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The Life Recovery Room

Mock Home Helps Iraq Amputees Adjust

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page A01

The wheelchairs, crutches and still-healing bodies show up for lunch every Wednesday, crowding into a diminutive kitchen where the washer and dryer sit cheek by jowl with the electric range, and the sink is wedged between the fridge and a short bend of counter.

No one seems to mind the congestion. Most grumble good-naturedly as they brown hamburger meat and pull cupcakes out of the oven, sometimes bending or stirring awkwardly if a missing limb has yet to be supplanted or an artificial limb is too new for real dexterity.

Sgt. Tim Gustafson, who was wounded in Iraq, practices cooking and eating with his wife, Janice Gustafson, in a mock apartment dubbed Fort Independence. (Photos Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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"Why didn't you break the meat up before you put it in the pan?"

"I was under the impression I was only supposed to boil water."

"What? Am I the only one here with a functional pair of hands?"

The kitchen is a regular stop for injured soldiers and Marines who come to Walter Reed Army Medical Center during their long recovery back from Iraq. It's part of a mock apartment created two years ago and dubbed Fort Independence -- a safer place than home to start practicing what they soon must do on their own.

Inside the ersatz front door are a sofa, TV, desk and computer, a recliner and dresser, a twin bed and bathroom. Despite the 13-foot width, which would be laughable anywhere but New York, it's not so different from home. But for those who have lost arms or legs, rolling out of bed without mishap, much less making the bed, running a load of laundry and folding and putting it away, can present major challenges.

"We have them demonstrate, not just to us but to themselves, that these things are possible," said Col. William Howard III, chief of the hospital's occupational therapy program.

For 90 minutes or so each Wednesday, the program includes cooking. "They're actually kind of scared that they're going to drop stuff or not be able to operate equipment in the kitchen or home like they used to be," Howard said.

Actually, a few might be scared of the opposite. Every so often, a younger soldier protests about the housekeeping instruction: "Why am I doing this? I didn't do it before."

"That," the colonel emphasized, "is not an appropriate answer."

The kitchen therapy is seldom much of a tough sell. In contrast to the one-on-one nature of other rehabilitation, it provides an irreverent group camaraderie that is itself therapeutic. In this third-floor corner of the world, too many cooks is always a welcome situation.

The food offers a kind of down-home comfort -- macaroni and cheese, chili, a chicken-rice dish that one soldier remembered his mother making.

"We have Kool-Aid?" Army Staff Sgt. Brian Wofford asked happily. Wofford, a lanky 22-year-old with a quick Oklahoma grin, had the good fortune recently to show up right before the strawberry-flavored powder was poured from its packet.

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