Combat veterans — some with prosthetic limbs, some in wheelchairs… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
SAN DIEGO — When the group got to the bowling alley, 19-year-old Stephen Priest loudly demanded a discount.
"We won't have to rent shoes," Priest shouted. "We don't have any legs!"
Call it amputee humor. Therapists say it's a healthy defense mechanism against an outside world full of people who may gawk and ask intrusive questions.
As a paratrooper with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Pfc. Priest lost both legs above the knee and his left arm was mangled when a buried bomb blew up in Afghanistan in mid-May. He's receiving rehabilitation at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
PHOTOS: Wounded troops day trips
On this day he was among a dozen soldiers, sailors and Marines, including four soldiers from the Republic of Georgia, on a daylong field trip away from the hospital.
The goal of the monthly excursions is to help those who have been hurt grievously by war prepare for a society in which the vast majority of people they will meet have not served in the military and may have little knowledge about or concern for those who have.
Each month, therapists at the hospital gather a group — sometimes amputees, sometimes patients with other injuries, includingpost-traumatic stress disorder— for a trip to crowded, busy public places to let the patients see and be seen by the outside world.
Venues include SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and Horton Plaza: clean, fun places a world away from the disheveled, dangerous ones that are forever seared in the veterans' memories: Kandahar, Marjah, Sangin and others.
All 12 on this trip are active-duty military, but they were encouraged to wear civilian clothes. "They're who they're going to be when they transition to the civilian community," said occupational therapist Lynn Sher, who guides the "community reentry" program.
This outing included a trip by van from the hospital to Coronado, then across San Diego Bay on the Coronado Ferry, a short ride on the San Diego Trolley and then several long downtown blocks to the bowling alley/restaurant.
Most lost both legs in Afghanistan and, like Priest, are using wheelchairs; only a few have advanced to prosthetics.
At the hospital, their days are filled with appointments: occupational and physical therapy, group and individual psychological counseling, follow-up surgeries, and sessions in which they are measured and fitted for prosthetics and learn to walk, perhaps even run, on titanium legs.
Getting accustomed to being around civilians can be one of the most difficult challenges for veterans injured in war. "You can't really relate to someone who hasn't been through combat," said Brad Ivanchan, 23, a Marine corporal who lost both legs and a testicle.
On the ferry, the trolley and the bumpy downtown streets, there are ramps, curb cuts, railroad tracks. "If you need help, let us know, but we want to challenge you as a group," recreational therapist Marla Knox said.
They propelled their wheelchairs over the tracks between the ferry landing and the trolley station. "Pop that front wheel up," Knox told the group.
Children stared and asked questions. The therapists say that's better than in the old days, when parents would hush their children and tell them to look away.
Marine Cpl. Michael Fox, 27, tells children that he lost his legs to a pack of marauding Chihuahua dogs. When he was at the aquarium in La Jolla on a previous trip, he told kids that a shark had eaten his legs.
"You can sit around and feel depressed," Priest explains, "but your legs are not going to grow back. You might as well joke about it."
The adults are more discreet than the children. They look quickly and sometimes offer a "Thank you for your service."
On the ferry ride from Coronado to San Diego, passenger Kris McMillan was surprised to be in the company of a dozen young men with war injuries, including one who announced, "I have to try out my sea legs," a line taken from the Lt. Dan character in the movie "Forrest Gump."
After a hesitation, McMillan, 55, whose son is in Navy boot camp, engaged members of the group in conversation, thanked them for their service and asked them to join her for a picture. But like many a civilian suddenly confronted by the human toll of war, McMillan seemed overwhelmed.
"To see these beautiful young men, it just makes you so grateful," she said, her voice trailing off and her eyes filling with tears.
The veterans appreciate the kind words of civilians, but sometimes there is a bit of unease attached. "People call us heroes," Priest said, "but we were just guys who were doing a job we signed up for, that's all."
Some also have a sense that they are receiving support because the public feels a collective shame at how an earlier generation of combat veterans was treated. "It's because of the Vietnam veterans we're getting all this," Ivanchan said. "They should have gotten it but didn't."