army Lt. Col. Tim Karcher was in Sadr City, Iraq, commanding the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, and preparing to complete the hand-off of the volatile region to the Iraqis.

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Army Lt. Col. Tim Karcher and his wife, Alesia, leave a physical therapy session at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Nov. 6, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Heather Graham
  

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Today, he is relearning how to walk.

On June 28, Karcher was on his way to a ceremony to hand over control of a joint security station in Sadr City to Iraq, when a powerful roadside bomb designed to pierce armor ripped through the mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle in which he was riding. Karcher lost both legs above the knees.

It was Karcher’s third deployment. He was shot in his left shoulder in January 2006 during his second deployment, but recovered quickly and returned to his unit in Iraq six months later. This time, things were different.

Karcher was transferred from the U.S. Army Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on July 5. There, complications arose. Amputation of both legs above the knees was not the most serious of his injuries.

“Four weeks after getting to Walter Reed, they stopped talking about his legs,” his wife, Alesia, said.

Karcher lost 120 pounds, dropping from his original weight of 225 to 105 pounds. Massive blood loss and the blast trauma affected his internal organs. He was nauseated and had difficulty eating. His kidney function was so poor he was on dialysis. One medication caused him to go blind for a day, which he later said was the only part of this journey that scared him.

But things slowly improved, and Karcher arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center here Aug. 19. He now stays at the Fisher House on the medical center’s campus and receives therapy at the Center for the Intrepid, an outpatient rehabilitation institute for wounded warriors.

Now, the whole challenge is physical, Karcher said, adding that he is in the best place to overcome his physical challenges.

“This is the single most capable place on Earth to get us better,” he said.

Family Support

Steadfast in their love and support, Karcher’s wife and their three daughters -- Anna, 14, Audrey, 13, and Abbey, 8 -- have been with him every step of the way. Audrey has taken on the role of Karcher’s caregiver during the time he stays at the family home near Killeen.

Karcher said he was concerned his teenage daughters would worry about the image of a father with no legs. But his concern was unfounded, he added, as all three daughters treat him the same as ever.

The family took a trip to San Diego recently for the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Triathlon Challenge. There, Karcher saw his daughters helping some of the athletes and saw their desire to help others. They also saw the possibilities of people who cannot walk or see.

Karcher attends soccer games, cross-country meets and has had lunch at his daughters’ school since the injury. To his family, he is the same upbeat man who loves a challenge. “He is very much the same,” Alesia said.

The family describes the support they’ve received from Fort Hood, the 1st Cavalry Division, the girls’ schools and their church as “overwhelming.”

“It makes you proud to be an Army family,” said Alesia, who temporarily has stopped working as a home health-care physical therapist to focus on her family. “It definitely does not have to be the end of the world. It could always be worse.”

She looks forward to their “new normal,” she added. “I’m not afraid of it,” she said. “I think our life will be different, but not in a bad way.”

Her biggest challenge, she said, has been time management to ensure her husband’s and their daughters’ needs are met. While her husband stays in the Fisher House, Alesia splits her time. She cooks meals and brings them to San Antonio. She still does his laundry.

Karcher said he welcomes his opportunities to leave his “cloistered environment” to spend time with his family. “It’s awesome to get to church, soccer games and cross-country meets,” he said. Alesia agreed. “It makes a huge difference to be able to go home and live in our own world,” she said.

Trips home remove Karcher from an environment where everything is handicapped-accessible and catered toward people with injuries such as his. But he said he likes the challenges, and knowing that they can be addressed during sessions at the Center for the Intrepid.

“Being able to go home does as much for me as a week of therapy,” Karcher said. “Life continues at home. I fit into it.”

Family life also includes plans made before Karcher was injured.

Alesia ran the Army 10-Miler in October that she had signed up for with a group of Cavalry spouses in April.

Dealing With Reality

After an injury, e-mails and calls taper off. Friends, families and comrades get back to their everyday lives, said Army Maj. Stuart Campbell, officer in charge of physical therapy at the Center for the Intrepid, and some patients can have a letdown when the attention fades.

“There is a protective bubble here,” he said. “My job is to return these guys to the highest level possible.”

Campbell knows Karcher as “Hercules.” Everyone at the center gets a nickname from Campbell. “I’m bad with names,” he explained with a smile.

Campbell said he also gives the nicknames to encourage the feeling of being in a military unit, and the bonding that comes with that. Good-natured ribbing and joking are frequent as Campbell works to recreate the unit environment from which they have been removed.

“When you come here, you would think you are in an infantry unit,” he said, noting that for these wounded warriors, the strongest piece of their rehabilitation is the peer support.

“That’s as powerful as anything,” Campbell said. “They motivate each other.”

Amputees such as Karcher have to retrain their hip strategy and learn to balance using their hips, gluteus and core, Campbell said.

Karcher will always have to think to walk.

“A lot of this is mental,” he said.

At this point, Karcher stands on “stubbies” and still is working on his balance. He is getting his legs and muscles accustomed to bearing weight and fitting in sockets. As he progresses, he will get longer prosthetics and, eventually, knees.

“You work out muscle groups you didn’t know you have,” Karcher said. “It’s a new challenge.” He took his first steps Nov. 3, traveling about 20 feet on stubbies.

Karcher said he expects to be here for at least a year or 18 months. He is progressing well, but wants to accomplish more, he said. He is not sure how much more, he added, but walking is a definite goal.

He uses humor and willpower to embrace his new life. “It’s your choice of how you choose to handle it,” he said.

The New Normal

At the Center for the Intrepid, amputees work out in often unorthodox ways to strengthen their bodies and stop boredom. A modified rock wall, a wave pool and creative exercises throw some diversity in to break up the monotony of physical therapy.

The wounded warriors have devised a hierarchy of injuries. There are jokes and laughs, and many of them come from Campbell.

“The last thing we want is sympathy,” Karcher said.

He doesn’t want people tip-toeing around him.

“People stare, they point,” Campbell said. “We make fun of them [and] treat them like they’re in a normal unit.”

Good-natured teasing can be motivating as well as bonding.

“From the outside, it can look odd,” Campbell admitted.

Karcher said he finds it motivating to see those with injuries similar to his who are farther along. “Morale here is great,” he said. “Everybody wants to get better. You just need to use good judgment on where you are.”

Every case is different. While some are happy to sit back and just let things happen, others work harder to reach their goals. Seeing buddies get better is motivating for everyone, Karcher said.

“There’s a total atmosphere here of seeing everybody excel, everybody getting back to where they want to be,” he said. “The only thing that limits us is ourselves.”

In addition to the young soldiers he sees daily, a special child has been an inspiration to the battalion commander. Karcher met 8-year-old Cody McCaslund on Sept. 17. Cody also is a bilateral transfemoral amputee. Born without knees and missing several bones in both legs, he lost his legs as an infant. But don’t tell Cody he is any different.

“That kid is a ball of fire,” Karcher said. “He is just an awesome kid.”

Cody offered to show Karcher how to use his new legs when he gets them. Through Cody, he said, he saw that the loss of legs does not mean the loss of a normal life.

“You realize he’s as normal as any kid,” he said. “You see a little kid doing [what Cody does], and you’ve got to stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

Moving Forward

Karcher is quick to laugh and sees no sense in having a pity party about his injury. “It’s a waste of your time,” he said. “It’s not going to change anything.”

He said he knows his injury will limit him in some ways, but that the Center for the Intrepid staff is around to help the wounded figure out ways to do the things they want to do.

“There shouldn’t be things we can’t do,” he said. For example, he said, he wants to stand more than six feet tall again -- because he doesn’t want to have to buy new pants.

Amputees can change their height, Campbell said, but they want to be careful not to become unbalanced. “Body image is a big deal for a lot of these guys,” Campbell said. Expectations are different for each person, but the wounded warriors all seem to have some in common. “Walking is an expectation. Sports are an expectation,” he said.

Life Goes On

Karcher said he expects to continue his journey with humor and with his family by his side. And throughout his recovery, the soldiers of his regiment have been consistently on his mind and in his heart.

He keeps in contact with his Black Knight soldiers via e-mails, and many have visited him. Karcher said he always wants to know how his battle buddies are doing, and the fact that they are still in harm’s way is never far from his mind.

“It feels rotten,” he said.

Meanwhile, as his soldiers are completing their mission in Iraq, Karcher is focused on his mission at home: recovering. And one of his biggest goals is to be standing on Cooper Field at Fort Hood to welcome home his troops.

“I’m just wondering what is next,” he said. “Right now, I am focusing on the here and now.”

He wants to stay in the Army.

“I am hoping to stay in,” he said. “I’ve been in 20 years, and this is the only thing I want to do.”

(Heather Graham works in the public affairs office at Fort Hood, Texas.)

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Staying Power

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Tim Karcher takes a few steps on the “stubbies” that help him learn to bear weight on his thighs and balance properly at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Nov. 6, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Heather Graham  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Tim Karcher lost both of his legs above the knees when a powerful roadside bomb ripped through his vehicle June 28, 2009, in Sadr City, Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Heather Graham   
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