no man left behind

One of my son’s friends played in a little league All-Star game yesterday. More than an hour of the pre-game ceremonies were devoted to honoring a young, local U.S. soldier who had lost both his legs and parts of both hands in Iraq or Afghanistan. The mother of my son’s friend described to me how her 10 year-old had choked up at the event. That led me to consider the world of limb loss in a different light this Memorial Day.

More than 1000 men and women have become amputees as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether you agree with the policies and decisions that have led the United States into both conflicts, it’s indisputable that these soldiers have become highly visible symbols of both the horrible cost of war and the potential inherent in all individuals with limb loss and difference.

I have been lucky enough to meet many of these people. And while I’m sure there may have been moments of despair, depression, and “why me?” in their past, by the time I talk to them, I’m always struck by their optimism and unwillingness to wallow in self-pity.

A few weeks ago, I attended a “Heroes of Military Medicine” dinner in Washington, D.C. The keynote speaker was Lieutenant-Colonel Greg Gadsen, who lost both his legs from injuries suffered in Iraq. Because we shared a mutual acquaintance, I had the chance to briefly introduce myself. We chatted for a quick moment about our friend, prosthetic components, and I offered my congratulations on his being selected to give the keynote before I walked away.

There are two things that I will take away from attending this event. The first is that no one lays out a schedule like the military. Civilians construct schedules in, at the very least, 5 minute increments. Having drafted countless meeting agendas myself, I’ve never contemplated giving someone 2, 3 or 4 minutes to discuss even the most negligible matter. Everyone gets at least 5 minutes.

But in the military, time matters. Defaulting to 5 minutes is, apparently, both lazy and imprecise. And so, the printed schedule for the event looked slightly bizarre to this civilian. It began at 7:00 with the opening remarks. Followed at 7:03 by the Chaplain’s invocation. Followed at 7:04 by . . . you get the picture.

The second, and much more important takeaway, was Lt. Col. Gadsen’s keynote. He described his post-amputation journey. The friendships that carried him through his darkest days. The commitment to return to the military despite his injuries. And his recent appointment to battalion commander, making him the first amputee in the history of the U.S. military to achieve that goal.

While Lt. Col. Gadsen’s story is remarkable, he’s not alone. (And though I don’t know him at all, I suspect he would want that point emphasized: his success is only one example of many in the military who, post-amputation, have continued their service to country.) A 2010 study revealed that advances in military medicine and rehabilitation led to nearly 17% of amputee soldiers returning to active duty between 2001-2006, an increase of roughly 15% since the 1980’s.

Today, there are more than 1000 young, active, traumatic military amputees in the U.S. than there were before September 11, 2001. People like Lt. Col. Gadsen. People like Staff Sergeant John Kriesel, who lost his legs in Iraq and is now a Minnesota State Representative. People like Tammy Duckworth, an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in a mission over Iraq and now serves as the Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Veterans Administration. I suspect that they and their peers will have a disproportionately positive impact on all people with limb loss/difference over the next few decades.

So, on this Memorial Day, I want to say thank you to those men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and to those who have paid dearly but survived.

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