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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.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Aug. 11, 2009, Afghanistan: After the blast, something didn't feel right, so 1st Lt. Joe Guyton looked down. Through the swirling dust, he glimpsed the white of his left shinbone. His right leg was gone, instantly vaporized, his uniform abruptly ending at the knee.

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The pain would hit at any moment. He knew that. But for now, just after a bomb rocked his convoy while on patrol in Kandahar province, he was so amped up on adrenaline that he felt nothing more than an odd discomfort.

Don't look down, he told himself. Don't think about it.

Guyton, a recently married 28-year-old with soft blue eyes and red hair, had to hurry before he would be overwhelmed with agony. He shouted to his fellow soldiers to keep moving through the danger zone, to keep an eye out for the enemy, to report their wounds -- as he finally did himself. Soon, two soldiers were wrapping his legs in tourniquets.

He woke up in a military hospital in Germany.

Guyton, from Burke, became one of nearly 1,000 service members who have suffered amputations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- wars that, thanks to advances in battlefield medicine, are measured as much by wheelchairs and prosthetics as tombstones.

In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, 967 American service members have lost at least one limb, as of March 1. Of them, 229 have lost more than one. The number of amputees mounted steadily as the U.S. military stormed into Afghanistan in late 2001, then focused on Iraq -- with an invasion in 2003 and a "surge" in 2007. More recently, the number has edged up again as the Obama administration has pumped more troops into Afghanistan.

These amputees are a fraternity of survivors whose private battles on the road, from blood-fresh wound to leather-tough scar, span the eight years of war. From Ground Zero to Baghdad to Afghanistan's Marja, their stories are reminders of conflicts that have lasted long enough for some amputees to be running marathons now, even as their newest brethren struggle with their prosthetics. Some are immobilized by depression, while others boldly venture into a world where children point at them and adults avert their gaze.

* * *

Dec. 16, 2001, Afghanistan: Cpl. Chris Chandler and his fellow Marines were among the first troops to arrive in Afghanistan. They had watched the twin towers fall while aboard a ship in Australia, then powered across the globe, and now they were here to get al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and rout the Taliban.

"Everyone knew why we were there, what we were doing," Chandler said. "It was good to have some action."

For months, they helped secure villages and gather intelligence. And when there was a call to clear out some buildings, Chandler and his fellow scouts volunteered. Walking through what was supposed to be a cleared minefield in Kandahar province, Chandler stepped on an explosive and lost his left foot.

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