By Alyssa Zickenberg
It was a normal day of patrolling for Army Specialist Joe Gracia and his fellow National Guardsmen, until a hidden roadside bomb exploded beneath his Humvee sending him 30 feet into the air. Moments after the explosion, Gracia lay in the dirt unconscious and not breathing, both of his legs nearly shattered. Those few minutes changed Gracia’s life forever, his right leg so badly injured it required an above the knee amputation shortly after the attack.
After that fateful August day in Afghanistan, 2007, Gracia spent the next two years in Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. Gracia, who had also sustained a traumatic brain injury in the explosion, underwent months of surgeries to fix his broken bones with metal plates and screws. He had severe breaks in his left leg, a shattered heel, broken tibia and fibula, and a compound fracture of his femur.
Despite the extensive physical damage Gracia had endured, he never let it injure his spirit.
“When the doctors woke me up and told me they were going to have to amputate my leg, I was just kind of like, ‘OK, I mean hey, what are you going to do about it,’” Gracia said. “I decided then and there, that it wasn’t going to hold me back.”
Gracia’s story is a reality the military community knows all too well, and a fate that more than 1,200 military amputees share. Nico Marcolongo, a Marine Corps veteran and director of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Operation Rebound program, helps numerous San Diego veterans overcome their injuries physically and mentally.
“These men and women are in the prime of their lives,” Marcolongo said. “They’re out there leading Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and all of a sudden in a millisecond they find themselves missing their limbs, blinded, traumatic brain injury, and you know, spinal cord injury and they are taken away from their team.”
War on Terror has taken a toll
The population of military amputees is growing and has reached an all time high after the more than 10 years of war with the Middle East, according to the most current data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“There are more amputees currently going through our military medical system than there were at the height of the Iraqi conflict,” Marcolongo said. “Most of these men and women coming back are missing two or three limbs and they’re in the hospitals for about 2 years.”
Each amputee has their own story but together they face many of the same struggles of learning to adapt to their new life missing a limb.
Since the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, thousands of servicemen and women have been deployed overseas to fight the war on terror. The battles in Iraq and Afghanistan consist of three main operations: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
As of Sept. 30, 2011, these operations had resulted in a national population of 1,288 living service members with major traumatic amputations, 838 of whom are now veterans — the rest remained on active duty. The severity of amputation differs from each person, depending on their injuries. Amputees are classified according to the type of amputation they received, whether it was a single or multiple limb amputation and the location of the amputation on that limb.
Eric McElvenny, who had one leg amputated below the knee, said his injury isn’t as severe as many.
“It’s like a paper cut compared to some of the other guys,” McElvenny said. “If anything, I have daily inconveniences, but for the most part feel pretty back to normal.”
Some military men and women are not so fortunate however. Out of the military amputee population, 19 service members have three or four amputated limbs, according a review from the Department of Veteran Affairs, published on March 8, 2012.
Veterans like Marine Corporal Todd Nicely, who is one of five quadruple amputee combat vets, must overcome even greater challenges of recovery and adaptation to their new lives.
Long road to recovery
The road to recovery after losing a limb can be a long and hard battle for injured veterans, whether they are reintegrating back into society, coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or finding a way to support themselves or provide for their families. Besides the obvious physical challenges, these veterans now face a multitude of emotional, economic and health challenges.
Amputee veterans return home with more than just their initial injury; they are also much more prone to other diseases and complications. After leaving active duty, more than 80 percent of amputees had diagnoses of mental disorders, diseases of the nervous system and sense organs, and diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissues, according the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Additionally, more Iraq and Afghanistan amputee veterans are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress Disorder, 64 percent, and traumatic brain injuries, 41 percent, than non-amputee veterans, 20 percent of whom are diagnosed with PTSD and 6 percent with brain injuries.
Frustrated with the VA
For disabled veterans, awaiting disability benefits has become a whole new war. The VA is currently experiencing a backlog of more than 860,000 disability claims as it tries to switch over to a new electronic system as well as keep up with the increasing influx of filed claims.
A San Diego prosthetist at RGP Prosthetic Research Center, Patrick Bridges, says the VA does a very poor job of actually helping the veterans they are supposed to serve. His facility is authorized to help veterans, even though it is not VA related, but many veterans don’t realize they have more choices than the VA.
“They don’t understand that they can go where they want to go,” Bridges said. “There’s a reason why only 17 percent of veterans in California use their benefits. It’s because it’s not an easy task. They get disenchanted, they’re made to feel second class citizens, they’re made to think that they can’t get what they need.”
California, and San Diego in particular, is one of the most backlogged locations and its veterans are experiencing the longest wait for answers regarding their disability inquiries.
According to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the average San Diego veteran waits 295 days for the government to respond to his or her claim. More than 29,000 veterans in San Diego are awaiting a response to their disability claims.
San Diego may be one of the slowest markets but it is not unique. Across the nation veterans are becoming increasingly frustrated with the situation.
Army Captain Jonathan Pruden, an amputee, said the process seems like suffering another injury.
“Despite the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs’ best efforts, oftentimes the transition feels like you’ve been thrown off a cliff,” said Pruden, who lost his leg in Iraq.
Former Marine, Adam Fields, calls the wait “a slap in the face.” He has been waiting since November 2010 for a decision on his traumatic brain injury benefits claim. Fields’ frustration is a sentiment shared by thousands of his fellow military members who are not being helped. And the future doesn’t look much better.
Even if San Diego’s VA were to receive no more new claims, it would still take 440 days to respond to all of its current veterans, according to the CIR analysis.
Organizations step in to help
Across the nation various charities and organizations have developed to address the needs of those who were seriously wounded during combat, and to help fill the gaps of government assistance.
The Wounded Warrior Project began in 2003 as a program to provide comfort items to wounded service members.Today it has grown into a complete rehabilitative network helping tens of thousands of Wounded Warriors each year with fundraising, family support services and economic empowerment.
“Wounded Warrior Project programs serve warriors with every type of injury – from the physical to the invisible wounds of war,” said Sandra Jones, a publicist for the organization.
For the veterans of San Diego, the Challenged Athletes Foundation provides an outlet to regain confidence and independence through sports.
In 2004 the foundation established its Operation Rebound program for military personnel, veterans and first responders with permanent physical disabilities. Program director Nico Marcolongo said the program was created as a network for amputee veterans to return to an active and fulfilling life and to be part of a team again.
“Its something that’s going to be with us for a long time,” Marcolongo said. “Their legs aren’t growing back… So with this program, we wanted to be there for them for years to come.”
Since its inception, the program has supported more than 1,100 athletes, and awarded grants to more than 450.
“What we tell them is you’re going to do all things you used to do, and things you never dreamed of doing,” Marcolongo said.