MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. There may be an end in sight for the war in Afghanistan, but for many U.S. troops that end point is still a long way off. They're still shipping out, fighting and coming home. And, of course, some return terribly wounded. We've been following soldiers who are recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Today, NPR's Quil Lawrence brings us the story of one of them, 24-year-old Army Specialist Tyler Jeffries of Concord, North Carolina. He joined the Army after high school and, last year, he shipped out to Kandahar.
TYLER JEFFRIES: What happened was I was clearing an area and I had the mine - metal detector.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Private Jeffries spent most of last year on dusty, hot patrols in the villages outside Kandahar. Last fall, on October 6th, his tour ended three months early.
JEFFRIES: I had most of the area, most of the area cleared to where we were going to set in, and then we had word that there was two guys coming to our position.
LAWRENCE: Jeffries said he was good at using the mine sweeper, but he never had a chance to discover the bomb that got him. It was set off by a remote command wire. That means someone watched him step into the kill zone and then threw a switch.
JEFFRIES: It took me like 15 seconds to come back - to come back into reality, really. And I kind of came - I came back to it, people were screaming my name and I was like, and like they were yelling at me, and I was like, what? Like, what do you want? Like what's going on? And then something had - I got blown up. Something happened. Stuff like that. Then I got people on me.
LAWRENCE: His buddies were slapping him to keep him awake as they carried Jeffries through a dry riverbed to an impromptu landing zone for the medevac chopper. He didn't realized what had happened.
JEFFRIES: I didn't even know my legs were gone until, like, I started getting to the HLZ. I kind of looked down, and that's when I saw that my legs weren't even there. They fixed me up pretty quick, put tourniquets on me. I think I had like two on each leg. A couple of my buddies - it was actually close friends of mine that actually fixed me up and saved my life that day.
LAWRENCE: He slipped in and out of consciousness on the way to a combat hospital in Kandahar. A few groggy days later he woke up at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with family at his bedside. That's where I met Jeffries in mid-October. He still had a few more surgeries to endure.
JEFFRIES: I get a lot of phantom pains. Like, 'cause like, I still feel like I have my foot there, but I feel like my foot is being crushed, like all the time. My right foot, I get it every now and again, where I just get tingling sensations and it might sting or, like, a little something here or there, but my left foot just - it feels like it's being run over by a car, or like someone is like literally just crushing all the bones in my foot.
LAWRENCE: What kept his mind off the pain was the thought of walking again.
JEFFRIES: I know I should get fitted for legs here in the next, like, week or two. I'm thinking I've been going pretty fast, healing up pretty good. So I figure the next few weeks I should be getting my legs, hopefully.
LAWRENCE: That was late October. With so many having gone through Walter Reed before him, soldiers like Tyler Jeffries can almost seem nonchalant about the miracle of new legs. The doctors first built stumps of muscle around the remaining bone. Once the swelling went down, Jeffries was cast for high-tech prosthetic legs. Just days later, he got to try them out. A few other patients milled around the therapy room as Jeffries prepared to take his first steps, less than two months after a bomb had nearly killed him.
The motors in his prosthetic knee and ankles made a small zip sound as he worked his way down and back between two handrails. His therapist was more than pleased.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. That's a phenomenal start.
LAWRENCE: A few moments later, outside the building, Jeffries settled back into his wheelchair and cooled off in the November air, calm but satisfied.
JEFFRIES: I mean, that was the first time. Like, I had a few instances where I, you know, tripped up a little bit, you know, but most of it, like it's coming pretty quick, like for the first time I didn't fall at all or anything like that, so I was pretty happy with myself.
LAWRENCE: His doctors called those good first steps on what could be a long year of recovery. Jeffries had a more immediate goal in mind.
JEFFRIES: I'm going to be here for a year. In January my guys come home. I think they come home and I want to be there walking when they come home.
Many wounded soldiers say the worst part of getting hurt is leaving their buddies behind. When that medevac flew Jeffries out of the dust, his guys still had three months of hard duty left in Kandahar. The goal of standing on his new legs to greet his platoon kept Jeffries going through the holidays. Last month, at an airbase near Tacoma, Washington, hundreds of soldiers stepped off a transport plane home from Kandahar.
LAWRENCE: Wives, children and parents waited for them in a gymnasium on the other side of the base, but Tyler Jeffries was standing on the tarmac when the plane taxied to a stop. Happiness at seeing his friends mixed with an awkward frustration that he should be getting off the plane with them, not standing on the runway. But he was standing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You should've seen this new unit...
LAWRENCE: These are all young men not given to displays. They hugged and their eyes watered a bit, and Jeffries said thank you again and again. Sergeant Michael Blair handed Jeffries back his wristwatch, found in the dirt after the blast. Jeffries showed his new legs to Sergeant Chris Cunningham, who tied the tourniquets on them months ago.
JEFFRIES: I mean, this is the guy... the guy I kept telling you guys about. You know, they're the reason I'm still standing here.
LAWRENCE: Last time Cunningham saw his friend, he was covered in blood.
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: We saw the blast. I ran right in. Everybody started calling his name, and then I saw him laying there, and I just ran right in, I didn't even think. Probably a dumb thing I did, but you do what you got to do, I guess. I dragged him back. I mean, I started putting tourniquets on him. You know, I told him I'd bring him home, you know.
LAWRENCE: They did get him home. But the platoon felt one man down for the rest of the tour. Lieutenant Tory Hoyt helped carry Jeffries to the chopper that day.
TORY HOYT: He was that last missing piece for our platoon. When we got here, it was just the culmination of our whole deployment was him standing there waiting for us.
LAWRENCE: Jeffries sits back into his wheelchair for a moment. He hasn't taken his pain medicine today because he wants to be able to drink beer with his guys tonight.
CUNNINGHAM: I got the brakes on, so you're not going to be able to slide back.
LAWRENCE: Sergeant Cunningham rolls him over to buses where they all load up for the big homecoming ceremony with the families waiting across the base. Family and friends, hundreds of people, have been waiting in the gym for hours. The walls are decked out with welcome posters and a huge curtain cuts the hall in half. The troops form up at attention on one side of the curtain and the families crowd on the other.
When the curtain rises, the families go nuts. The joyful mob holds back at the sight of their soldiers in their camouflage fatigues, tightly in formation. In the front row, Tyler Jeffries stands at attention with his platoon. A moment's hesitation and then the crowd charges. Happy pandemonium ensues, kissing, embracing, a few flying-legs-around-the-waist, happy-to-see-you hugs.
Specialist Tyler Jeffries settles back into his wheelchair. The stumps of his legs are as sore as they've ever been. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.