Saturday, October 16, 2010
ASHOQEH, Afghanistan -- When a bomb exploded under Dan Luckett's Army Humvee in Iraq two years ago -- blowing off one of his legs and part of his foot -- the first thing he thought was: "That's it. You're done. No more Army for you."
But two years later, the 27-year-old Norcross, Ga., native is back on duty -- a double-amputee fighting on the front lines of America's Afghan surge in one of the most dangerous parts of this volatile country.
Luckett's remarkable recovery can be attributed in part to dogged self-determination. But technological advances have been crucial: Artificial limbs today are so effective, some war-wounded like Luckett are not only able to do intensive sports like snow skiing, they can return to active duty as fully operational Soldiers. The Pentagon says 41 American amputee veterans are now serving in combat zones worldwide.
Luckett was a young platoon leader on his first tour in Iraq when an explosively formed penetrator -- a bomb that hurls an armor-piercing lump of molten copper -- ripped through his vehicle on a Baghdad street on Mother's Day 2008.
His Humvee cabin instantly filled with heavy gray smoke and the smell of burning diesel and molten metal. Luckett felt an excruciating pain and a "liquid" -- his blood -- pouring out of his legs. He looked down and saw a shocking sight: his own left foot sheared off above the ankle and his right boot a bloody mangle of flesh and dust.
Still conscious, he took deep breaths and made a deliberate effort to calm down.
A voice rang out over the radio -- his squad leader checking in.
"1-6, is everybody all right?" the Soldier asked, referring to Luckett's call-sign.
"Negative," Luckett responded. "My feet are gone."
He was evacuated by helicopter to a Baghdad emergency room, flown to Germany, and six days after the blast, he was back in the U.S.
As his plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base, he made a determined decision. He was going to rejoin the 101st Airborne Division any way he could.
For the first month at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Luckett was bound to a wheelchair. He hated the dependence that came with it. He hated the way people changed their voice when they spoke to him -- soft and sympathetic.
He wondered: How long is THIS going to last? Will I be dependent on others for the rest of my life?
At night, he dreamed of walking on two legs.
When he woke, only the stump of his left leg was there, painfully tender and swollen.
His family wanted to know, is this going to be the same Dan?
He assured them he was.
Luckett was fortunate in one sense. His wounds had been caused not by shrapnel, but the projectile itself, which made a relatively clean cut. That meant no complications -- no joint or nerve damage or bone fractures.
His right foot was sheered across his metatarsals, the five long bones before the toes. Doctors fitted it with a removable carbon fiber plate that runs under the foot and fills the space where toes should be with hardened foam.
His left leg was a far bigger challenge.
In early July, Luckett strapped into a harness, leaned on a set of parallel bars, and tried out his first prosthetic leg.
It felt awkward, but he was able to balance and walk.
The next day, Luckett tried the leg on crutches -- and tried to walk out the door.
"They were like, 'You gotta' give the leg back,' " Luckett said of his therapists. After a brief argument, they grudgingly gave in. "They said, 'If you're gonna be that hard-headed about it, do it smart, don't wear it all the time.' "
By February 2009, he had progressed so far, he could run a mile in eight minutes.
He rejoined his unit at Fort Campbell, Ky., and told his battalion commander he wanted to return to duty "only if I could be an asset, not a liability," he recalled.
Months later, he passed a physical fitness test to attain the Expert Infantryman's Badge. It required running 12 miles (19 kilometers) in under three hours with a 35-pound (16-kilogram) backpack. It was a crucial moment, Luckett said, "because I knew if I can get this badge, then there's nothing they can say that I'm not capable of doing."
The Army agreed, and promoted him to captain.
In May, he deployed to Afghanistan.
On his first patrol, wearing 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of gear and body armor, Luckett slipped and fell down. But when he looked around, everybody else was falling, too.