Life of Normalcy Rests in His Palm

Army Sgt. Brian Doyne, 26, holds up his completed prosthetic left hand. His hand was blown off in Iraq.
Army Sgt. Brian Doyne, 26, holds up his completed prosthetic left hand. His hand was blown off in Iraq. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 28, 2005

Brian Doyne steps up to the Starbucks counter, a cell phone wedged between his ear and left shoulder as he orders a grande mocha. An attractive blonde waiting nearby for her coffee sizes him up, from his calm gaze to the designer jeans, back to the sunglasses perched atop his carefully gelled hair.

The stranger's eyes stop for a vanishing moment at the scarred crevices across his face, where bomb fragments left their mark. But she doesn't notice his hand. No one seems to think anything of it.

After all, it's the mirror image of his perfectly unremarkable right hand, with the tiny creases on the fingers and the darker tones of the knuckles. Even on second glance, an onlooker would be hard-pressed to pick Doyne's real hand from the one fashioned from plastic, metal, a computer chip, electrical wiring and a skinlike silicon sleeve, lifelike down to the painstakingly painted freckles.

The months of work by skilled artists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were worth it. Although Doyne has other lower-arm prostheses with greater capacity to grasp or manipulate objects, making them more useful, this hand offers a shining possibility: that for some moments, at least, he will not stand out in a crowd, or in a Starbucks line. For the reserved 26-year-old, the highest purpose the hand can serve is to shield him from the prying eyes of strangers, to protect the privacy he cherishes.

"It gives us some more normalcy in the way we're perceived," Doyne said of the soldiers such as himself who have lost limbs in Iraq. "It's a chance to get away from those questions."

On the Family Path

It was one of those odd twists of fate that the thing that finally gave Sgt. Brian Doyne a sense of purpose, his calling, was what nearly killed him.

From boyhood, his life seemed destined to be a military one, his parents said, after frequent uprootings as a child of a career infantry officer -- Germany, California, Pennsylvania, Kansas. He often played soldier alone. But as teen, he did not fit in, and he became a skinhead, not for the politics but for the camaraderie. He tattooed "hate" on his right bicep, "rage" on his left. He tried college but dropped out after a year and a half.

Seven years ago, he started down the path laid by his father and older brother Sean, now a military police captain deployed in Iraq: He enlisted in the Army, serving in the infantry and then as a recruiter.

Still, he didn't know what he wanted to do within the military.

In 2002, the bright guy who had grown up pulling apart toys and watches to see what made them work volunteered for bomb-squad training. The mission provided a sense of professionalism and was a perfect fit for someone with an often-morbid sense of humor. Operating robots and pulling wires appealed to the man who liked to use his hands.

"I think what changed him significantly was when he graduated," said his father, retired Col. William Doyne. "It became his life."

Doyne, who gradually shed his skinhead trappings, now had his sergeant's stripes. He was soon dispatched to Afghanistan. He was shot there -- he won't say how -- but it didn't shake his confidence. In February, he was sent to Iraq with the 797th Ordnance Company.

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