Saturday, February 13, 2010


Nate opened his heart so wide you just slipped inside without knowing your feet had left the earth. His blonde hair, blue eyes and tan healthy complexion hid the fact that only four and one half weeks ago his legs had been blown off in Iraq.

Nate in his wheelchair only a foot or so away, looked me straight in the eyes for at least twenty minutes and told me in great detail how he had lost his legs, how he knew he had to be alert because his buddies, in panic mode, didn’t know what to do, how he told them to get the tourniquets and tie them onto his upper legs and how he ‘only cried out four times in pain’ before surgery. But the most extraordinary thing he said was that waking after surgery he looked down and saw only an empty space where both legs had once been. “I said, ‘Okay both legs are gone. Let’s get on with it. Let’s start healing.’” I was reminded of a quote from the Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy living – or get busy dying.”

Nate was part of Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), also known as the Army Bomb Squad” in Iraq. He was responsible for ‘identifying, rendering safe, and disposing of unexploded conventional munitions, chemical munitions and improvised explosive devices.’ When one was found, he would call an explosive ordinance disposal team to destroy the bomb. As Nate said, “This time the bomb found me.”

These Improvised Explosive Devices,(IED)’s are the number one killer of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are easily made by enemy combatants using materials found in local stores or from unused explosives left over from the former regime. They are disguised and are found roadside covered with dirt, rocks or trash or in a soda can, oil or paint can. They can be detonated by remote control or directly or by blasting caps, which can be set off by a battery. As I thought of this, I wondered what kind of a young man would volunteer for this job that Nate had. It was his job to accomplish this as remotely as possible.

I touched his shoulder and told him he must have angels sitting there. He pointed to a white decal on the sleeve of his black t-shirt of a muscular male stooping angel. He told me that the back of the truck that he was in when he was ' hit'had a huge angel painted on it. Chills ran up and down my arms.

Nate watched Gracie with little interest. I asked if he liked dogs. He said, “Not really, I’m not much of a pet person.” He proceeded to tell me that every time he had been deployed to Iraq, his wife acquired a new pet. “I guess I better learn to love them, our house is full of ‘em now.” He winked and petted Gracie. Home for Nate and his wife and children is going to be the Fisher House for at least eighteen more months. The surgeons had told him that he healed faster from a double amputation than any other soldier they had seen. I have a feeling that Nate will be home getting acquainted with his entourage of pets much sooner than that. He is only weeks away from being fitted with his prosthetics. We shall see. Maybe someday he will even learn to love a dog.

He asked me about Gracie’s eyes. I told him she had no vision in one eye and could see some shadows in the distance in the other. He got very pensive. In a moment, looking at the American flag blowing at the other end of the courtyard, he said, “Then she can see our flag blowing, can’t she?” I said, “Of course she can, she sees it with her heart.” Nate taught me a great lesson about ‘amber waves oF grain and purple mountain’s majesty’.

But two weeks later, I didn’t recognize him. He was sitting on the patio of the Fisher House, in the shadow of the Center for the Intrepid, with a blank expression on his face that I instantly recognized as depression. He was wearing a tan visor and sunglasses and handsome as ever. The only thing missing was his exuberant personality. I tried to remind myself that this is just another stage in recovery. But having witnessed this before, it was excruciating. His wife was there and two daughters. The girls were instantly enthralled with Gracie, Cindy and Lola. For that I was grateful. They posed for pictures with the dogs and for them, at least for that moment, life was good.

When patients come and go from ‘The Intrepid’ they pass a large, black stone sculpture in the courtyard. The “Broken Circle” is unevenly connected at the bottom, symbolizing those who will go through life imperfect, but complete. I was reminded what an amputee had told me, “Just because you have lost a leg, doesn’t mean you have lost your life.” The journey is long and hard, but the glimpse I had of the ‘real’ Nate on our first meeting, told me he is made of the right stuff. Just like the stone sculpture, he may never be the same, but he will be whole again just in a different way.

The battle didn’t end when Nate came home; it was just beginning. “Combat medicine has improved to the point that more than 90 percent of the wounded now survive. They survive, though, to fight the toughest battle of their lives.” So said Anderson Cooper on AC360. Truer words were never spoken. Sometimes the sacrifices and suffering of the injured is almost too much to comprehend. Helen Keller came to mind, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.”

Nate’s girls were on their knees next to their dad’s wheelchair. Both had their arms around Lola with wide smiles. As they played with Gracie and her therapy dog companions, I focused my camera on them framed in the center of that large stone sculpture that sits in a bed of yellow and white flowers where a small American flag waves. For the rest of their lives they will never be the same. This is their summer vacation, watching dad struggle through hell. Kids make sacrifices too. As I snapped the photo I hoped that perhaps one day Nate’s girls might be the answer that reconnects Nate to life.


“Everyday we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black curious eyes of a child, our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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