View Full Version : Sports help rebuild wounded GIs

01-20-06, 07:45 AM
Sports help rebuild wounded GIs
There's no languishing for some torn apart in Iraq. Their orders: Be what you were.

By Johanna Neuman
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
Published January 20, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Gubler was on foot patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, when he noticed the rusty truck hood on top of a mound of dirt beside the road. Seconds later, the mound exploded, and the 37-year-old National Guardsman fell to the ground, blinded and with his left arm severed. Now, less than two months later, instead of languishing he's preparing for a hunting trip in February.

Gubler's plans to go hunting so soon after suffering devastating wounds reflect a recovery strategy that might seem like the wrong approach.

The Army's rehabilitation experts are pushing soldiers and Marines who have lost arms and legs to take up activities that demand the physical capabilities they have lost. That is, downhill skiing, cycling, rock climbing, even stalking wintry landscapes in search of game--sports that many people would consider especially demanding.

Physical, emotional benefits

The evidence suggests that such activities, properly supervised, not only yield physical benefits but are a powerful mechanism for helping amputees regain one of the most important things they lost on the battlefield: belief in themselves.

"Sports are an integral part of the rehabilitation process, an incredible tool," said John Register, 38, an Army veteran who directs the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Program and whose left leg was amputated after a sports accident. "If you've lost a limb, your first question is, `Am I still a husband? A soldier?' Sports gives you a sense of normalcy."

The matter is especially important in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where terrorism and suicide attacks are producing a new generation of war wounded: Shielded by body armor and helmets, soldiers are surviving potentially lethal wounds only to face the challenge of physical and mental rehabilitation after losing limbs.

Most are treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington or at Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.

As the number of amputee soldiers has grown--more than 300 have come through Walter Reed--military doctors and therapists have pushed to adopt the latest trends in rehabilitative medicine. That includes pressing their patients to get into sports that use just what the wounded veterans have lost.

Within a month of being wounded, Gubler was at Walter Reed, where doctors worked to restore his sight, reconstructing first his right eye and then his left. His wife and four children--Ericka, 13; Joshua, 9; Kyle, 8, and Caleb, almost 3--were on their way to visit from Idaho Falls, Idaho, over Christmas break.

But what Capt. Jon Verdoni, an occupational therapist, was pushing Gubler to do was get ready for hunting in February. That meant hooking him up to an electronic device that helped flex the biceps and triceps muscles on the remains of his left arm. Both see hunting as a step toward making the wounded soldier the kind of person he was before.

`I can have my life back'

"I can go home and have a fake hand for family occasions and going to church," Gubler said as Verdoni hooked him up to a laptop computer with software to teach him to flex. "Or I can have my life back, fishing and shooting and teaching my kids the things I learned as a kid."

Another psychological lift can come with the sports rehab programs: Sometimes they involve activities once reserved for the well-to-do.

Aided by the non-profit groups the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled Sports USA, Walter Reed recently took about 70 soldiers and their families to the resort community of Breckenridge, Colo., for a week of skiing instruction and competition.

The idea of using sports to rehabilitate soldiers traces to 1948, when Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was treating World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries. Guttmann held the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed to coincide with the Olympic Games.

"We really credit the World War II vets, especially, with starting the Paralympics," said Ann Cody, a lobbyist for the U.S. Paralympics Committee.

In the 1970s, she said, returning Vietnam veterans, many of them amputees, gave new impetus to sports rehab.

For Gubler, physical challenge looks like the best route not only to that hunting trip but also to the rest of his life.

"I think it's just a matter of time before they'll have fully articulated hands," he said. "I'll be able to play the piano. That's coming down the road. When the train comes through, I want to be ready for it."