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Wounded Soldiers Are Adapting to Altered Lives

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page A01

Archie Staley sat on a silver stool in a small office in the depths of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and stared straight into the eyes of Vince A. Przybyla Jr.

Staley is 20 years old, a U.S. Army tank driver with a quick wit and an accent lush with the tones of the mountains of western North Carolina where he grew up. Staley was nearly killed when a mortar round exploded and blew him 15 feet into the air on a roadside north of Baghdad on Easter Sunday. He lost his left eye and his face was crushed, burned and scarred by shrapnel, which also pierced his neck, cutting his carotid artery.

_____From The Post Archive_____
The Lasting Wounds of War: Roadside Bombs Have Devastated Troops in Iraq and the Doctors Who Treat Them

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Every war has its toll, measured in stark numbers representing those who are killed and wounded. But the numbers don't show the emotional toll of war, the impact each death has on families and the life changes forced on those who suddenly find themselves without a leg to walk on, a hand to button a shirt or lace a shoe, or a lung to catch a breath. Depression is common among recovering soldiers, and it often turns to frustration as they face the task of figuring out what they are going to do with the rest of their lives because plans changed in the time it took for a mortar round to explode.

Families of the 750 U.S. soldiers who have died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan bury their loved ones and then face life without them. But for the 6,113 soldiers wounded in the war on terrorism, the issues are even more fundamental. For many of them, Washington and its military hospitals are the first stop in the journey to the rest of their lives -- a place to heal their wounds, replace lost limbs and plan their future.

Losing his eye is what brought Staley to Przybyla.

Przybyla, a 48-year-old Detroit native, is an ocularist; he makes artificial eyes. He had recently fitted Staley with a new eye, and after a few days of testing it, Staley was back in his office for a follow-up visit before heading home to Millers Creek, N.C.

"I think it's fine," Staley said of his artificial eye, "but my mom thinks it looks a little high."

Przybyla leaned on his workbench, which is loaded with plastic containers of paint that he uses to get the color of the artificial eyes just right.

"I don't want you kicking my butt, but your mom might be right," the doctor said. "It needs to come down a hair. Not much. . . . Bring your head here, we're going to take it out."

Staley stayed put.

"Oh, I forgot," Przybyla said. "I know you want to take it out yourself."

Staley bowed his head and manipulated the artificial eye out of the socket. He lifted a mirror from the workbench and held it in front of his face, staring hard with his one good eye at the wound he brought back from Iraq.

"I can't say for sure that anybody ever wants to go to Iraq," he said. "Once you get there and come back, it's family, and you want to go back. If they told me I could go back to my unit tomorrow, I would."

Staley, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment, will forever carry the scars of war. But he has maintained a positive attitude and said that his brush with death has taught him to be a little more goal-oriented than he was before he joined the Army. For now, his goal is simple: to get used to his new eye, get healthy and then get out of the Army and into college.

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