View Full Version : The hardest fight

06-24-07, 09:34 AM
The hardest fight
By Barbara Barrett - CDT Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Marine Sgt. David "D.J." Emery Jr.'s life snapped into focus one morning in April, two days after the birth of his daughter, when he studied the lower half of his hospital bed, turned to his mother and, still unable to speak, mouthed these words:

"What the f happened to my legs?"

For weeks, the young warrior's battle for survival had been waged by his mother, his young wife and the doctors who kept him clinging to this side of death.

Then Emery noticed the emptiness that day in the intensive care unit, and the fight became his.

He hates it.

It hurts when the physical therapist pushes hard on his stumps, forcing him to seal shut his eyes and blow a long, slow curse through his lips like air seeping from a tire. He's humiliated when, trying to lift his body from prone to sitting, he loses his balance and nearly tumbles onto the ground.

He gets so angry, throwing whatever lays close by with his one good limb -- a right arm that the left-handed Emery had little use for before Feb. 7.

"I hate having to depend on people," Emery said last week, his voice quiet and raspy, lying on his stomach and attended to by a physical therapist, his mother, Connie, and his wife, Leslie Shivery.

He glanced over to little Carlee Ann, 2 months old and testing a new smile from the bed of her stroller. He has to learn the same motor skills as his daughter: rolling over, sitting up, propelling his body from one point to another.

He has vowed he will walk before she does.

Emery, of Bellefonte, is one of a growing number of double amputees at Walter Reed, evidence that the bomb blasts by Iraqi insurgents are becoming more powerful as the war continues. One afternoon last week, four others -- all further along in their recovery -- exercised stumps or tested mechanical legs in the physical therapy room as Emery went through his own exercises.

Emery remembers little from that day in Iraq's Anbar province.

A checkpoint. Stopping to chat with other Marines, while Iraqi soldiers nearby searched anyone who didn't seem right.

He never saw the suspicious-looking man or the torso wrapped in explosives. The man spread his arms wide, like an eagle taking flight, to trigger the blast.

Emery doesn't recall much -- not the flight home, not the countless surgeries, not the amputations of first one leg, then another -- until April 23.

That's when Emery took up his own fight. He began to heal. Through good days and bad, he moved from the intensive care unit at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to a regular hospital room, then two weeks ago to Ward 57, the amputees' home at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Over time, he's been visited by the Washington Redskins football team, by his local congressman, and by President Bush, who gave Emery his Purple Heart.

"I dunno; he's just another person, you know?" Emery recalled from his bed. "He invited me to the White House. Hopefully I can get some running legs and go running with him and smoke his ass."

The encounters that really matter are the ones with other veterans, such as the old man in the hallway who gets around better on two fake legs than most senior citizens do on real ones.

"When a doctor tells you that you'll walk one day, and he has two real legs, you're like, 'whatever,' " Emery said. "But when a guy comes in on two prosthetic legs, and they're standing there, it makes everything possible."

Someday Emery wants to be that guy, standing in the hallway and talking to a kid fresh from Iraq.

He used to be 6-foot-3. He thinks he'd be happy at an even 6.

He has so far to go.

"If you look at him on paper, he's a complete train wreck," said Dr. Jay Pyo, an Army captain and Emery's osteopathic doctor.

This is Emery: skinny, weak, recovering from multiple-organ failure. His left arm remains in a brace, all but useless. His left leg was amputated to the hip, his right leg just below. Those are especially difficult spots for someone who must learn to walk again with prosthetics.

The first day in physical therapy two weeks ago, therapist Adele Levine felt Emery's tight muscles and wondered at his prognosis.

He has almost no abdominal muscles because of a stomach wound, no core from which to control sitting up, swiveling and, someday, taking steps.

But last week she felt the growing bicep of his right arm. She watched, hand poised at his back, as Emery grimaced and tried to sit up, swinging a hip, pushing off with the one arm.

"I can't swing it; it's impossible," he said. "I can't get up!"

Levine patted his shoulder. "It's OK. Let's try again."

She counted to three. He grunted. Twisted. Grimaced. And sat.

Levine stretched his hip muscles, a pain that feels good, Emery said, because he knows his body's working.

"I do think he's doing really incredible, considering how he did when he first came in," Levine said.

"What's 'Joker 4-3'?" she asked, noticing the tattoo on his right forearm.

"Call sign from my first time over," Emery said. He's been to Iraq twice.

A few weeks ago, his unit returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif. Some came and visited him here, dropping off an American flag scribbled with their names and motivational quotes such as "Get a haircut" and "Kill babies!"

"It's, you know, just something we used to say," Emery explained.

Outside physical therapy, Emery has begun to get around.

More than a week ago he claimed a wheelchair, a motorized behemoth with tricked-out back wheels that light up as he rolls, earning admiring smiles from other patients.

He got a few hours' pass and went to a shopping mall last weekend, ate a burger at Ruby Tuesday. He bought some new cologne, "Curve," and a white Pittsburgh Pirates ballcap that he wears backward on his head.

Among the things the 21-year-old gets most excited about these days is watching "American Chopper" on television, where a few rugged guys fancy up motorcycles.

Emery will have to sell his Honda when he returns to Centre County. He dreams of a Harley trike, something he can ride with prosthetics. He doesn't care what it looks like so long as it's black and red and dazzling with chrome.

He's getting used to the idea of fatherhood. He fed little Carlee for the first time a week ago. He hasn't changed dirty diapers yet, figuring that the whole daddy thing will hit home.

He was scheduled to be fitted for prosthetics at the end of the week. Maybe, in a few days, he'll be ready to move to a nearby military apartment, giving him outpatient status.

It's a big step.

"I look at it this way," he said one recent afternoon in that quiet voice. "I pretty much, like, have been aware of things since April 23, when I realized I didn't have legs. From lying in that bed in the ICU to here is pretty good."

He cradled Carlee in his bad arm.

"It seems like it's been forever."

He tipped his daughter's baby bottle with his good arm, watching her tiny feet pummel the air.

CDT Washington correspondent Barbara Barrett can be reached at 202-383-0012 or bbarrett@mcclatchy dc.com