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18th February 2016

With Banter and Cheers, War Amputees Heal

He had survived a battlefield explosion. Now he was back in the States with only one leg and so depressed that he refused physical therapy.

Suddenly a man appeared at the hospital room door. Tipped off by hospital staff about the laggard, the quadruple amputee marched in on prosthetic legs, introduced himself and asked, “Are you having a bad day?”

The newcomer stared at him — and went to physical therapy.

In many such moments, amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were alternately razzed and encouraged by comrades and staff down the road to healing.

“They wouldn’t let anyone feel sorry for themselves,” says Adele Levine, a physical therapist who worked nine years with amputees at Walter Reed. “If someone was complaining of pain, they’d call them ‘Princess.’”

From 2001 through mid-2015, 1,645 U.S. troops lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly to homemade bombs triggered by the pressure of a soldier’s foot.

Survivors were swiftly transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where a team of surgeons, therapists and prosthesis makers waited to help them win a battle as tough as any overseas.

With an average age of 21, the amputees had been in superb physical shape before being injured. A prosthesis meant independence – but being able to wear one required superhuman training.

“No matter how high tech prosthetics become, you still have to balance in them and lift them up and down.

And they certainly don’t walk for you,” Adele wrote in her memoir of life at Walter Reed, “Run, Don’t Walk.” Walking on a pair or prostheses legs with knees, at half the speed of an able-bodied person, requires up to 300 as much strength.

With support from families, therapists and one another, Water Reed alumni have gone on to run marathons, participate in bicycle races, snowboard, kayak and swim.Without proper training, prosthesis wearers develop odd gaits that cause severe pain in later years. Walter Reed therapists used sardonic talk to goad amputees to work out. “You walk like you’re walking on a peg,” Adele would say to someone lurching along. If the person swung his intact leg forward and dragged the prosthesis to meet it, “Where’s the wedding? No! More! Wedding! March!”

The flow of amputees into Walter Reed’s recovery rooms peaked at 150 in 2011 and stopped in 2013 as U.S. deployment wound down. Adele says she sometimes wondered how she and her colleagues coped. “I wondered if I was a sociopath,” she says. Now, she and her friends are grateful for the experience. “It was one of the most important and decent things we’ll ever do.”