Wounded warrior helps fellow amputees at VA prosthetics clinic
December 17, 2013
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 17, 2013) -- A decade after his injury, amputee Tristan Wyatt now heads a Veterans Affairs prosthetics clinic and is helping other wounded warriors adjust to their new life.
Wyatt, who is the chief of Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Service at the VA Medical Center in San Diego, encountered his own struggles as a young Soldier after a battle in Fallujah, Iraq, cost him his right leg.
The Colorado native, who said he loved the Army and planned to make a career of it, said he never imagined his life journey would take him to where he is today.
He found his calling, he said, when he enlisted in the Army at age 19. Like many Americans, he entered the service in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"When I got to the Army, I really found something that resonated with me as an individual," he said in a phone interview from his office.
The Army, he said, was more than just a job.
"The more I learned about the Army and the more experiences I had in that organization, I really thought I had found something that was fulfilling on a meaningful level," he said.
INJURY AND RECOVERY
But in 2003, the then-20-year-old private with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, suffered the battlefield injury that ended his Army career.
He and his squad were ambushed by insurgents. Wyatt and two others on the team each lost a limb in the battle.
"The projectile that hit me in the knee during the course of the firefight essentially just ripped my leg off," he said.
He endured multiple surgeries, battled infections and hit low points. The recovery process was painstaking, he said, involving more than a dozen surgeries over a year and a half.
The battlefield amputation was "pretty ugly," he said, and surgeries were needed to get him to the point where he could accommodate a prosthetic limb.
"The challenges revolved around the healing and surgery process that went into battling infection and ultimately revising the limb," he said.
"The easy part was fitting the limb and learning to walk. The difficult part was getting there," he said. "It was peaks and valleys."
MOVING FORWARD WITH THE VA
During his recovery at then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he said he came into contact with Veteran Affairs personnel and ended up taking an entry-level job in 2005, with the agency in a program for veterans.
After a year with the office in the nation's capital, he moved to San Diego to work for the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration office.
In 2007, he began a two-year internship with the VA in New York in prosthetics. When that internship ended, he relocated to San Diego, eventually being promoted to chief of Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Service.
Wyatt, who is working on his bachelor's degree and is aiming to get a master's degree, supervises the fabrication of limbs, procures medical equipment for veterans, and talks with amputees about new technology, benefits and expectations for the future.
"I try to give them the most realistic picture possible, while still maintaining a positive spirit," he said.
Wyatt, who used to love to go snowboarding, took up kayaking and rowing after his injury, as he said snowboarding just wasn't the same for him after he lost his leg.
Injured service members can explore doing modified versions of their favorite activities or seek out new diversions, said Wyatt.
"I think it's important for them to hear the truth," he said. "The truth is there are some things that you won't be able to do. There are some things that you will be able to do."
The healing process can be discouraging, he said, but a realistic perspective can help in the recovery and avoid disappointment from not being able to complete goals that are set too high.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
Wyatt marvels at the improvements in prosthetic limbs over the last decade.
"It's incredible to watch the progression," he said.
"I remember when I first was fitted and thinking that was the most state-of-the-art thing I've ever seen," he said. "Now some of the stuff I've seen in the past couple years, I never thought we would be here this quickly."
The mission of Wyatt's office is to improve the independence of the wounded warriors and help them overcome obstacles, he said.
Going from the Department of Defense to Veterans Affairs can be scary, said Wyatt. But he said he thinks the injured members who come to the clinic feel a connection when they see a fellow amputee and member of their generation.
"I think it just helps them kind of relax a little bit and understand that we're going to do the very best that we can for them," he said.
Wyatt said discouragement can easily arise during the times of struggle.
"I think the greatest advice I could give anybody is just to take it one day at a time," he said.
"It's easy to look into the future and be afraid of what may happen, or if things aren't going right with a fitting, you tend to hit a valley instead of the peak," he said.
With all the twists and turns that his life has taken, Wyatt said he is doing well, and enjoys his job of helping other people.
"I have nothing to complain about; life's been very good to me," he said.
"It's been an interesting ride," he said. "There have been ups and downs, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. It's been a very good experience overall."