Editor's note: This story is presented in honor of Warrior Care Month. The Department of Defense named November Warrior Care Month to raise awareness about the programs available to help wounded warriors and their Families through recovery.
Specialist Ian Gillis thought the truck carrying him through a portion of Afghanistan fell into a ditch. No tumble into a ditch had ever "crushed (him) under like a soda can," he said, but he had gone into shock and was not entirely sure what was going on. When he tried to stand up, he thought his left leg was broken at least in three places. He could hardly breathe, and he was in the worst pain he could have imagined.
He later learned the truck hit an antitank mine.
He was right about his leg. His left ankle was broken in a few places, he had compound fractures in his left tibia and fibula, and the ligaments in his left knee were destroyed. His right knee was shattered. He had seven fractures in his spine. His liver and spleen had been lacerated. His lip was split and front tooth knocked out when the butt of his rifle was shoved into his face by the blast.
Seven surgeries and a year and a half later, Gillis is at West Point working to overcome the challenge of stairs and other everyday obstacles.
He has been assigned to West Point's Warrior Transition Unit to help keep his appointments and records straight so all he has to concentrate on is getting better.
"They really do what they can here," Gillis, who was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, in Hohenfels, Germany, before being deployed, said. "The chain of command really does care."
Between physical therapy appointments, doctors' appointments and preparing for an upcoming eighth surgery, Gillis is attending college to study business.
He can't continue as an infantryman and soon will be evaluated by a medical board to see what benefits he will receive when he leaves the Army.
For the first time in his three-year Army career, Gillis is able to see just what the Army offers him because the WTU helps him concentrate on himself.
"The leadership has my best interests in mind," Gillis said, which allows him to heal physically and mentally. "It's nice to speak to someone who generally wants to help you. I have been working on learning I can't do what I used to do. I can't throw on 100 pounds of gear and climb mountains or go on 25-mile road marches. I always wanted to go into law enforcement, and my dreams of being big time FBI or (Drug Enforcement Agency) are gone. I know I can't wrestle a 6-foot gangbanger to the ground."
But, knowing some of the Army's best surgeons will be working on his knee makes Gillis smile.
"I know I have someone with magic hands working on me, and I can go through (knee surgery) again," he said.
All the while, he is close to his girlfriend and part of his Family. His parents and brother visited him from California while he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but they had to return to work and school eventually.
He was lonely at Walter Reed and is thrilled he can see his girlfriend and father's portion of the Family often.
First Lt. Robert Burke also is comforted by the fact his Family and fiancee are a three-hour drive away. Burke, who also is recovering in West Point's WTU after spending time at Walter Reed, sees his loved ones frequently.
Still, returning to the WTU at Fort Drum, where he was stationed before being deployed to Iraq where he was wounded, would have put him closer to his Family and fiancee.
"I thought I'd get better care here," Burke, who was wounded nine months ago, said. "I knew some people who work here, and they had nothing but good things to say about the medical care."
Burke was shot five times -- in his left leg, torso, left shoulder, triceps and right cheek -- while he and his unit tried coaxing people of interest from a home.
After six surgeries, he has been working to rebuild strength in his leg and learning how to use the muscles he has left in his shoulder.
He worked with physical therapists and now has been cleared to return to his former unit in the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Drum.
He said the WTU taking care of scheduling his appointments and keeping track of his records freed his time for more important things such as healing and building strength.
"The level of care here has helped me get better faster," Burke said. "At Walter Reed, I felt there were other people with bigger injuries. I decided to leave so I could have more one-on-one care. That allowed me to take ownership of my rehabilitation. I'll still do further rehab, but I'll still be a positive equation in the Army. I really want to be back at my unit."
Cable 6 News, the local Time Warner Cable channel also did a story featuring Gillis, which can be viewed at http://www.cable6tv.com/video.shtml.