Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Real Hero

Amputee heading back to battlefield
Fort Carson captain prepares for redeployment, releases book

By Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News
February 14, 2005

FORT CARSON - Inside the place where there is no camouflage, Capt. David Rozelle sat near the pool, dressed only in a swimsuit. He unsheathed his leg from his prosthetic foot and stared at the stump.

"This is the only place that people can see it," he said, as he sat near the water, rubbing the raw skin and atrophied muscle.

"If I go someplace and sit in the hot tub, as soon as they see me take off the prosthetic, I know it's going to happen. I know I'm going to have to tell my story."

It's a tale he's repeated countless times during the past year - a story that begins just before a massive explosion in Iraq and continues as Rozelle struggles to become the first amputee certified by the Army to return to the same battlefield where he was injured. It's a story Rozelle never knew how to end.

"Now, I don't have to tell the story over and over again," Rozelle said, just before slipping into the swimming pool.

"Now I can just tell them, 'Go buy the book.' "

Less than one month before Rozelle returns to Iraq, the 32-year-old will see the release today of his autobiography, Back in Action. As the commander of a troop with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, however, he has little time to promote the book.

He still has to live through the title.

Chapter 1: The Price of Freedom

As we began rolling, everything exploded. . . . It felt as if I were setting my right foot into soft mud or a sponge. I looked down to see blood and bits of bone squeezing out of the side of my right boot. I gave one big push to dive into the arms of two brave men who ran selflessly into the minefield to save me. . . .

That was the last time I ever used my right foot.

Shortly after moving into his new office at Fort Carson, Rozelle placed a mangled hubcap at the end of his desk. When his Humvee hit the land mine, the chunk of metal landed 100 meters away.

"When someone would come in whining about something I would just look over and stare at it," he said.

By now, the hubcap - along with nearly everything else that usually sits in his office - is in storage, until he returns from Iraq. He is preparing his troops for an early March deployment, having already overseen the shipment of materiel headed for the war zone - from 35-ton Bradley fighting vehicles to dozens of squeaky office chairs.

All that's left now is his personal luggage.

"I'm taking a bag of legs," he said, motioning toward the prosthetics he's collected over the past several months. "I'll take the backup walker, the high activity prosthetic and the runner."

Now back to his predeployment weight, Rozelle looks nothing like the scrawny soldier who returned from the war on crutches. At times, he can bark orders that silence a room. Mostly, however, he commands with humor, cracking jokes with a combination of self-deprecating wit and creative obscenity.

When it comes to his injury, Rozelle remains blunt. If someone tries to speak delicately about the explosion that took his foot, he'll jump in and ask, "Oh, you mean when I was blown up?" When asked how he's doing, he's likely to reply, with a smile, "I'm busier than a one-legged man in a (butt)-kicking contest."

As the countdown continues to deployment there is almost always someone waiting in Rozelle's office, asking him to review administrative papers or answer last-minute questions. On a recent afternoon, the line of soldiers was three deep, with two sergeants hovering just outside the door.

"The pen is, indeed, often mightier than the sword," Rozelle said, shaking his head, scribbling another signature.

Rozelle's computer screen saver is a recent photo taken after he completed a "Half-Ironman" competition (1.2 miles swimming, 56 miles biking and 13.1 miles running) in California. He breaks up each day with exercise: one hour lifting weights in the gym, 40 minutes of swimming and a half-hour of running. He says he's in the best shape of his life.

He also says he has no choice.

"I don't work out every day because I want to be ripped like I was when I was 18," he said. "I do it because it's what you need to do to make these prosthetic devices work."

When wearing his regular prosthetic, he walks with a distinctive hitch in his step. But when he straps on his specially designed spring-action running leg and hits the track, his gait is smooth, rhythmic.

As he jogs off down the track, it is perhaps Rozelle's single defining image:

Even with one foot, he runs better than he walks.

Chapter 3: The War Machine Starts Turning

We were finally issued our deployment orders on Valentine's Day, 2003, sixteen months after 11 September. It was a Friday morning, and Kim and I were enjoying a day off from our regular skiing routine. We had been expecting the call, but not on the day reserved for lovers. . . .

As the countdown nears to deployment, every hour counts. Rozelle's first meeting begins at 6 a.m., with an assembly of his platoon sergeants.

Though his newly assigned regimental headquarters troop likely will not participate in the kinds of missions he led during his first deployment as a tank commander, he knows that the realities of Iraq mean nobody's ever safe.

That also means a new emphasis on training.

"There's a lot more awareness now. And it's made us a better Army. We're better and we're stronger. It's amazing how much better every soldier is," Rozelle said. "Now, even the guy whose job it is to handle re-enlistments has the same level of (concern) as the one who's manning the front gate. It's amazing."

Inside the meetings, the platoon sergeants discuss personnel issues and an upcoming seminar on how to fill out their wills. This time - as soldiers brace for their second tour in three years - Rozelle also told them to keep an ear to family concerns.

"Guys are going to start to screw up because they're stressed about the deployment, they're stressed about their family," Rozelle said. "Continue to be tough on them, but take a good, hard look at what might be going on. The solution might be as simple as, 'Take a day off to go and handle that.' "

After the meeting broke up, more soldiers flooded Rozelle's office. Nearby, 38-year-old 1st Sgt. Rodney Greene - Rozelle's senior adviser - thought back to the captain's first days, as the troops met the man who would lead them into the next battle.

"When he first took over, some of the soldiers may have had concerns about him, saying, 'Man, I don't know about this guy - he's missing a foot.' But as they watch him out there running, they say, 'Man he's in better shape than me.' Now they don't even want to run with him. They know he'll beat them.

"I know a lot of soldiers who were having trouble with physical training, they're now saying, 'If he can do it, then I can.' I think it takes a lot of heart to do what he's doing. And it's instilled a lot of pride in these soldiers."

Chapter 4: In Her Own Words, by Kim Rozelle

At about eight and a half months pregnant, I was waking up early in the morning. I was up that morning watching the news before the Saturday morning cartoons came on. I always liked having cartoons on the television on Saturday mornings. It distinguished the day from the weekdays to me. It was about 8:30 a.m. when I heard the doorbell. . . .

With 18-month-old Forrest Rozelle on her lap, Kim Rozelle sat on her couch, thinking back to the pain that her husband refused to allow anyone else to see.

"He had some real lows, which is understandable - he'd just lost part of his body," Kim Rozelle said.

"He had his moments when he'd get upset and cry. He was most upset that he couldn't (pick up) the baby. That was his biggest disappointment."

She looked down at the boy who was born two weeks after his father returned from the war, the toddler who still treats his father's fake leg as a plaything.

"David said, 'What is Forrest going to think of me without a foot?' I said, 'Well, he's not going to know any different. He may grow up wondering why he has two feet instead of one.' "

Their relationship - and his recovery - has been punctuated by similar conversations, along with plenty of good-natured razzing.

"He goes out all day and he shows what a Superman he is and then he comes home and goes (she assumes a whiny baby voice), 'Oooh, my stump hurts. Could you rub it?' "

If they're both sitting on the couch, Rozelle knows not to ask his wife to fetch him a beer. He knows he'll get The Look instead.

"I'm pretty good at the tough love thing. I have a lot of sympathy for him, but I'm never going to pity him," Kim Rozelle said.

"I never have and I never will."

Chapter 12: My New Mission: Amputee Support

It's never easy to sit down with someone who is blind and is missing both arms and a leg. But I keep going (to Walter Reed Army Hospital) because it is important - for me and them. It has helped me heal, physically and mentally. By challenging those soldiers to stick with their treatment and therapy and prepare for the new world I have discovered, I have become whole.

In the midst of an incredibly hectic day, Rozelle opened up his e-mail and smiled.

"This one's from a 34-year-old with muscular dystrophy," Rozelle said, pointing to the address of a new friend.

"Someone said, 'If you go and visit him and make him an honorary Cavalryman, it will change his life.' It did. There's another kid I'm helping with no legs and no forehead. An awesome, awesome guy."

In the past several months, Rozelle has signed on as a spokesman for several different organizations for people with disabilities - both military and nonmilitary - and often spends his evenings coaching people he's never met.

"What I've had to be careful with is not to get overstretched," he said. "Someone will write me and say, 'My brother was in a car wreck and he's having his leg amputated tomorrow - can you go and speak to him?' It's emotional, and it's difficult to do that over and over again."

In six months, that will be his full-time job. After returning from Iraq, Rozelle is scheduled to move to Washington, D.C., where he will help oversee a new amputee center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

After visiting the hospital on a monthly basis since his injury - sometimes recruiting soldiers to come skiing with him in Colorado - he's met with nearly 200 amputees from the war in Iraq. He's also learned that not all wounds heal the same.

"In the beginning I just tried to be a commander and command people into getting out of their beds. I've definitely had to adjust that for many soldiers," he said. "Different people are motivated in different ways. Not everyone is motivated with a kick in the (butt). Some people just need time."

In the book, Rozelle deals honestly with the period he spent feeling sorry for himself. He writes of kicking an addiction to morphine that accompanied the amputation and a bout of drinking too much that came with the recovery. Those struggles, along with much of the daily pain, are hidden when he tucks his uniform over his prosthetic.

When people see all that he's achieved - a book deal, a new job, national television exposure - he said they sometimes ignore what he overcomes each day.

"People have actually asked me now, 'Isn't your life better now than before you were injured?' "

He paused. "Just because someone makes the most of something that doesn't mean it's . . . "

He stopped again, allowing his anger to subside.

"I wake up every morning without a foot."

Chapter 10: Fit for Duty

I believe that I will not be hindered in any way from performing all the duties of a cavalry officer. My future assignments do not include any physical activities that I cannot do now. I can fulfill all of the duties associated with my MOS, and am ready to prove them . . .

As he leaves his home on Bayonet Circle, Rozelle passes the Army equivalent of Burma Shave signs posted along the way:

"I will always place the mission first."

"I will never accept defeat."

"I will never quit."

At the end another long day, Rozelle, changed into sweat pants, removed his prosthetic and rubbed the end of his leg.

"It hurts," he said. "Just wearing boots all day can be uncomfortable, but I'm wearing this big prosthetic device. As well as it's made, nothing is comfortable."

As he prepares to return to Iraq, he says he's confident in the mission. Though he's had devastating days since returning - such as the time he learned that the police chief he personally installed was assassinated - he said he sees the recent election as vindication.

Inside his home, he looked at one of the first copies of Back in Action.

"There's so much that's happened even since I finished that one," he said. "So much to come."

With that in mind, he's continued to keep a journal - a book-in-progress that already has a tentative title.

"It will be the sequel," he said. "Back from Action."

About Capt. David Rozelle

• Military honors: Bronze Star with Valor for actions in combat, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal (four awards), Army Achievement Medal (three awards)

• Present duty: Command of Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Troop of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Carson

• Future duty: Amputee Care Program military administrator at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C

Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

Click on the link to see the source. Rocky Mountain News: America At War


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