Tuesday, April 18, 2006
By the time Carla Best awakened from surgery, the Iraq war's first female amputees had long moved on. Best had been injured in 2004, but for months, doctors had been trying to save what was left of her disfigured leg. In June, they finally amputated it.
Not long after her surgery, a nurse pointed out an envelope on bedside table. Best opened it to find a get-well card with a note that promised an understanding friend. "We female AKs have to stick together," the card said.
Best understood that "AK" is part of the parlance of the amputee world -- it stands for "above knee" -- and she recognized the name of the card's sender: Melissa Stockwell, a young lieutenant who was the Iraq war's first female combat amputee.
To Best, Stockwell was the very picture of can-do determination. Injured at 24, she endured 15 surgeries on her amputated leg, and then took up skiing, biking and most of all swimming -- a sport she had never before embraced but now pursued with ardor. Stockwell aspired to compete as a swimmer in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. In the meantime, she and her husband had moved to Minnesota, where Stockwell had thrown herself into a new career -- in prosthetics.
As Stockwell put it: "You don't sit in a room crying. You get up in the morning and put your leg on."
For Best, the example was heartening.
At 29, Best was a mechanic by training who had made rank as a sergeant and embraced Army life. She had been in Iraq four months when she got her wish to be part of a mission away from her base in Baghdad. The mission had barely started when her vehicle was blasted by a roadside bomb. Both her legs were severely injured, one almost severed.
The night before her leg was amputated, Best took photos of it as a kind of goodbye, knowing she would never see herself with four limbs again. "There was a lot of fear in not knowing what was going to happen," she said.
Months later, she found herself alongside her role model -- first at a triathlon event in San Diego, then at the New York City Marathon.
On a hand-cranked bike, Best muscled her way along the 26.2-mile marathon course. It was not easy. Her tire went flat three times. A rim nearly fell off. But she was exhilarated to be out in the sun and to feel the wind of her own forward movement.
She whirred across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, through all five boroughs of New York, in the shadow of skyscrapers, toward Central Park. At the finish line, she saw Stockwell, done with her own race.
"You did it," Stockwell cheered.
Best hopped up on one leg and hugged her, giddy.
-- Donna St. George