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Ranks of amputees have risen steadily in 8 years of war

Lt. Joe Guyton describes the day he lost both of his legs in a bomb explosion while serving in Afghanistan.

By then, a small but growing group of amputees had assembled at Walter Reed, which had taken on the feel of a wartime hospital. Patients took it upon themselves to let the new arrivals know that they were not alone. Which is exactly why the Air Force officer popped by Kelly's room.

He wore a pilot's flight suit and walked with no perceptible limp; he had to show Kelly his prosthetic before Kelly believed that the officer, too, had lost a leg. Kelly told him that he had wanted desperately to fly helicopters in the Army but was denied because of poor eyesight. The officer said he'd flown before he lost his leg, and would again.

That didn't seem impossible to Kelly, who at the time harbored his own ambition: to get back to his fellow soldiers in Iraq before their tour ended. It was perhaps delusional, but "that's what got me up in the morning," he said.

But then he needed more surgery, and the Army wasn't keen on sending a one-legged soldier to the front line. When his unit came home without him, it finally hit Kelly that he was no longer going to be a soldier.

But maybe he could fly.

His friends and family thought this was another quixotic quest that would end in disappointment. But it gave him a new purpose. In civilian life, he would be a pilot. This was another reason to get well.

Once he was discharged from Walter Reed and out of the Army, he had Lasik surgery to fix his eyesight. Then, a few months after learning to walk again, he began to learn how to fly.

Now the retired staff sergeant lives near Austin and flies helicopters for oil companies, ferrying supplies and equipment to rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The jagged piece of shrapnel that took his leg off -- and still has a bit of his uniform melted to it -- hangs on his wall like a trophy.

* * *

May 7, 2007, Iraq: By the time Lt. Col. Gregory Gadson got to Iraq, it was not merely dangerous but out of control. Bush had ordered a surge as a last-ditch effort to tamp down the violence. Gadson's unit would play a key role in that.

By now, the Army had incorporated extensive training on IEDs into pre-deployment exercises, turning soldiers into human bomb detectors who could spot disturbed patches of earth, a protruding wire, anything suspicious.

"The first time we drove into Baghdad, I was like, 'Holy cow,' " said Gadson, who is now 44 and lives at Fort Belvoir. "Suspicious? I mean, everything is suspicious. It seemed like you could spend a whole day just trying to figure out what was a threat and what wasn't, and you wouldn't get anything done. You couldn't let it preoccupy you. It just became part of the environment. Like loud noise."

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