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SSG Brandon K. Wooldridge

Army amputee wants to pick up where he left off

 

By William Cole

The Honolulu Advertiser

 

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, EAST RANGE — The eight Charlie Company soldiers, wet and muddy from low-crawling through brush beneath ironwood and eucalyptus trees, gathered in a semi-circle for the training "after-action review."

 

The fire teams had taken turns advancing against an "enemy" observation post in the woodsy undergrowth, with a cacophony of blank gunfire ensuing when contact was made.

 

"Movement techniques were good. Only thing I saw was communication," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Stalinski. "Always gotta hear that voice — team leader's gotta talk to you."

 

Spc. Brandon Wooldridge bears another distinction from combat: His left leg ends six inches below the knee. From there down, it's carbon fiber and titanium that's sheathed in his black combat boot.

 

Despite that, Wooldridge's movements and appearance are pretty much indistinguishable from other soldiers, and that's how he wants it to stay.

 

Ten months after the 24-year-old's calf was blown off in a firefight and doctors amputated his lower leg, the Schofield Barracks soldier is back with his unit, and his goal is to stay infantry.

 

"I'm supposed to be able to do that. That's what I'm pushing for," he said. "My medical board's in November. Hopefully, they'll let me stay."

 

The North Carolina man, who decided to make the Army his life and career at the beginning of the deployment to Iraq, detoured onto his uncertain odyssey on Nov. 13, 2004.

 

The 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhound" was in a three-Humvee convoy in the northern tip of the Sunni Triangle, about 40 miles southwest of Kirkuk, when he and fellow Schofield soldiers came under heavy fire.

 

"There was a lot of stuff they had fired. A few (rocket-propelled grenades). Some people said there might have been a roadside bomb. Lot of heavy machine gun fire," said Wooldridge, who has been in the Army for three years.

 

Manning a M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon in the open-backed Humvee, Wooldridge remembers first taking cover, and then quickly returning fire over the makeshift armor hung on the wooden side rails of the vehicle.

 

"Down and up, down and up (we fired). I remember looking down and I watched one of the rounds ricochet, and we had been talking about it before — that (the improvised armor) ain't gonna stop nuthin'. It did," he said with a laugh.

 

REALITY OF WAR

 

He's not sure what hit him. He believes it was a rocket-propelled grenade blast. Whatever it was, it tore out his calf.

 

"I had never broken nuthin', but it felt like my leg had been broken, because I could feel my foot, but I couldn't move it," he said.

 

In a hospital in Kirkuk, he cussed out the doctors, but then gave in to what they said had to be done.

 

Soldiers like Wooldridge are an increasingly common reality of the United States' now-four-year war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

In Iraq alone, 7,350 U.S. service members have been wounded in action and returned to duty, and 6,770 have been wounded but not returned to duty, according to the Pentagon.

 

Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is considered the military's premier facility for amputees, and Wooldridge went through rehabilitation there. Tripler Army Medical Center has treated seven Hawai'i-based amputees.

 

Three soldiers with leg or foot amputations who are receiving outpatient care want to stay in the Army, Tripler spokeswoman Margaret Tippy said.

 

Wooldridge is the real-world version of TV soldier Bo Rider in FX's "Over There," who is single-minded about returning to his unit after losing a leg in Iraq.

 

"(The show is) exaggerated, but I suppose so," Wooldridge says of the comparison. "It's a TV show. I understand it has to be entertaining."

 

Service members with disabling injuries used to be automatically turned over to the Department of Veterans Affairs. But with advances in medicine, technology and rehabilitation techniques, the military says it is making every effort to return willing service members to duty.

 

"Americans would be surprised to learn that a grievous injury, such as the loss of a limb, no longer means forced discharge," President Bush said during a visit to Walter Reed in December 2003.

 

FACING LONG ODDS

 

Despite those words, returning to the front lines can be a long shot.

 

Fox News reported in March that of roughly 200 service members who had amputations as a result of service in Iraq or Afghanistan, only eight had been approved for return to active duty.

 

"Right now I believe my chances are 50/50," said Wooldridge, a married father of two. "I don't know of any other enlisted soldier (and amputee) who has stayed infantry. There could be, but I don't know of them."

 

Wooldridge, an unassuming man who looks you straight in the eye when he talks and is known by fellow soldiers as a quiet but determined individual, said the Army gave him stability after he had some brushes with the law. He has "Boyz" tattooed on his neck, a memento he and a lifelong friend got around Christmas.

 

"This (the Army) gives me an opportunity to do what's right for my family," Wooldridge said. His two kids are 8 and 6. Right before he was wounded, he re-enlisted for six more years.

 

At Walter Reed, he stuck with his rehabilitation. His wife, Carla, remembers a service member in rehab who didn't appear to have anything wrong.

 

"Then his pants leg came up a little bit and he had a prosthetic (leg) and we were just totally amazed," she said. "(It was the feeling), if he can do it, you can do it."

 

Wooldridge also remembers seeing a prosthetic leg with the name "Miles" on it. It belonged to Col. Lloyd Miles, the commander of Schofield's 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Iraq, who had lost his leg to a grenade blast years before during a training exercise.

 

Walking the mall with his wife used to make his leg ache; now he can road march 10 miles. He carried the company guidon in a recent run.

 

"Don't try to give Wooldridge a ride. He'll get mad at you," said his company commander, Capt. David Parkes. "He just truly wants to train and show everyone he can do what they do. So far, he's shown us that."

 

Wooldridge has five "legs": a carbon fiber version for swimming, a running leg with a curved loop that acts as a spring, and three prosthetics for walking and higher-level activity.

 

"The hospitals here — they weren't prepared (to aid veterans with prosthetic limbs)," he said. A leg he wanted to use for the three days of field training last week broke, and Tripler didn't have the means to fix it.

 

When Wooldridge came back to Honolulu in late May, Parkes had his 130-soldier company at the airport to greet him.

 

Stalinski, 27, Wooldridge's squad leader and a fellow Iraq veteran, said every day is a confidence builder, and he would have "no reservations whatsoever" being in a life-and-death situation with Wooldridge.

 

"He's out here with us. He trains with us. Guys trust him. Guys can lean on him," said Stalinski, who's from St. Clair Shores, Mich.

 

'YES, I CAN DO IT'

 

Wooldridge isn't exactly sure what will be required of him at the medical evaluation board. Doctors at Walter Reed saw no reason why he shouldn't rejoin the Wolfhounds in the meantime.

 

It's only been 10 months since he lost his leg, and he's still adjusting to its loss in the field. Walking is like "if you sit down and your foot goes really, really numb," he said.

 

He still asks himself, "Am I going to be able to do this?" when he's in the field. But the answer comes back pretty quickly, "Yes, I can do it. But these guys, they might do it faster than me, they might be able to move through the brush a little bit better, so I just gotta push myself that much harder."

 

"I can't jump as high ... but I couldn't jump too high before," he said with a laugh.

 

United States Army Face of Strength story nominated by 1LT Joe Geiger.

 

Nominate someone you know at www.army.mil/facesofstrength/FOS-nominate.html.

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Taken on July 25, 2011