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Injured in Iraq, a Soldier Reclaims His Independence

A roadside bomb irrevocably changed Bryan Anderson's life. He lost three limbs but refuses to lose his spirit of optimism and self-sufficiency.

July 04, 2006|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Ft. Hood, Texas — Bryan Anderson emerged from an elevator in the airport terminal here, a diminished figure in a wheelchair. Both legs were gone, and most of his left arm -- all severed when a roadside bomb hidden in a curb demolished the Humvee he was driving in Baghdad last fall.

Anderson was never a big man -- 5 feet 6, 125 pounds. Now he was down to 80 pounds, spare and wiry, as he rolled through the terminal in late May to begin a 10-day visit with the soldiers who were with him the day his life changed irrevocably.

Those men -- who dragged him from the Humvee and stopped his bleeding Oct. 23 -- would see more than a fragile young man in a wheelchair. They would see a stubborn survivor who had transformed their lives, and his own, in a way none of them could have imagined.

The young military policeman who had been confined to a hospital bed when he arrived on Ward 57, the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was now -- seven months later -- able to travel alone on a commercial flight.

He had been eager for the soldiers to see him walk off the plane but had injured the stump of his leg getting out of a car. So he was stuck in his wheelchair, feeling frustrated and marginalized.

As he rolled through a terminal exit, Anderson stopped suddenly. He strapped on his metal legs and struggled to his feet. He stood straight up, grimacing but triumphant, a cigarette dangling from his lips, as his friends rushed to embrace him.

"Hurt like hell," he said later. "But I had to show them I could do it."

A daily drumbeat of news reports tracks anonymous American soldiers and Marines wounded by improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Of the 18,700 troops wounded in the war, 57% have been hit by IEDs. On Oct. 23, the soldier injured in downtown Baghdad happened to be Bryan Thomas Anderson, a cheerful kid from suburban Chicago with a mother named Janet, a stepfather named Jim and a twin brother named Bobby.

Spc. Michael Wait was in a Humvee ahead of Anderson's when the bomb exploded. In a side mirror, he saw Anderson's Humvee crumple and burn as it careened into a curb.

Wait, a trained combat lifesaver, ran to the wreck but forgot his medical bag and weapon. He had to run back for them. "I kind of lost my mind, because I knew they were hit bad," he recalled.

Three soldiers escaped the Humvee, two of them wounded. Anderson was trapped inside the burning vehicle. He was stunned and in pain, choking on smoke. He remembers screaming: "I need air!"

Wait used an extraction tool to pry off the heavy Humvee door. He heard Anderson scream: "Help me!"

What Wait saw took his breath away: "I saw his legs were gone and his hand was missing and all the blood under the radio mount, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' "

Wait and another soldier dragged Anderson out. The fresh air seemed to revive him. Anderson remembers a calm and solitary thought: "My life is really going to change now." Wait applied tourniquets to both leg stumps, struggling to close off the femoral arteries. Another soldier tied a tourniquet around Anderson's left arm.

Later, surgeons at Baghdad's Combat Support Hospital said the tourniquets were the most effective they'd seen. Anderson would have bled to death in minutes without them, they said.

"He had three, almost four, arteries wide open, and he didn't go into shock," Wait said. "So I know God was there."

A medevac helicopter flew Anderson to the hospital a few miles away. Wait drove there and saw Anderson's shrunken, bloodied form pierced with medical tubes. He broke down and cried.

Sgt. Kevin Murray arrived with one of Anderson's severed legs, but surgeons told him reattaching the limb was impossible.

Anderson, 25, is among 432 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have undergone amputations. Seventy-three have lost two limbs. Anderson is the fourth to lose three.

With faster and better medical care, and improved body armor, soldiers who would have died in previous wars are surviving. More than 8,500 have been wounded so grievously that most of them will never return to duty, and the amputation rate in Iraq is nearly double that of previous wars.

In January, in the cafeteria at Walter Reed, Anderson was barely able to hold a can of Dr. Pepper in his injured right hand, bracing it against the stump of his left arm. His stepfather, Jim Waswo, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fed it to him. Waswo also had to help Anderson with the toilet and the shower.

But Anderson already was getting around on his own, negotiating crowded hospital corridors in his motorized wheelchair.

He spent mornings with Capt. Jon Verdoni, an occupational therapist, operating a computer program designed to train him to use residual muscles in his left upper arm to manipulate a prosthesis. Connected to sensors, he flexed the muscles to move a car icon through road barriers on a computer screen.

"Relax. Extend. Open. Flex. Close -- good," Verdoni said.

Anderson visualized opening and closing an imaginary hand.

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