Face of Defense: Amputee Pursues 2012 Paralympics Berth
July 28, 2009
CHULA VISTA, Calif., July 22, 2009 - Army Sgt. Jerrod Fields hasn't just learned to adapt as an amputee since hitting a roadside bomb in Iraq. He is on his way to becoming a record-holding sprinter.
Fields capped his track and field season by winning a gold medal at the 2009 Endeavor Games and setting his sights on the 2012 Paralympics.
A below-the-knee amputee sprinter in the Army World Class Athlete Program, Fields won the 100 meters with a time of 12.15 seconds June 13 in Edmond, Okla., site of the Endeavor Games for athletes with physical disabilities.
This spring, he finished second against an able-bodied field of collegiate sprinters with a 12.0 clocking in the 100 meters at the Occidental Invitational in Los Angeles.
Fields' coach, Al Joyner, said he believes his sprinter will flirt with world records on the road to London for the 2012 Paralympics.
"I think he's a potential world record-holder," Joyner said in early February. "I would put my money on him in both the 100 and 200."
There's little reason to doubt Joyner, an Olympic gold medalist and Jim Thorpe Award winner who helped his late wife, Florence Griffith-Joyner, and sister, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, sprint and jump for Olympic gold during their illustrious careers.
Joyner, Team USA's sprint and high jump performance coach, began working with Fields in November at the U.S. Olympic Training Center here.
"In terms of track and field, he's just a baby," Joyner said. "He's just now starting to learn techniques. He may be that one athlete that ends up changing the barrier as far as how people look at things."
Joyner became the first American in 80 years to win an Olympic gold medal in the triple jump at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. He and Jackie were the first brother-sister duo to strike Olympic gold in the same event. And he coached 100- and 200-meter women's world record-holder Flo-Jo to five Olympic medals.
"In my family, we have a total of 12 Olympic medals," Joyner said. "And I have been coaching for the past 27 years."
Among Joyner's current crop of athletes, Fields received a special nod of approval.
"If I had to pick a most-improved athlete, he would get the award," Joyner said. "He's getting better and better by the second, so it's going to be really great to see over these next three or four years as we get ready for London. He's going to surprise a lot of people.
"He really has improved in leaps and bounds with his mechanics," the coach continued. "If somebody came out and watched him run from afar, they could not see that he had a prosthetic leg. But if you saw him the year before, he was falling all over the place. It's really like night and day."
Fields is chasing the world marks of 11.3 seconds for 100 meters and 22.48 for the 200.
"I'm almost there," he said. "This is my second season and my first real year of training. Everybody else that I'm competing against either was born without a femur or foot or something. I'm just coming on brand new. I'll catch them by London Games. I'll be ready."
Fields, 27, who played football, basketball and baseball for Carver High School in Chicago, encountered an improvised explosive device in Baghdad in March 2005.
"I was out on a routine reconnaissance with my platoon, and we got a tip that there were explosives inside of a dog," he said. "At that time, they were cutting dogs and cattle open and placing explosives in them. We got the call for the mission to go out and to handle the situation. We saw the dog and kept our distance to see what the situation was. We didn't want to get too close to it, but it turned out that was a decoy.
"We got the call to return home," he said. "I was in the trail vehicle in the convoy. As we turned around, [mine] became the lead vehicle, and that's when an IED went off underneath it. The first IED took the floor plate of my Bradley [fighting vehicle] out. The second one got me in the leg. It took from the calf muscle all the way down to the heel of my foot - the Achilles tendon and muscles. I was able to continue the mission. I didn't feel it really at first. I just felt a lot of fire.
"To be honest, when I first looked down to see what happened, I laughed, because I thought I had dropped a grenade," he continued. "I was thinking to myself: 'Man, these guys are never going to believe what I've done.' I finally heard over the net that it was an IED and that I had been hit. When I looked at my leg, I saw that it was mangled."
Fields reported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. After six rounds of surgery and six days of contemplating his most difficult decision, Fields requested amputation below his left knee.
"It would have taken 22 surgeries, and they were going to fuse my ankle," he said. "I would not have been able to play basketball any more."
Fields resumed walking a month later, on April 2. By mid-June, he was playing basketball in a Chicago summer league.
"I never got down or angry about this injury," said Fields, who since has graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine for his "streetball" prowess. "I just felt that it was a new step or direction that I had to go in," he said. "I try to go back [to Walter Reed] as often as I can to mentor some of the others."
Fields said he never considered leaving the military, as long as it would have him.
"I saw more support by staying in the Army," said Fields, who was 22 when he suffered the injury. He noted that President George W. Bush had signed a bill allowing injured servicemembers to stay on active duty pending a test to see if they were physically fit for duty and could return to duty. "That was my intention," Fields said. "Then this program came along."
Fields received a call from John Register, a former member of the Army World Class Athlete Program and a Paralympian in both swimming and track and field, who now serves as director of community and military programs for U.S. Paralympics.
"He told me the Army had something for me if I wanted to continue active duty and also become an athlete," Fields recalled. "He faxed me all the paperwork. I got in contact with WCAP, they looked into it, and we went from there. Now, I think I can retire from active duty and come back as a coach to work with some younger soldier-athletes coming up.
"I was a career soldier the day I signed up," he added.
Fields suggests that wounded warriors get active as soon as physically possible.
"I would say to get out here and face those fears, if any, and have fun," he said. "This beats sitting in a house and being depressed, or being off your leg or your arm, or thinking how people might view you because of your disability. Just get out and have fun."
Fields is still learning to run on the prosthetic leg.
"When next season rolls around, I'm going to be ready to roll," he said. "I am more focused, and I'm finally able to put my workouts together, transferring the benefits from the weight room to the track. I just feel more confident in what I'm doing. The prosthetic is starting to be a part of me. I'm still learning how to get full usage of it, and it's showing on the track."
And on the field, where Fields recently began dabbling with the long jump.
"I'm going to let the event find him," Joyner said. "He's going to run the 400 to keep his strength. Getting ready for the Olympics, it's mental, so I'm going to attack his body to let him know that he can do anything he wants as long as he puts his mind to it. I look at him as a dedicated athlete, and he just keeps raising the bar. My job is to get him competing against himself."
(Tim Hipps works in the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command public affairs office.)