Tag Archives: Brooke Army Medical Center

NCO posts highest finish for American man in rifle prone at Rio Paralympics

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Staff Sgt. John Joss may not have reached the medal stand Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the 2016 Paralympic Games, but the four-year member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit certainly proved his name belongs alongside the shooting world’s elite.

Joss started the day next to 40 of the world’s best shooters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, competing in the mixed R6-50-meter rifle prone competition. By day’s end, his scores netted him a fifth-place finish. It was the highest finish for an American man at the competition.

While not bringing home any hardware is certainly disappointing, the top-five finish showcased Joss’ deftness with the rifle in his first Paralympics. He qualified for the medal round after a sixth-place finish in outdoor qualification amid blustery conditions. National Paralympic Coach Bob Foth said Joss made smart decisions throughout qualification in reading wind speed and movement. Once action moved indoors for the finals, Joss improved his standing by one position.

Staff Sgt. John Joss placed fifth in the mixed R6 50-meter rifle prone event Sept. 14 at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (File photo courtesy of U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit)
Staff Sgt. John Joss placed fifth in the mixed R6 50-meter rifle prone event Sept. 14 at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (File photo courtesy of U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit)

“This is totally different than anything I’ve ever done before,” Joss told USA Shooting after the competition. “I felt calm and on fire at the same time. I know I was working with a kind of shaky hold. I was making smart decisions, but there isn’t much I could do at the end. I did the best I could, and I really took a lot out of it. It’s hard to hit a target that small alone, then when you have an elevated heart rate, a pulse in your hand and your front sight starts moving around, it makes it a lot harder.”

Joss’ performance is also testament to how far he has come since sustaining both physical injuries and emotional hardship in 2007. Joss had both of his legs seriously injured in an improvised explosive device attack while deployed north of Baghdad, Iraq. He returned to the United States to undergo multiple surgeries and begin a grueling rehabilitation process before he was dealt another blow — Joss’ father was killed in a vehicle accident two months after his arrival at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Joss subsequently made the difficult decision to amputate his right leg. He began shooting competitively at Fort Benning, Georgia, to supplement his rehabilitation. Joss soon found success. He joined the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit in 2012. In 2013 and 2014, he won gold at the USA Shooting National Championships. Two years later, he has served notice to the rest of the shooting world that he will be a force in the coming years.

Sgt. Elizabeth Marks broke a Paralympic swimming world record in winning her first gold medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Marks won the women's 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1.28:13. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program)
Sgt. Elizabeth Marks broke a Paralympic swimming world record in winning her first gold medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Marks won the women’s 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1.28:13. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program)

WCAP swimmer back in action

Sgt. Elizabeth Marks returns to the pool Thursday, Sept. 15, for the first of three events she is scheduled to compete in.

The Paralympic swimmer from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program competes in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay Sept. 15. She will swim the 4×100-meter medley relay Friday, Sept. 16, and closes the Rio Paralympics in the SM8 200-meter individual medley.

Marks has already claimed one gold medal at these Paralympics, winning the SB7 100-meter breaststroke with a world record time during the weekend.

Former NCO burned in IED blast wants to open restaurant, empower veterans

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Former Staff Sgt. Bobby Henline has spent nearly nine years trying to empower wounded warriors such as himself. Now he wants to help employ them.

Henline is working to open a restaurant dedicated to hiring veterans in San Antonio, Texas. The location is not far from the medical facilities he frequents at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, where he has received treatment since 2007 for burns that cover nearly 40 percent of his body. Henline was burned in a roadside bomb blast in 2007 in Iraq that killed the four Soldiers he was riding with. Since then, he has undergone 46 surgeries and six months of rehabilitation. His likeness is permanently altered.

On his arduous road to recovery, Henline found comfort and strength in humor. He has enjoyed a newfound career as a stand-up comedian, telling his story on stage as a coping mechanism. Henline found that taking others along on his journey has helped other injured — and sometimes disfigured — Soldiers face their lives with the same exuberance. He hopes his new venture takes that notion a step forward.

“I’m trying to give back,” Henline told People Magazine earlier this month. “This is a great way to do it, through empowerment and food.”

Henline is partnering with Richard Brown, a Marine and Korean War veteran, who owns a hamburger restaurant in San Clemente, California. The restaurant is one of Henline’s favorite stops, not only because of the savory hamburgers but also because the two men share an interest in helping their fellow veterans.

Brown will teach Henline all he needs to know to run his own business. Henline will solely hire veterans to work at the restaurant.

“It’s not just me getting a restaurant,” Henline said. “It’s me learning to fish, it’s me teaching other veterans how to fish and to continue on to help the stability of other veterans not just myself.”

‘That’s all I remember that day’

Henline has only a couple vivid memories of the day his life changed.

It was April 7, 2007, and Henline was part of a convoy that was making stops at various forward operating bases, or FOBs, delivering supplies and transporting Soldiers north of Baghdad, Iraq. He was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division and was weeks into his fourth deployment.

“We were doing the typical, ‘Get the convoy ready,’ that morning,” Henline told The NCO Journal in 2014. “There are two things I remember. One was that there were two Soldiers in the vehicle who normally didn’t ride with me. I also remember getting a second cup of coffee. The S-4 captain, who was sitting behind me, he wasn’t there yet. So we were sitting around waiting, and I ran and grabbed another cup of coffee while we were waiting on him.

“That’s all I remember that day.”

Henline’s vehicle was at the front of the convoy traveling near the Diyala province village of Zaganiyah when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath it. The blast hurled the humvee nearly 50 feet down the road. Four Soldiers — Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh, Spc. Ebe Emolo, Spc. Levi Hoover and Pfc. Rodney McCandless — were killed instantly. When fellow Soldiers reached the vehicle, they found he was severely injured, but alive.

Two weeks later, Henline emerged from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio, thus beginning a medical odyssey filled with painful moments, both physical and emotional.

But one thing came easy to him — humor.

Henline says laughter helped keep spirits high for him and the medical personnel working with him. It also helped his wife, Connie, and the rest of his family cope with their loved one’s ordeal and changed appearance.

“Joking around at the hospital, that was my way of using my sense of humor to let my family know I was OK, to let staff know I was OK,” he said. “It was how [I chose] to deal with the pain during physical therapy, laughing about it, joking with the other patients. I could see my family worrying. My mom couldn’t even get me a drink. She was shaking just trying to put the straw to my mouth, real scared. So it was kind of like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m still here. Even if today I’m kind of groggy.’ I’d still make a little joke to let them know, ‘It’s OK. I’m inside here. I just can’t move right now.’

“I think when I was talking a lot better and able to sit up and stuff, that’s when they were finally like, ‘OK, he’s still in there. He’s back. He’s still being that goofball.’”

From surgery to the stage

Henline spent almost the next two years working to regain a sense of normalcy.

His face was scarred by the burns he suffered and puffed by various skin-graft surgeries. His left ear was gone; his right was reduced to a rough-hewn stub. His smashed left hand eventually became too painful to bear, and he asked doctors to amputate it. After removing the protective goggles he was forced to wear for a year, it took time to get accustomed to the stares.

While jokes helped, Henline couldn’t shake the notion that he needed to heed a call. He just didn’t know what it was. Then his occupational therapist made a “stupid” suggestion.

“One day she told me, ‘You should try stand-up comedy!’” Henline said. “She has this really high-pitched voice, one of those happy people all the time. ‘You’ve got to try stand-up comedy. You’ve got to try it!’ I’m like ‘That’s stupid. It’s not going to work. This, here at the hospital, is funny. We could joke about it here.’ I wasn’t gonna go up on stage and people are gonna go, ‘Oh, you got blown up in Iraq? That’s funny.’”

Henline said he grew up admiring comedians such as George Carlin and Robin Williams. But he never considered actually taking a stage. However, after a steady stream of good-natured pestering from his therapist, he obliged, sealing the deal with a pinkie swear.

“My occupational therapist’s sister lives in L.A., and she’s in a band,” Henline said. “So one day, I’m going out there for a consultation to see a doctor. She tells me, ‘My sister’s in entertainment. She might know a place you could try it while you’re out there.’ Sure enough, her sister calls me and says, ‘Hey. Comedy Store. Go sign up at 5 o’clock.’”

Henline’s very first set took place August 2009 at the famed Los Angeles club on the same stage graced by some of comedy’s biggest names. He returned to San Antonio and began performing open-mic sets three nights a week. A year-and-a-half later, he was in Los Angeles when a chance meeting with a talent agent landed him an appearance in the Showtime documentary “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.” The film, released in April 2013, follows Henline and four other veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as they work with comedy A-listers to explore their experiences through the healing power of humor.

Three years later, Henline is still healing. He wants to continue to help others do the same. He says one of the biggest driving forces behind him is the memory of his fellow Soldiers who didn’t come home with him that fateful day.

“It’s that same old thing, you’ve got to drive on,” Henline said. “Survivor’s guilt was really bad for me in the beginning. But you’ve got to live on for those who don’t live anymore, the guys who sacrificed it all. There were four other guys in that humvee who didn’t make it. I sat on the couch, and I felt sorry for myself. I gave up. But what’s that doing for them? I’ve got to live on for them. Any of them would trade places with me. They’d rather be in pain and look funny and be here. Their families would rather have them back. That’s a big push for me that helps drive me on.”

Former NCO burned in IED blast lifts himself, others up through stand-up comedy

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

There’s something striking about Bobby Henline.

No, it’s not the roughly depilated head or the craggy striations seared into the former staff sergeant’s face, the result of a 2007 roadside bomb attack in Iraq that struck the humvee he was riding in. Henline was the only one of the vehicle’s five occupants to survive the blast. More than 38 percent of his body was burned. His head was scorched to the skull. His left hand was so badly singed it would eventually be amputated. Despite 46 surgeries and six months of rehabilitation, Henline’s likeness was permanently altered.

But that’s not what sticks out about him.

What is most palpable about Henline, a San Jose, Calif., native, is his affable demeanor. He speaks with a quick hop-step cadence, punctuated often with a hearty laugh. The rhythm crescendos when he talks about his family, his fellow Soldiers, his friends or the thing that he says has helped him keep going after suffering such a harrowing ordeal — humor.

Today, Henline is a stand-up comedian. In fact, he is one of the industry’s budding talents, having performed in some of comedy’s meccas such as The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and appearing in the Showtime documentary, “Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.”

Henline says he turned to comedy as a coping mechanism — his days vocally directing Soldiers as an NCO helped him summon the courage to take the stage for the first time. It ended up renewing his zeal for life. And he hopes sharing his story can help other injured — and sometimes disfigured — Soldiers face their lives with the same exuberance.

“I didn’t think I’d get a job out of it,” said Henline before a Fourth of July performance at the Joke Joint Comedy Showcase in Houston. “It was fun for me. It was a release. It’s always how I like to deal with stuff, with my humor. So it was good for me. It was just a fun thing to do. And it just started building up and building up. Next thing you know, it’s serious. Comedy got serious.”

‘That’s all I remember that day’

Henline has only a couple vivid memories of the day his life changed.

It was April 7, 2007, and Henline was part of a convoy that was making stops at various forward operating bases, or FOBs, delivering supplies and transporting Soldiers north of Baghdad, Iraq. He was a part of the 82nd Airborne Division and was weeks into his fourth deployment.

“We were doing the typical, ‘Get the convoy ready,’ that morning,” he said. “There are two things I remember from that day. One was that there were two Soldiers in the vehicle who normally didn’t ride with me. I also remember getting a second cup of coffee. The S-4 captain, who was sitting behind me, he wasn’t there yet. So we were sitting around waiting, and I ran and grabbed another cup of coffee while we were waiting on him.

“That’s all I remember that day.”

Henline’s vehicle was at the front of the convoy traveling near the Diyala province village of Zaganiyah when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath it. The blast hurled the humvee nearly 50 feet down the road. Four Soldiers — Capt. Jonathan Grassbaugh, Spc. Ebe Emolo, Spc. Levi Hoover and Pfc. Rodney McCandless — were killed instantly. When fellow Soldiers reached the vehicle, they had to smother the flames burning Henline’s upper body and dig the broken teeth out of his mouth to allow him to breathe.

Humor amid hardship

Two weeks later, Henline emerged from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, thus beginning a medical odyssey that would provide many painful moments, both physically and emotionally.

But one thing came easy to him — humor.

“I started joking around, even in intensive care, in the first month,” Henline said. “A lot of that I don’t remember. But I do remember one day they were walking me and I was mad because they wouldn’t give me water. And I wanted water. So I was walking around the nurses’ desk and I told them, ‘When I get out of here, we’re having a water party. Squirt guns, balloons. No alcohol allowed. Just water.’ I think that was the first time I really started joking around with people.”

Henline says laughter helped keep spirits high for him and the medical personnel working with him. It also helped his wife, Connie, and the rest of his family cope with their loved one’s ordeal and changed appearance.

“Joking around at the hospital, that was my way of using my sense of humor to let my family know I was OK, to let staff know I was OK,” he said. “It was how [I chose] to deal with the pain during physical therapy, laughing about it, joking with the other patients. I could see my family worrying. My mom couldn’t even get me a drink. She was shaking just trying to put the straw to my mouth, real scared. So it was kind of like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m still here. Even if today I’m kind of groggy.’ I’d still make a little joke to let them know, ‘It’s OK. I’m inside here. I just can’t move right now.’

“I think when I was talking a lot better and able to sit up and stuff, that’s when they were finally like, ‘OK, he’s still in there. He’s back. He’s still being that goofball.’”

From surgery to the stage

Henline spent almost the next two years working to regain a sense of normalcy.

His face was scarred by the burns he suffered and puffed by various skin-graft surgeries. His left ear was gone; his right was reduced to a rough-hewn stub. His smashed left hand eventually became too painful to bear, and he asked doctors to amputate it. After removing the protective goggles he was forced to wear for a year, it took time to get accustomed to the stares.

While jokes helped, Henline couldn’t shake the notion that he needed to heed a call. He just didn’t know what it was. Then his occupational therapist made a “stupid” suggestion.

“One day she told me, ‘You should try stand-up comedy!’” Henline said. “She has this really high-pitched voice, one of those happy people all the time. ‘You’ve gotta try stand-up comedy. You’ve gotta try it!’ I’m like ‘That’s stupid. It’s not gonna work. This, here at the hospital, is funny. We could joke about it here.’ I wasn’t gonna go up on stage and people are gonna go, ‘Oh, you got blown up in Iraq? That’s funny.’”

Henline said he grew up admiring comedians such as George Carlin, Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. But he never considered actually taking a stage. However, after a steady stream of good-natured pestering from his therapist, he obliged, sealing the deal with a pinkie swear.

“My occupational therapist’s sister lives in L.A., and she’s in a band,” Henline said. “So one day, I’m going out there for a consultation to see a doctor. She tells me, ‘My sister’s in entertainment. She might know a place you could try it while you’re out there.’ Sure enough, her sister calls me and says, ‘Hey. Comedy Store. Go sign up at 5 o’clock.’”

Henline’s very first set took place August 2009 at the famed Los Angeles club on the same stage graced by some of comedy’s biggest names.

“It went horrible,” Henline remembers. “My joke I still do today about being a rare birth defect was the first joke I really wrote. No one laughed. But I tag it with, ‘And now my mom thinks she has the right to complain to me about her acid reflux.’ I didn’t think that was the joke. I thought the joke that my mom was in the circus as a fire-eater was the funny part. But they related to the acid reflux better. So I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really the punch line.’ When I got off stage, another comic said to me, ‘I really liked the part about the acid reflux.’ That gave me a little hint, like ‘OK, maybe I can write a joke.’”

And so, Henline returned to San Antonio, where he still resides to be near the medical facilities he frequents, and began performing open-mic sets three nights a week.

A year-and-a-half later, he was in Los Angeles when a chance meeting with a talent agent landed him an appearance in the Showtime documentary. The film, released in April 2013, follows Henline and four other veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as they work with comedy A-listers to explore their experiences through the healing power of humor.

Heeding the call

Henline’s brush with some of comedy’s biggest names did well to instill confidence in his work. But it was feedback from fellow wounded veterans that made him realize his newfound profession was something more than a personal outlet.

“Some of the best feedback I’ve heard comes from guys who are out of the military now,” Henline said. “Two guys — burn survivors, [who] I visited in the hospital a long time ago — have said that what I do helps them. It helps them out in public. They both live in the San Antonio area. They both have been called ‘Bobby Henline’ in public — us burnt guys all look alike. They told me not to feel bad when people call me J.R. Martinez (another famed U.S. Army veteran and burn survivor), because they get the same thing, only they’re called Bobby Henline, the comedian. But they said it really helps them. It’s always breaking the ice for people to feel more comfortable coming up and talking to them. They said they like that.

“Once I started seeing that it could make a difference in people’s lives by going on stage and making people laugh about this, it makes it easier for them, too, to approach somebody else when they see someone with a disfigurement. To know that, hey, we want to talk. We’re not dead. We’re the same person. We like to have dinner, have a drink, go to a movie. We have personalities. We’re not all angry about what happened to us. It’s OK to ask.”

Henline has not limited himself to comedy for his outreach efforts. He conducts motivational speaking visits at schools, colleges, companies and churches. He makes himself available to other wounded warriors in San Antonio hospitals and clinics to give them someone to speak with that might better understand their experiences.

Henline also formed the Crosshairs Comedy troupe with other wounded veterans. The group performs at comedy clubs throughout the country, helping each other with their sets as well as with the emotional setbacks caused by their combat experiences.

Henline performed during Fourth of July weekend in Houston with two members of the troupe — Anthony Torino, a U.S. Air Force veteran, and Raul Sanchez, an Army veteran. Both men lauded Henline’s efforts while on stage. Before the show, Torino jokingly lamented nearly receiving credit for one of Henline’s signature jokes.

“We’ve done a lot of shows together, and I used to sit in the back of the audience,” Torino said. “I used to work with people who were burnt [when I was] a therapist. I’d watch Bobby’s first sets and I was, like, ‘People aren’t paying attention to him. They’re staring at him.’ And he doesn’t give them a chance to just look. He’s used to it; I’m used to it. But the rest of the crowd is like, ‘Holy heck.’ And so I was, like, give them time to go, ‘Holy heck.’ And I was like, ‘What could he say? — You should see the other guy!’ Because he was in a fight, you know what I mean? And the first time he did it, it went great. Turned out to be perfect.”

But Henline didn’t deliver that opening line until he received the same advice from comedian Brad Garrett, a fact Torino dismisses.

“He wouldn’t listen to me,” Torino said. “But Brad Garrett tells him to do it, and …

“Seriously, Bobby is funny. And all the good things he does for us and other people are just awesome.”

NCO lessons shine through

Henline earned his sergeant stripes in 2004, just before joining the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He says his days as an NCO continue to reverberate throughout his life, both personally and professionally.

“Definitely, being a Soldier helped a lot of things,” Henline said. “Especially becoming an NCO — you’re used to talking to the crowds and giving classes and things like that. Also, being burnt meant wherever I went, I got stared at. It didn’t matter. So I figure if I went up on stage and I stood there and people stared at me, it’d be just like me going to Walmart. There wouldn’t be anything different. The attitude of pulling through and making sure you’re OK and all the training definitely comes into being strong.”

Henline also says he enjoyed his days leading other Soldiers. He credits his time with younger Soldiers as the reason he can enjoy the camaraderie of his fellow troupe comics. They are lessons he feels today’s NCOs can continue to employ.

“Leadership style? I’m definitely a participator,” Henline said. “I delegate if there’s enough people around. But if not, I’m gonna get in there. You don’t want to lose a skill by just sitting there giving orders and demands and make everyone else do it, and then you forget how to do it yourself. I was maybe too soft sometimes when I needed to be a little meaner. But I’d rather talk to them and try to coach them that way. I wanted to learn about the individual, who they are. Because they’re just like your children. You know, ‘Which one handles being yelled at better? Which one learns better being talked to?’ So as you get to know your Soldiers better, you can’t just treat them all exactly the same. Because they’re all different personalities and they respond differently. That goes for leadership in the military, raising kids, teachers in schools. In every type of leadership, you need to know what makes the best team. That’s how you make your team work well together.”

There’s one more thing that drives Henline and keeps him feverishly on the trail of his comedic dreams.

“It’s that same old thing, you’ve gotta drive on,” Henline said. “Survivor’s guilt was really bad for me in the beginning. But you’ve gotta live on for those who don’t live anymore, the guys who sacrificed it all. There were four other guys in that humvee who didn’t make it. I sat on the couch, and I felt sorry for myself. I gave up. But what’s that doing for them? I gotta live on for them. Any of them would trade places with me. They’d rather be in pain and look funny and be here. Their families would rather have them back. That’s a big push for me that helps drive me on.”

 

Henline highlights: A selection of Bobby Henline’s jokes

  • “I was burned over 38 percent of my body. Yes, I expect a discount at my cremation.”
  • “I don’t know if you girls know this, but once you go cooked, you’re hooked.”
  • “I did four tours in Iraq. I loved my job. I had a great time. But seriously, that last tour was a real blast. … My humvee got blown up by a roadside bomb. The crazy thing is that it took me four tours and an IED just to figure out my lucky number was three.”
  • “I love messing with people. I love going to CVS or Walgreens. I get a hand basket and fill it up full of scar removal. I just want to see the look on the cashier’s face. … I love Fourth of July. I go to the fireworks stands and say, ‘Just give me the same stuff you gave me last year. It was great!’”
  • “Over the last six years, I’ve had 46 skin-graft surgeries. I don’t know if you know what that is but, basically, they take good skin from one part of your body to replace the burnt skin in another part. Essentially, they make a skin quilt out of you. They took my stomach and put it on top of my head. Now, I gotta pick lint out of my ears. I get a headache when I eat too much. And that’s not even the worst of it — I’m mooning all of you right now.”
  • “If my comedy career does take off, I’ll be the first comedian ever to show up to his roast pre-cooked. Comedy Central will have to change the name to ‘Serving Leftovers at Bobby Henline’s Reheating Special.’”

Center for the Intrepid helps amputees reach their full potential

Also this week:

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

Waking up to the sound of an explosion was not something out of the ordinary for Sgt. Edwin Gonzalez during his tour in Afghanistan. But the blast he heard before the break of dawn July 28, 2012, began a day he would like to forget.

Gonzalez uses his running leg to lift weights June 18, 2013, at the CFI. “Before, I wanted to do FBI SWAT, but this experience has changed me,” he said. “I love working out. I love training; I love training others. It’s awesome. Its great seeing someone come it not being able to walk, all scrawny and whatnot, and seeing them walk out healthy and strong.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Sgt. Edwin Gonzalez uses his running prosthtic to lift weights June 18, 2013, at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “Before, I wanted to do FBI SWAT, but this experience has changed me,” he said. “I love working out. I love training; I love training others. It’s awesome. Its great seeing someone come it not being able to walk, all scrawny and whatnot, and seeing them walk out healthy and strong.” (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

Gonzalez’s unit was on a mission to create a decoy to assess the reaction of individuals in the area suspected of making improvised explosive devices. When he heard the blast, he thought it was someone clearing an IED out of the way, someone just doing their job.

But the Soldiers realized one of their own had been hit in the explosion, and the operation was immediately abandoned. Their new mission was to get their wounded comrade to safety.  Yet before Gonzalez knew it, another explosion had gone off, hitting another friend.

Gonzalez and the other Soldiers made their way to the wounded, avoiding the roads where they could.

“I woke up in a ditch,” Gonzalez recalled. “It felt like it happened instantly — at one moment, I was on my feet and the next, I was on my back.”

He had stepped on an IED made of the carbon rods found in batteries.

Gonzalez looked down and immediately realized he was in trouble. He could see a black foot through his shredded boot, his leg dangling below the knee by strands.

A buddy close behind Gonzalez called out to him, “Can you put a tourniquet on?”

After he applied the tourniquet, Gonzalez was carried to a recovery vehicle. He waited several hours for the two other wounded Soldiers before being evacuated to the nearest forward operating base.

“Thanks be to God, we are all doing well now,” he said.

From Afghanistan he was transferred to Germany, then to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He spent about a month at the Brooke Army Medical Center before heading across the street to the Center for the Intrepid, where he continues his rehabilitation.

An outpatient facility under BAMC’s Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, the CFI provides a full spectrum of services to amputees, as well as to burn victims and limb salvage patients with residual function loss. Rehab includes physical and behavioral medicine, case management, occupational and physical therapy, wound care and prosthetic fabrication and fitting. The center uses some of the most advanced technology in the world to assist wounded Soldiers as they return to the highest possible levels of physical, psychological and emotional function. Even after suffering injuries that not too long ago would have ended their lives, many Soldiers are able to continue to serve on active duty. They may even deploy several times, proving they are as strong as ever.

A center full of hope

The state-of-the art care Gonzalez has received at the CFI has changed his life, he said.  He has been inspired by other amputees and his therapists, and now wants to help others. When he has finished his rehabilitation, he hopes to go back to school to become a physical therapist or a personal trainer.

“Before, I wanted to do FBI SWAT, but this experience has changed me. I love working out. I love training; I love training others. It’s awesome. It’s great seeing someone come in not being able to walk, all scrawny and whatnot, and seeing them walk out healthy and strong.”

Gonzalez said that even if he had known he would lose his leg, he still would have joined the Army.

“I’d do it all over again,” he said. “I have no regrets.”

The best technology and care at their fingertips

Though Gonzalez still has a lot of nerve pain, the prosthetics created for him at the CFI allow him to pursue almost any physical activity.

“They work with you for everything,” Gonzalez said. “If you want to rock climb, they have legs for that. Swimming, biking — they have legs for everything.

“I have a boxing leg. It’s pretty much a running leg with a heel in the back — like a foot with no toes. I have that bounce, but I still have leverage if I need to lean back quickly or come in for a strike. It’s pretty cool.”

Staff Sgt. Lennis Gray practices with his prosthetic June 17, 2013, by picking up clothespins and attaching them to a plastic board. Gray has been a patient at the CFI since February 2013. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Staff Sgt. Lennis Gray practices using his prosthetic June 17, 2013, by picking up clothespins and attaching them to a plastic board. Gray has been a patient at the CFI since February 2013. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

In addition to in-house prosthetic fitting and fabrication, Soldiers at the CFI have access to a wide range of the best technologies to help them reach their full athletic potential.

A motion analysis lab assists specialists in detecting the slightest irregularity in a Soldier’s gait on different types of terrain. They use infrared cameras, force plates in the floor and electromyography to measure motion, ground reaction forces and electrical activity during muscle contraction. Therapists and doctors use the data to assess a patient’s progress and tailor his or her treatment.

Occupational therapists utilize the center’s fully functional model apartment to help Solders practice the skills needed for independent living. Soldiers can also immerse themselves in a 3-D, computer-assisted rehabilitation environment that uses sensors placed on the body to simulate interactive, lifelike situations on a 300-degree screen.

Physical therapists use cutting-edge sports equipment to help Soldiers regain strength and range of motion.  In addition to an indoor track, rock-climbing walls and several weight rooms, they can use an anti-gravity treadmill to gradually increase the amount of weight they bear while walking. In the natatorium, Soldiers body surf on the FlowRider, a wave simulator that helps them increase their balance and core strength.

They are not alone

Master Sgt. Dan Hendrix was first treated at a civilian hospital in Illinois after bones shot through the bottom of his foot during a parachuting accident. He went through treatments for a year to save his leg, but two staph infections eventually made amputation his only option.

“That’s when I was sent here, and thank God,” Hendrix said. “The prosthetics care I got out there compared to the prosthetics care I receive here at the CFI, it’s like night and day. At the civilian hospitals, they are not used to treating someone who wants to be so active.”

He recalled the “pirate leg” he had received from a civilian company — nothing more than a metal pole with a wooden foot at the end.

Gray uses his training socket to pick up clothespins. He controls the prosthetic’s elbow by moving his shoulder, and turns the wrist right or left by contracting his triceps or biceps. To open and close the hand, he flexes both his triceps and biceps at the same time.  (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Gray uses his training socket to pick up clothespins. He controls the prosthetic’s elbow by moving his shoulder, and turns the wrist right or left by contracting his triceps or biceps. To open and close the hand, he flexes both his triceps and biceps at the same time. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“No flexibility. No bending. No moving. Nothing. Now, with this new leg, I can move, pivot. I’m part of the kayaking program, and I’m even starting to run a little bit. I just want to get back to doing everything I was doing before.”

Staff Sgt. Lennis Gray, an Active Guard Reservist, was also treated at a civilian hospital after a car accident led to the amputation of his left arm. He received a prosthetic from a hospital in Nashville, Tenn., but became discouraged by his lack of progress.

“They only gave me a four-hour block of instruction,” Gray recalled. “It was very frustrating; I could close it, but I couldn’t open it. Frankly, I didn’t even wear it much at all.”

Gray was sent to the CFI and instantly regained his motivation. He described his progress as he practiced picking up brightly colored clothespins with his training prosthetic and clipping them to a circular board hung above the table.

“I want to be able to use my prosthetic on a day-to-day basis — really use it, not just put it on for show-and-tell. I thought I would never get to that point. But now, coming here and seeing the progress of all the others, I realize it can be done.”

Gray flexed his triceps to rotate the prosthetic in the other direction.

“There were probably amputees at the hospital where I was, but I never saw one,” he said. “Then I got here, and there are so many others like me. They really encourage me because, even though they have had this misfortune, they just drive on. They are just being themselves — proud to be alive, just like I am.”

The sky is the limit

John Fergason, chief prosthetist at the CFI, watched Hendrix walk back and forth. With each step, Hendrix put his weight on the prosthetic carefully, compensating for discomfort.

Master Sgt. Dan Hendrix explains to chief prosthetist John Fergason  where he is experiencing pain. Within minutes, Fergason had reshaped the inside of the prosthetic, allowing Hendrix to walk out of the CFI pain-free. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Master Sgt. Dan Hendrix explains to Chief Prosthetist John Fergason where he is experiencing pain. Within minutes, Fergason had reshaped the inside of the prosthetic, allowing Hendrix to walk out of the CFI pain-free. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“Every time you take a step, just tell me when you feel pain,” Fergason told Hendrix.

Hendrix walked back across the room. “Now… now… now…” he said.

From the timing of the pain, Fergason knew exactly where to adjust the prosthetic. He took the leg to his shop in the next room to reshape a small section.

When Hendrix put his prosthetic back on, he was surprised the pain was completely gone. He stood with his head high and walked with a spring in his step.

“What I just did probably couldn’t be done in the field,” Fergason said, “but I train these guys how to make adjustments on their own prosthetics. If someone is deployed or is declared deployable, we set them up with extras and backups and some tools to service them.

“It’s not a career-ending situation for a lot of the guys. Some choose it to be because they can’t go back to doing exactly what they were before.  Boots-on-the-ground infantry might be difficult for someone with an above-knee amputation and an injury on their other side.  But many, like Hendrix, have no problem. NCOs should never limit them.”

Fergason said he hopes NCOs will acknowledge the capability that someone has with limb loss. He spoke of a former patient who is now leading a Ranger unit. While other Soldiers are changing socks, he changes legs or liners. But he is absolutely capable of performing all that is required of him and more, Fergason said.

“NCOs shouldn’t have a preconceived notion of what someone can or can’t do. Let them show you,” Fergason said. “They wouldn’t be back to you if they hadn’t already demonstrated that they could do it. Now that they are back, you have to trust that their rehab has been appropriate and has prepared them — otherwise, they wouldn’t be there.”

Hendrix, now on active duty and stationed at Fort Sam Houston, recently celebrated 20 years in the Army. He said that once his leg was amputated, he was astonished at his progress and at what he was capable of. It was a blessing in disguise, he said, and he is not going to let anything hold him back.

“I was in a wheelchair and on crutches for over a year,” he said.  “I was in a state of limbo — one step forward, two steps back. Now, I’m taking leaps, jumps, runs forward. I’m doing it all.”

To contact Meghan Portillo, email meghan.r.portillo.ctr@mail.mil.

Also this week:

Fergason molds a prosthetic in his shop June 17, 2013, at the CFI. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Fergason molds a prosthetic in his shop June 17, 2013, at the CFI. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

Center for the Intrepid program trains wounded Soldiers to run again

Also this week:

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

Master Sgt. Tim Crusing dug his toes into the carpet and took off running down the hallway, a smile across his face.

Prosthetist Ryan Blanck examines the fit of Tim Cursing's Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeketal Orthosis and knee brace June 17, 2013, at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Blanck created the IDEO to help limb-salvage patients regain their ability to run. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Prosthetist Ryan Blanck examines the fit of Master Sgt. Tim Crusing’s Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeketal Orthosis and knee brace June 17, 2013, at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Blanck created the IDEO to help limb-salvage patients regain their ability to run. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

He had just met with prosthetist Ryan Blanck for a fitting of his Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis, or IDEO, a device used by Soldiers who have trouble walking or standing because of lower leg injuries. Crusing is not an amputee, but the IDEO he wears resembles a prosthetic. It is worn over his injured leg, allowing him to run once more.

Crusing laughed. “This feels great. Can I get one for my good leg?”

After suffering a severe wound to his leg during training and then breaking it while hiking years later, doctors had told Crusing they might need to fuse his ankle, which would have taken away his range of motion. But Crusing refused to give up hope and opted for a less aggressive, cutting-edge approach. His doctor, who had completed his residency at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI), part of the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, sent Crusing there for an evaluation. Crusing was thrilled to learn he was approved as a candidate for the center’s Return to Run Clinical Pathway.

Whether Soldiers want to get back to the fight or simply want to be able to chase their kids around the backyard, the Return to Run program changes their lives.  For now, the IDEO is only available at the CFI.  As more become aware of what the device can do, the program has remained at capacity, and several new participants join each week to learn to use the IDEO and train their muscles to run again.

“Don’t think that this is just for someone who has had a traumatic injury like a limb salvage from a blast injury,” said Johnny Owens, a physical therapist and director of limb salvage rehabilitation at the CFI. “Now we’re really getting a lot more who have bad arthritis or an ankle sprain from a jump and just can’t run any more. If there is any lower leg pain or loss of leg power, that individual may be a candidate for the program.”

The start of something new

Prosthetic orthotic technician Megan Wright, left, constructs a hip brace, while Richard Perez, also a prosthetic orthotic technician at the CFI, works on an IDEO.  (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Prosthetic orthotic technician Megan Wright, left, constructs a hip brace, while Richard Perez, also a prosthetic orthotic technician at the CFI, works on an IDEO. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

In 2008, Owens and Lt. Col. Joseph Hsu, an orthopedic surgeon at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, noticed that though new surgical techniques were allowing many wounded warriors to keep their legs, the Soldiers often returned years later requesting amputations. Soldiers expressed disappointment because of the limitations imposed on them by their injuries, and envied the amputees who were able to run, jump, climb, participate in active sports and remain on active duty.“They wanted to amputate because of their inability to run,” Owens said. “There were a lot of reasons why they were not able to run — they didn’t have power in their legs from their injury, the joint was too destroyed and they had a lot of pain, or they didn’t have the range of motion they needed at the foot and ankle. We needed a solution.”

Hsu and Owens shared their ideas with Ryan Blanck, a prosthetist at the CFI. Using inspiration from an amputee’s running prosthetic, Blank created the IDEO, an energy-storing device that is worn over the injured leg and supports the foot and ankle.

The device can fit into boots or tennis shoes, with a foot and ankle plate connected by carbon-fiber rods to a cuff below the knee. When the foot hits the ground, the IDEO cycles the energy and delivers it back to propel the individual forward.

Patients’ success with the device increased dramatically with intense rehabilitation and instruction on how to use it correctly, so Owens integrated use of the IDEO into the CFI’s existing rehabilitation program to create the Return to Run Clinical Pathway.

A life-changing program

Every IDEO is custom-made. Initially, each Soldier is evaluated by either Blanck or John Fergason, director of prosthetics at the CFI. Using a mold of the Soldier’s leg, they create a temporary, plastic version of the device.  The Soldier wears the plastic IDEO to ascertain its effectiveness, and is given a physical therapy evaluation by Owens. Together the team decides if an individual is a good candidate for the program. Crusing, whose injuries made him an ideal fit for the program, recalled the liberation he felt the first time he tried on the IDEO.

 

Joseph Mallett, right, a physical therapy assistant, shows Staff Sgt. Krish Lalu how to correctly perform an exercise as part of the Return to Run Clinical Pathway program June 17, 2013, at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. On each leg, Lalu wears an IDEO, a device developed at the CFI to help wounded warriors run again. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Joseph Mallett, right, a physical therapy assistant, shows Staff Sgt. Krish Lalu how to correctly perform an exercise as part of the Return to Run Clinical Pathway program June 17, 2013, at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. On each leg, Lalu wears an IDEO, a device developed at the CFI to help wounded warriors run again. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“Just putting on that fragile plastic mold of the IDEO, it was the first pain-free step that I had taken in 12 years,” he said. “I almost broke down. … I have pain every day, but when I’m wearing it, it immediately takes it away.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Rory L. Malloy, commandant of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, had a similar experience. During a training exercise June 16, 1995, Malloy stepped on a tree branch while carrying a fellow Soldier, breaking his own leg in seven places. Luckily, a surgeon was able to save Malloy’s leg, and he remained on active duty. But over the years, he developed debilitating arthritis in his ankle.

“I told my surgeon, Dr. Justin Orr in El Paso, ‘Either cut my leg off or fix it. I can’t handle the pain anymore,’” Malloy said. “That’s how bad it got.

“The only options were to live with the pain, amputate the leg or cut the ankle out and do a fusion — put a few cadaver parts in. So that’s what I went with, and all of the expectations that I had for the surgery were exceeded by far. Dr. Orr is just a phenomenal surgeon.”

Malloy said though the surgery relieved more than 80 percent of his pain, he would not be able to walk normally and would never be able to run again. However, the IDEO changed all of that. Eighteen years after his injury, he is learning how to run again and is 100-percent pain-free.

“Before, I always had to think about what I couldn’t do,” Malloy said. “My daughter would say, ‘Hey dad, let’s go out and shoot some hoops,’ or ‘Let’s go for a hike.’ Well, I couldn’t. When my wife and I would go to the mall, we always had to figure out where we could park, what doors we could go into that had benches nearby for me to rest my foot.

“Now, I go out and I walk all day without any pain. I’m able to ride a bicycle now; we are going rock climbing this Friday. I’m able to throw a rucksack on and do all of the military stuff I used to do. They have given me my life back.”

Rehabilitation: Pushing the limit

Four to six weeks after Soldiers’ initial trip to the CFI, a carbon and fiberglass version of the device is made, and they return to the center for about a month of physical therapy and training. Malloy emphasized that this period of instruction and rehab is as important as the IDEO itself.

Lalu, left, and Master Sgt. Tim Cursing wear IDEOs as they exercise the muscles they need to run during the Return to Run program in June 2013 at the CFI. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Lalu, left, and Crusing wear IDEOs as they exercise the muscles they need to run during the Return to Run program in June 2013 at the CFI. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“It has taken months for me to get this far, and it may be even another year before I can run 2 miles,” he said. “The instruction Soldiers receive through the Return to Run program sets them up for success. Without that time and training, they will not be able to reap the benefits of the IDEO.”

As muscles change and grow, the IDEO needs to be altered. During participants’ time in the program, it is continuously adjusted to provide a comfortable fit.

“As you go through the training, it’s like a prosthetic — you have to tweak it,” Owens said. “At the end of the training, we hope to have a perfectly fitting device.”

Soldiers work hard during training to push themselves to their limits, because if something goes wrong with the IDEO, therapists hope it will happen while they are at the center so corrections can be made.

“Your body changes, and you don’t really know what you need until you try it out,” Crusing said. “That’s one of the reasons the Return to Run program is so important. You have to come here and use it in a pretty vigorous fashion in order to figure out what’s going to work for you. Plus, if you adjust anything, it will affect other things. With each adjustment, it gets better.”

Training begins with simple but clear instruction on how to step with the device; Soldiers are taught how to use their hips, to keep their weight forward and to not turn out their feet. As they progress, they begin to exercise harder, jumping from side to side and strengthening their legs with weight training. Wearing the IDEO, they work the muscles they need to run.

Crusing and Staff Sgt. Krish Lalu were among the Soldiers training in the program on a hot July afternoon. Sweat ran down the Soldiers’ foreheads as therapists led participants in exercises to challenge their bodies and the IDEO. They hopped over obstacles, participated in boxing drills and sprinted as fast as they were able, planting their feet firmly in the grass as they turned sharply around the trees.

Lalu, who had lost 85 to 90 percent of both shin muscles due to a late diagnosis of compartment syndrome, said he was no longer on medication, and no longer in pain.

The IDEO’s footplate and ankle brace are connected by carbon-fiber rods to a cuff below the knee. When the foot hits the ground, the IDEO cycles the energy and delivers it back to propel the individual forward. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
The IDEO’s footplate and ankle brace are connected by carbon-fiber rods to a cuff below the knee. When the foot hits the ground, the IDEO cycles the energy and delivers it back to propel the individual forward. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“Right now, only my pride hurts,” he said after finishing the outside group exercises. “It’s so hot out there, and some of those exercises are quite challenging.”

Participants’ levels of fitness and ability varied widely. Some had injuries more serious than others, but the looks of determination made it clear that each was there for a purpose ­— they were there to run.

Because Lalu lacks strength in his shin muscles, his toes flop to the ground first when he walks. The IDEO forces him into a normal gait, and he has now been cleared to return to a conventional unit. He reports in September to the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Lalu said. “It will be a miracle if I can work myself up and go to jump school. That gives me something to strive for.  Jumping won’t be a problem, but I need to work on my running. That’s the only thing that scares me — being able to keep up with the running that is required at Airborne school.  If I can overcome that hurdle, then I should breeze through it.”

Joseph Mallett, a physical therapy assistant and contractor at the CFI who is also a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve, explained that the program concentrates on running as the basis for other activities.

“Running is pretty much the starting point for any activity, whether it is Airborne, air assault, or whether they want to do triathlons,” Mallett said. “It’s inspiring. They are able to use this as a platform.”

Mallett said many in the program haven’t run in years. They are encouraged by the progress of others in the program or of the amputees they see at the CFI, and they make new goals for themselves. Mallet said he often sees participants reach levels of fitness far beyond what they had achieved before their injury.

“They go on a lot of trips such as skiing, hiking, skydiving or kayaking,” he said. “They push themselves to reach new goals, and having someone else there who has a similar injury is more inspiration. They drive a little bit harder together.”

Program participants return to the CFI several weeks after finishing their training to pick up a backup IDEO as well as a thinner, lightweight version that can be worn in dress shoes. If they feel they need more practice and if their unit approves, Soldiers may stay a few extra weeks for more training. Once they leave with their backup device, they usually only return to the CFI for replacements or adjustments.

Back in action

Many factors influence a wounded Soldier’s decision to remain in or leave the military, but the ability to run is often the deciding factor for whether he or she is allowed to stay on active duty or considered for medical discharge, Owens said.

More than 450 Soldiers have received IDEOs and participated in the Return to Run Clinical Pathway since the program’s inception. Of the first 146 who went through the program, Owens said 51 percent returned to active duty.

Many of those who have returned to their units have deployed several times, and they bring back a wealth of information that helps the CFI team improve the IDEO.

“Anytime one of our guys is deployed, we try and get a breakdown of how things went,” Owens said. “One thing a lot of them said was that with fast-rope operations, they felt like their knee might buckle. So we built a knee portion specifically for fast roping and jumping. Some said the device was busting through their shoes, so we are working with New Balance to develop a new shoe design — more robust to hold up to it.  What they tell us after these deployments is huge, because it’s all brand new.”

 ‘Give Soldiers the opportunity to heal’

While Malloy was training at the CFI, he saw a young recruiter come into the program with only a week to get the IDEO and learn how to use it. Malloy said he was enraged when the recruiter’s commander called and said, “It must be nice just to get to do PT every day.” Malloy said he called that commander and had a chat with him.

Lalu, right, practices boxing drills with an instructor during the Return to Run program June 17, 2013, at the CFI. The drills teach program participants how to properly use their hips while wearing the IDEO. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Lalu, right, practices boxing drills with an instructor during the Return to Run program June 17, 2013, at the CFI. The drills teach program participants how to properly use their hips while wearing the IDEO. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

“Participating in the Return to Run program for at least 3 to 4 weeks is critical,” he said, “because you get the strength back, you understand the device, you learn how to use it so it doesn’t become something that just sits on a bookshelf when you leave here.

“A lot of senior leaders in our Army will talk a good game, but it’s much harder to step up to the plate and actually do it. If you have someone who is injured, embrace the situation and give them the opportunity to heal. In my case, my senior leaders have allowed me to get the surgery and have time for recovery and to get the IDEO. Not all Soldiers are afforded that opportunity, because some leaders are being very narrow-minded.”

Malloy emphasized that if leaders give their Soldiers the time and the tools they need to recover, in return they will get back a stronger Soldier who can actually perform. Without that support, Soldiers will be limited in what they can do for the Army.

“I’m very blessed that I have Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler, John Sparks and other folks who have supported me in getting through this,” Malloy said. “SMA Chandler is a great example of the leadership we need all the way across our force. He could have easily said, ‘Hey, you’re broken; you are going to be out for a month getting the surgery and another month getting the IDEO. I need a commandant full-time, so I’m going to have to replace you.’ He could have done that, but he didn’t. Instead, he encouraged me to come down here to the CFI and get myself fixed so that I can get back into the fight and continue to serve.”

Could this be for me?

If you think you might be a good candidate and could benefit from the Return to Run Clinical Pathway, contact your primary doctor for a referral. For more information about the program, contact the CFI at 210-916-6100. To visit the BAMC website for more information about the CFI, click here. →

To contact Meghan Portillo, email meghan.r.portillo.ctr@mail.mil.

Also this week: