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Wounded or Disabled But Still on Active Duty

In Attitude Shift, Military Aims to Retain Soldiers

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page A23

After an anti-tank mine destroyed his foot and part of his leg in Iraq, Capt. David Rozelle, 31, considered his future. In another era, the commander of a cavalry troop would have been heralded for his bravery and likely issued a medical retirement.

But Rozelle experienced a different message while hospitalized at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Nearly every officer who visited his room cheered on a comeback. The Texas native spent the next nine months swimming, weight lifting, mountain biking and getting used to running with an artificial leg. He passed the necessary physical fitness tests given by the Army medical board and was declared fit for duty. Next year, Rozelle is slated to deploy to Iraq as the commander of a 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment headquarters troop.

Army Capt. David Rozelle runs in a race in New York. He lost his foot and part of his leg in Iraq but has been declared fit for duty. (Sgt. Lorie Jewell -- U.s. Army)

"I see so many young men that say, 'Hell, yeah, I want to continue to serve and fight,' " Rozelle said.

In a shift in military culture, the U.S. armed forces have recently announced new efforts to keep seriously wounded or disabled soldiers on active duty. Although there is no clear written policy, the sentiment is being echoed down from the White House.

"When we're talking about forced discharge, we're talking about another age and another" military, President Bush told wounded soldiers at Walter Reed last year. "This is a new age, and this is a new [military]. Today, if wounded service members want to remain in uniform and can do the job, the military tries to help them stay."

Military commanders cite advances in medical technology as the main reason for the shift. Better prosthetics -- such as Rozelle's $7,000 leg -- are allowing some of the wounded to regain their fitness and continue to serve. Others say the military's new attitude toward the disabled is simply mirroring society's.

But one observer says the change is also practical. In an era of constant deployment, the Pentagon needs a more flexible and diversified workforce, said Laura Miller, a military sociologist with the Rand Corp.

"Part of this is a response to the stress on the all-volunteer forces due to the war on terror," Miller said. "And part of it is adapting to future warfare: smaller expeditionary forces that can respond to a variety of missions, including peacekeeping and humanitarian. Why throw away someone with years of training and expertise, only to re-train someone new?"

Although much of the nation's attention has focused on the more than 1,250 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq, more than 9,300 have been wounded, and the number climbs daily. Various service branches say they are trying to do a better job helping the wounded through the paperwork and medical board evaluations, but backlogs remain.

In April, the Army formed the Disabled Soldier Support System, or DS3, a resource network available to soldiers who are 30 percent or more disabled -- paralysis or the loss of a limb or an eye. The DS3 helps soldiers weigh their options regarding retirement or trying to stay on active duty. The Army estimates that almost 900 of those injured in Iraq are eligible for the program.

Amputations account for 2.4 percent of all wounded in action in the Iraq war -- twice the rate in World War I and World War II, said Chuck Scoville, the amputee program manager of Walter Reed. Sophisticated body armor and medical techniques in the battlefield have preserved lives but not necessarily limbs. Available figures through Aug. 31 show that Army hospitals have treated 138 amputees from Iraq. That number includes those who have lost hands, feet, arms or legs, and does not include the loss of fingers or toes.

About 90 percent of severely injured soldiers decide after a year to take medical retirement, according to an Army estimate. Those who want to stay on active duty must prove that they can meet certain physical requirements; many may be deemed unfit to return to their original jobs.

Several officers who spoke recently at the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army emphasized the more welcoming policy toward retaining disabled soldiers.

"Our view is that once a soldier, always a soldier, and the Army is looking for ways to keep a number of them on active duty rather than medically retiring them," said Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. He has pledged to personally review the case of any military amputee who feels unfairly treated.

The dictates from the top do not always trickle down to the company or unit level. Spec. Garth Stewart lost his leg in a land-mine explosion in Iraq. After receiving a prosthesis at Walter Reed -- Stewart was the subject of a Washington Post article last year on amputee soldiers -- he set a goal of returning to his job as a mortar man with the 3rd Infantry Division. At Fort Benning, Stewart, 23, completed hand-to-hand combat school and unloaded dozens of 100-pound ammo boxes in field exercises. But running long distances was difficult. His stump would swell and blister. He was reassigned to work in the gymnasium.

"The Department of Defense might say one thing, but there's always going to be some brand-spanking-new commander out there, and the last thing he wants is a liability," said Stewart, who took medical retirement last month and is applying to college.

David E. Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, one of the nation's largest veterans service groups, said he wishes the government would focus more on making sure that transitioning service members and veterans receive quality health care and timely access to benefits. But Autry applauds the Pentagon's new spirit.

"I suspect that there will be wonderful success stories and fairly miserable failures," he said. "You've got a soldier with a $20,000 computerized leg. If he gets deployed back to Iraq, if it gets sand and crud in it, it gives out, who's gonna fix it?"

Rozelle will see for himself when he returns to Iraq in the spring.

"I'm gonna take a spare leg with me to war," he said. "If I need one, I'll e-mail my prosthetist and say, 'Send me a leg.' "

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