DAVE DAVIES, host:
While violence has declined in Iraq over the past year and a half, the war has taken a terrible human toll. More than 4,000 American troops have been killed in Iraq, and more than 31,000 wounded. Ryan Kules has spent the last three years recovering from serious injuries he suffered in combat in Iraq, and he's come a long way. He's physically active and employed full-time at the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization dedicated to helping severely injured veterans recover and build productive civilian lives. Well, Ryan Kules, welcome to Fresh Air. I thought we should begin by hearing about your injury. Now, as I understand it, you have no direct recollection of it; is that right?
Captain RYAN KULES (Retired, U.S. Army; Coordinator, Warriors to Work Program, Wounded Warrior Project): That's correct, Dave. I don't remember the attack and also the day before. So, I remember just bits and pieces of that week and then nothing until I woke up in the hospital. DAVIES: But as you've reconstructed it, as, you know, you've talked to folks who were familiar with the events, what actually happened? You were on patrol, I think, in November of 2005; is that right?
Capt. KULES: That's correct. I was on patrol on November 29th of 2005. We were coming back from an early-morning cordon-and-search. We went and checked out someone's house that potentially had some weapons or was of interest to us. On the way back to our base at Taji, my vehicle struck an IED buried in the road. That device, when it went off, went off right underneath my vehicle. It threw me approximately 100 feet in the air, into a small canal off to the side of the road, and unfortunately, it killed my gunner and driver instantly.
DAVIES: So, you woke up in a hospital; is that right? Was it in Iraq or Germany? Where?
Capt. KULES: Actually, I woke up in the hospital in Walter Reed, in Washington, D.C. When I woke up in the hospital at Walter Reed, I had - I was missing my left leg below the hip and right arm just below the shoulder, and at the time, my right ankle was broken in addition to my left wrist, and I was later diagnosed with a mild TBI, which is a traumatic brain injury.
DAVIES: I'm sure rehab was a long, hard road, and we won't go through the whole story here, but tell us, you know, what your condition and capabilities are today.
Capt. KULES: Today, my condition is really very close to what it was before I was hurt, with some obvious issues, that I can't run as fast as I would be able to before; I can't clap, which, you know, is in some situations, somewhat of a big issue.
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Capt. KULES: But really, I work full-time. I have a 20-month-old daughter who I enjoy and love spending time with her. Certainly, don't get over on any of the tasks in - around the house. I change diapers, take out trash and do all those things that everyone loves doing. So, really, my condition and my quality of life today is very good.
DAVIES: You have a prosthetic leg; is that right?
Capt. KULES: That's true. I walk on a prosthetic leg. I actually don't use a prosthetic arm just due to the level of my amputation, on how high my arm was taken off. The prosthetic device doesn't really work for me. The technology has not - doesn't really fit my particular amputation.
DAVIES: You know, one of the issues that's been raised about caring for veterans who have been wounded is that there's a point at which you are under the military's care, that funded by the Department of Defense, and then you have to transition to the Veterans' Administration care, and that there are gaps or difficulties in processing and paperwork, which can make it hard to get treatment at a time when you are vulnerable and really need it. Did you experience that?
Capt. KULES: I, fortunately, did not experience very much issue with my transition to the VA system. I'm very fortunate in the sense that my injuries are severe to the point where you send in a snapshot of me, and I'm going to get the care and benefits that are due. But there are many out there, unfortunately, that experience backlog with VA claims and have issue getting the benefits and care and treatment that they rightly deserve.
DAVIES: President Obama has appointed General Eric Shinseki as the new secretary of Veterans' Affairs. What issues should he tackle first? What are the key issues facing veterans that need serious reform?
Capt. KULES: I think one of the biggest issues that need to be - needs to have a look taken at it is the issue of caregiver benefits. I'm very fortunate in that I have a wife and a very strong support system, but not every service member has that. And sometimes, with some of the severely wounded service members, they have to rely on a mother, father, or a sister or brother, or whoever it might be, to provide the care for them that they need, and there's not any substantial caregiver benefits for those family members. They have to, potentially, leave a job, sell a house, move across country to care for a wounded service member, and they need to have the same benefits that a spouse would have.
DAVIES: Tell us about how you came into contact with the Wounded Warrior Project.
Capt. KULES: I came into contact with Wounded Warrior Project, actually, when I was in the hospital. They were one of the first organizations, along with Disabled Support USA, which is one of our partner organizations, to come by my hospital room and let me know that, even after my severe injury, my life wasn't over and I'd be able to get out and enjoy activities that I had enjoyed before. And within four months of my injury, I was actually skiing in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, with my wife. So, four months after having an arm and a leg blown off, I was able to go out skiing. And that really says a lot, in an emotional sense, letting not only myself know that I'm able to still go out and have a good time, but my wife and family know that my life's not over and I still have a lot to go out and do.
DAVIES: We're about out of time, but I wanted to give you a chance before we go to give our audience any message you think is important from your own experience, either recovering from your injury or your work with the Wounded Warrior Project.
Capt. KULES: I think that the one message that I would certainly like to pass on is that when these conflicts that we're in right now are in the history books, I'll still be dealing with my injuries, as will the thousands of other warriors that have similar injuries and also a wide variety of injuries. So, the point is that it doesn't go away and we can't be forgotten.
DAVIES: Well, Ryan Kules, I want to wish you, you know, success in your career and a happy family life and continued recovery. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
Capt. KULES: Thank you very much, Dave. I certainly appreciate the opportunity.
DAVIES: Ryan Kules retired as a captain from the Army. He now works with the Wounded Warrior Project.
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DAVIES: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, Joan Toohey-Wesman, Sam Briger, Jonathan Menjivar, John Myers and John Sheehan. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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