Amputee still fighting
Web Posted: 04/05/2005 11:25 AM CDT
Express-News Military Writer
Senior Airman Anthony Pizzifred squeezed off a burst of rounds from a darkened corner as a group of soldiers rushed him.
Senior Airman Anthony Pizzifred fires blanks during a training exercise at Camp Bullis. He is preparing to take a series of physical fitness tests and hopes to return to combat.
He took a third prisoner.
"Where are they at?" Pizzifred demanded of the prisoner as machine gun fire echoed. "Do you know where they're going?"
By all appearances, it was another training day at an urban warfare site on Camp Bullis, with Pizzifred and his opposition force wreaking havoc on young Air Force trainees.
But his "captive," Airman 1st Class Tina Stamp, 19, had no idea that Pizzifred is an amputee who lost part of his left leg to a land mine in Afghanistan.
In past conflicts, someone such as Pizzifred, 20, might have been forced out of the service. And so far, most of those who have lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq have elected to leave the armed services. But advances in prosthetic limb technology and an evolution in thinking have some amputees back on the career track.
"Soldiers are soldiers, and they're going to have to adhere to a standard," said Col. Mark Bagg, a doctor who heads the orthopedic department at Brooke Army Medical Center, which has treated 35 troops since opening an amputee center Jan. 14. "But I think there is an acceptance that they can still make the standard to be a good soldier."
The Army has cared for 253 "major limb" amputees, those who will require the use of a prosthetic limb or have lost a thumb or two or more fingers, through March 31.
The Air Force did not provide statistics, but the Army has treated three airmen who have lost limbs since 9-11. All fight to do things most folks take for granted, such as walking, showering or fastening their trousers.
Those wanting to stay in the services — or, like Pizzifred, return to war — face a battery of exams, scrutiny from medical boards and still more tests, all designed to show they're fit for battlefield duty.
The odds are against them. Those most likely to continue to serve have below-the-knee amputations. Debate ensues in the Army medical community over providing care for them in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Retired Army Gen. Frederick Franks lost a leg in Vietnam but led 100,000 British and American soldiers in Gulf War I. Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake got his wings back after losing his left leg to a Maryland motocross accident.
So far, 90 soldiers have been medically separated or retired, but a few are doing their old jobs. One soldier is flying helicopters again, and another has returned to the 82nd Airborne Division, where he's parachuting out of planes. Six others have successfully battled to stay on duty. Only one — Capt. David Rozelle, who lost his right foot — is serving in Iraq.
"Is it unusual? Yes, it's unusual. Is it unheard of? No," retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor said, noting one soldier he commanded in Vietnam had just one leg.
Pizzifred's path to life as an amputee airman began at the ruins of the World Trade Center six months after 9-11. Deciding to act, he joined the Air Force, trained at Lackland AFB and was assigned to Security Forces. Life as an Air Force cop led him to an undetected land mine at Bagram Air Base, likely a leftover of Russia's occupation.
"When I stepped down on (the mine), I didn't really know what happened and I didn't have any pain at that point," said Pizzifred, a 21/2-year veteran. "I stepped on it, a big dust cloud, my friend got blown away from me and I kind of just stood there on one leg — well, at this time I know it was one leg. I didn't know it at that point."
Rushed to the base combat hospital, Pizzifred was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and he underwent two operations. He then went to Walter Reed Medical Center. The first person he met there was Lourake, the Air Force pilot.
"It's going to be OK," he said.
"Yeah, right," Pizzifred replied.
Lourake rolled up a trouser leg. Under it was his prosthesis.
Pizzifred didn't know it at the time, but his comeback had begun. Celebrities, Pentagon civilian leaders and old soldiers often meet troops at Walter Reed, but Lourake stopped by each week. He took Pizzifred and his mother on day trips.
"I could ask you right now about amputees, and there is no way unless you know somebody or you looked into it that you'd know what I'm talking about," Pizzifred said. "But I can talk to Col. Lourake or talk to Gen. Franks or talk to any of the Air Force guys I know who've basically gotten blown up and lost a limb, and we have a certain way of talking about it."
It's a rough language rooted in painful, multiple operations, grueling rehabilitation and the adjustment to a new self-image. Some amputees say they have "more leg missing" than others. They may accuse a soldier missing his foot of not being a "real" amputee.
Amputees themselves become counselors, with those in the late stages of their rehabilitation visiting new amputees. It's also important to get them closer to their families and buddies, which is why the Army opened an amputee center at BAMC, three hours from Fort Hood.
Inspired by Franks and Lourake, Pizzifred focused on upper-body strength while doctors stripped out dead tissue in his shrapnel-riddled leg. He did 50 sit-ups a day despite being in a morphine-induced fog.
A month after stepping on the mine, he got prosthetic leg, made to fit a stump 6 inches below his knee. Pizzifred walked that day with the help of crutches. A few weeks later, he was using a cane. Then, on May 10, he walked on his own while at a base hotel in Minot, N.D.
Determined to stay in the Air Force, Pizzifred breezed through the agility and physical fitness tests required for passing his medical board.
The next hurdle was persuading commanders to let him continue in Security Forces. That involved tackling and handcuffing a linebacker-sized physical therapy assistant, running 11/2 miles and doing a series of low and high crawls.
Pizzifred won a request to be a Security Forces instructor at Lackland, the sole training facility for the field, but had adjustments to make there as well. Most airmen initially didn't know about his artificial leg, and at least one reacted with disbelief when told of it.
"I'm tired of answering the same thing to every single person," said Pizzifred, who must pass a final series of physical fitness tests before deploying to a war zone this year.
"It's like, 'Look, I'm in the military, I have an active duty ID card, I do everything that you do. There's not a lot of difference between you and me. If anything, I have a better leg than you now.'"
On a perfect spring day at Camp Bullis, he crouched behind a tree as a dozen airmen walked into an ambush. The only hint that something wasn't right was his left calf; it was markedly thinner then the right one.
"When I first met him, I had no idea," said Staff Sgt. Justin Rhodes, 29, a Security Forces instructor from Wichita Falls.
Staff Sgt. Rick Dickey, 28, of San Bernardino, Calif., was equally impressed.
"If nobody told me, I wouldn't know any better," Dickey said