Against the Odds, Injured Soldier Returning to Duty

Army Spc. Freddy Meyers i i

Army Spc. Freddy Meyers wants to return to active duty after sustaining a head injury from sniper fire in active combat. Joseph Shapiro/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph Shapiro/NPR
Army Spc. Freddy Meyers

Army Spc. Freddy Meyers wants to return to active duty after sustaining a head injury from sniper fire in active combat.

Joseph Shapiro/NPR

Q&A: Returning to Combat

  

In June 2003, Army Maj. David Rozelle was leading a convoy west of Baghdad when his vehicle hit a land mine. His right foot had to be amputated. Two years later, with a prosthetic foot, he returned to Iraq as a cavalry troop commander — the first amputee in this war to return to combat.

  

Here, he talks about how he dealt with being "the first."

Army Spc. Freddy Meyers wants to return to active duty. The 21-year-old has been living in the outpatient barracks at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., since this May. And he's about to go to a meeting that will determine his future in the Army.

Generally, it isn't even remotely possible for someone who suffered a penetrating head injury to stay on active duty. Last year, while on patrol in Iraq, Freddy Meyers was shot in the head.

He pulls out the PDA he keeps in a pocket on the pant leg of his uniform. Meyers still has problems with his short-term memory. To compensate, he has had to learn to be very organized and write down the things he needs to remember — like questions for the doctor. He reads them from his Palm Pilot: "I'm going to ask him about my physical limitations, protective profile, my jump status, my deployability, what the effect of multiple concussions will be, Ranger school, duty restrictions, Zyrtec and my Red Cross volunteer letter."

On May 3, 2007, Meyers was manning the machine gun in a Humvee when a sniper's bullet ripped across the top of his head, pushing fragments of his skull into his brain. When he awoke from a drug-induced coma, Meyers could not talk to his wife and parents at his bedside. He could not walk.

Now, when he takes off his black beret, a scar is visible in the shape of a horseshoe from the back of his head to his forehead. The scar marks where doctors removed a large piece of his skull to relieve the pressure on his swollen brain.

A New Role

Meyers figures he cannot go back into combat. He's at high risk if he suffers another head injury or a concussion that's common from being near an exploding IED.

But he would like to get retrained — possibly to work stateside at an Army hospital like this one.

"I'm hoping to get into physical therapy and help out other people who've been injured, not just brain injuries, but combat injuries is what I'm looking into and helping out," Meyers says.

He thinks he can be a role model for other soldiers with brain injuries.

"I believe my story's pretty inspiring, and I'm hoping that it will show people how far you can come," he says. "Because they thought I was a goner, you know."

Army Maj. David Rozelle knows what it means to be a role model. His foot was amputated after a land mine explosion in Iraq in 2003. Rozelle was the first soldier in this war to return to combat with a prosthesis. He says there's a lot of pressure on people who are first to make people accept them.

"What Freddy's going to have to deal with when he goes back and is around his fellow soldiers — and he's having to use the PDA or whatever trigger he's going to use to make him remember stuff — he's going to have to look at his buddies in the eye and say, 'Hey guys, I'm going to be OK. This is just how I do this now,'" says Rozelle. "It's adaptation. It's tough."

A Better Outcome than Most

Up to 20 percent of soldiers who have been to Iraq say they sustained a brain injury, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, a think tank. Traumatic brain injuries are some of the trickiest injuries to treat, and healing is unpredictable. The Army does not keep track of how many have returned to duty, but at least one soldier, Master Sgt. Colin Rich, went back into combat after a penetrating head injury.

More common, though, are the injured soldiers who want to go back to duty but cannot.

"In some cases, a person's desire may not be enough," says Louis French, a neuropsychologist who runs brain injury programs at Walter Reed. "And that's a very difficult thing to tell someone: that they are not able to do what they want to do. But we are constantly, I think, trying to balance the reality of the issues related to their injury with their desire."

Meyers says he knows he has had a better outcome than most. He still has trouble with short-term memory, has had seizures and has not yet been cleared to drive a car. But this spring while at Laurel Highlands Neuro-Rehabilitation Center, a military and veterans facility in Johnstown, Pa., he put on his uniform and worked five days a week at a National Guard armory. The job wasn't glamorous; he did clerical work. Nonetheless, it was the sort of work in a military environment he had to prove he could do in order to get approval to go back to duty.

After the doctor's appointment, Meyers got that go ahead. He's scheduled to leave Walter Reed on Wednesday. Once back with the 25th Infantry Division, based at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, he expects to do office support work. He says it's not the type of "boots on the ground" work that made him join the Army, but at least for now, it's a way he can continue to support the other soldiers in his division.

Q&A: Returning to Combat

In June 2003, Army Maj. David Rozelle was leading a convoy west of Baghdad when his vehicle hit a land mine. His right foot had to be amputated. Two years later, with a prosthetic foot, he returned to Iraq as a cavalry troop commander — the first amputee in this war to return to combat. In this excerpted conversation, Rozelle tells NPR health correspondent Joe Shapiro about going back to the battlefield and how he dealt with being "the first."

Q: Why do people want to go back to the front?

Major David Rozelle: It used to be back in WWII and the Vietnam War, when someone got injured, they called it the golden ticket — the [injury] that sent you home. And those were largely conscripted armies, draftees. In that environment, it was understandable that someone injured would just go home. With this all-volunteer Army, these volunteers want to continue to fight. Some of the moms and dads think, 'My son and daughter got injured. Now they want to go back?' But it's what we signed up to do. When I see other amputees that are in law enforcement, or a trash man, or teachers or whatever they do for a living when they get injured, I ask, 'Did you change your career?' [They say,] 'Well, no. I'm still a teacher, or in law enforcement or a trash man. Why would a disability slow me down ?'"

What did it mean to you to be the first amputee to return to combat?

It was a lot of pressure. Our president had come out in December of 2003 and said there's a place in this Department of Defense for any severely injured soldier. We'll find a way to keep you on active duty if you want. And I heard that and I kind of put it together and I thought, 'Well, I should figure out how I can do this.' My superiors supported it, from the president on down the chain of command. But for me as a leader, the hardest people to convince that I was fit for duty ... were my soldiers. And that's something that I'm proudest of — that I was able to go to work every day and convince those young, 18-year-old men that I could do what they were doing. I was not going to slow them down in combat. I could do every task that they could do.

Did everyone know you'd lost this body part? When you're in uniform it isn't obvious.

Although I wear shorts when I'm off duty most of the time, when I'm in uniform I very much hide the fact that I'm an amputee. I don't bring it up in conversation unless someone notices or gives me a hard time and says, 'Hey, did you twist an ankle or something?' And I'll say, 'Well, no, I actually got injured in the war.' Then of course they'll stop in their tracks because people don't notice — I don't want people when I'm in uniform to look at me and see that and think that I'm weaker than them. It's part of the brotherhood, you know. You're always matching yourself up against your opponents, even when they're on your own team, and I'm very careful about it. I know I can outrun most of my peers, even with a leg missing. But they'll look at me and think, 'You know, is that a guy I want to be on the battlefield with?' And I'm very sensitive about that. It's not a chip on my shoulder, but I spend a lot of my spare time staying in shape.

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