Women After War: The Amputees

Limbs Lost to Enemy Fire, Women Forge a New Reality

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Her body had been maimed by war. Dawn Halfaker lay unconscious at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, her parents at her bedside and her future suddenly unsure. A rocket-propelled grenade had exploded in her Humvee, ravaging her arm and shoulder.

In June 2004, she became the newest soldier to start down a path almost unknown in the United States: woman as combat amputee.

It was a distinction she did not dwell on during days of intense pain and repeated surgeries or even as she struggled to eat on her own, write left-handed and use an artificial limb. But scattered among her experiences were moments when she was aware that few women before her had rethought their lives, their bodies, their choices, in this particular way.

She was part of a new generation of women who have lost pieces of themselves in war, experiencing the same physical trauma and psychological anguish as their male counterparts. But for female combat amputees has come something else: a quiet sense of wonder about how the public views them and how they will reconcile themselves.

Their numbers are small, 11 in three years of war, compared with more than 350 men. They are not quite a band of sisters, but more a chain of women linked by history and experience and fate -- one extending herself to another who then might offer something for the next.

They have discovered, at various points of their recovery, that gender has made a difference -- "not better or worse," as Halfaker put it, "just different."

For Halfaker, an athlete with a strong sense of her physical self, the world was transformed June 19, 2004, on a night patrol through Baqubah, Iraq. Out of nowhere had come the rocket-propelled grenade, exploding behind her head.

Another soldier's arm was sheared off. Blood was everywhere.

"Get us out of the kill zone!" she yelled to the Humvee driver. She was a 24-year-old first lieutenant, a platoon leader who two months earlier had led her unit in repulsing a six-hour attack on a police station in Diyala province. As medics worked to stabilize her, she warned: "You bastards better not cut my arm off."

In the hospital, there had been no other way to save her life.

At first, in the early days, she tried to ignore the burns on her face, her wounded right shoulder, the fact of her missing arm. She had been a basketball standout at West Point, a starting guard through four years of college. She was fit, young, energetic.

Suddenly, she was a disabled veteran of war.

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