Loss of limb no hurdle for Ohio combat veteran
October 26, 2006
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Army News Service, Oct. 23, 2006) - On a remote stretch of road on a sweltering desert evening in August, 2004, Soldiers from the Chillicothe-based A Company, 216th Engineer Battalion, wrapped up a long day's work and prepared to head back to their temporary base of operations near Samarra, Iraq.
A fine desert grit dusted everything and everyone. Uniforms were stained white from the salt escaping from their sweat-soaked bodies.
The men had spent their day leveling earth berms that flanked a roadway used as a military supply route. The earthen mounds were ideal for hiding the roadside bombs that represent the greatest threat to coalition forces throughout the country. At about 6 p.m. the Soldiers loaded their equipment, piled into their vehicles and prepared to head back to base.
<strong>Heading to Iraq</strong>
Spc. Terry W. Dean joined the Ohio Army National Guard in part because he felt compelled by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in part for college tuition benefits. His girlfriend of seven years, Alissa, fully supported the decision.
The former construction worker enlisted as a petroleum supply specialist with A Company's Tarlton-based detachment in December 2001. He married his longtime girlfriend in December 2003, and deployed with his unit to Iraq in February 2004, only 24 hours after witnessing the birth of his daughter, Gracie.
"That was the hardest part, knowing that Alissa was going to have to be alone with a new baby and I was leaving," he said. "I think I was more upset than she was."
To comfort himself and help calm her fears, he called home nearly every day. When he was out on missions, he would sometimes have friends call for him. Dean's job as a petroleum supply specialist had him fueling vehicles and equipment, but the reality of a combat deployment had the new dad conducting convoys, pulling security and filling in where needed.
In accordance with the Army's combat stress management policy, Dean headed home on leave at the end of July. He returned to Iraq Aug. 13 after spending a blissful two weeks getting reacquainted with his wife and bonding with his 6-month-old daughter.
Seven days later, he was assigned to a detail responsible for leveling the earth berms flanking a military supply route. After a long day's work under the intense desert sun, he and four of his comrades climbed into the back of their convoy's lead Humvee and the exhausted engineers headed back to base.
Moments later, a violent and devastating blast swept through their vehicle, obliterating the deceptive evening calm, and changing dozens of lives forever.
Insurgents had detonated a roadside bomb that destroyed Dean's vehicle and killed two of his friends and fellow unit members, 1st Lt. Charles L. Wilkins III and Spc. Ryan A. Martin. The blast wounded three others, including Dean, who was in shock and didn't immediately realize he was injured - until his driver yelled back to ask if everyone was okay.
"I looked down and saw my leg sitting beside me," Dean said. "I looked back at him and said 'No, I'm missing my leg.' The next thing that went through my mind was 'I get to go home to my girls.'"
<strong>Home sweet home</strong>
About 12 hours later and more than 6,000 miles away, Alissa and Gracie Dean, along with Alissa's best friend, Dara Gullette, returned home from a shopping trip to the local Wal-Mart. Alissa heard the telephone ring as she walked in the front door of her Hillsboro home and tossed her keys on the table. She picked up the receiver and the man on the other end of the line identified himself as Lt. Col. Robert Bramlish, the rear detachment commander for the 216th Engineer Battalion - her husband's unit.
"I want you to know that your husband is going to be fine," he said, "but he was injured today."
Alissa gripped the receiver as she sunk to the floor. She placed a conference call through to Terry's parents so they could speak with Bramlish together, while Dara looked after Gracie.
Three days later, Alissa, Gracie and Terry were reunited at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. They spent three months together while Terry raced through physical therapy and rehabilitation.
Dean walked on his first prosthetic leg only eight days after he was wounded, and eventually received a total of five: one for running, one for swimming (with a small flipper) - and three general purpose legs, one sporting the University of Michigan logo (his favorite football team) and one of which he recently broke playing basketball.
"As soon as I got my running leg, I went to the physical therapy room, got on the treadmill and started running," Dean said. "Some captain came up to me and said, 'You're the best runner I've seen on a prosthetic leg.' I told him I just got it five minutes ago and he couldn't believe it."
Because he was hesitant to draw attention to himself, Dean often favored long pants outside of the medical center. But, the combat veteran walked so naturally on his new prosthesis that during a trip to Florida's Walt Disney World with the Wounded Warrior Program - which provides support services to severely wounded and ill servicemembers and their families - several park patrons approached him, baffled.
"I had two or three people come up to me and ask me what happened," Dean said. "I told them I lost my leg and they didn't believe it until I showed them the prosthetic leg."
<strong>An opportunity presents itself</strong>
Eighteen months passed before Dean was medically discharged from WRAMC. During that time, he was visited by many well-wishers including country singers Chely Wright and Toby Keith, as well as many high-ranking military officials. About a month into his stay, he received a visit from several of his Ohio unit members, including Bramlish.
"He was amazing. He was already up and around on his new leg," Bramlish said. "His family was there and they were acting like a family where someone had an appendix taken out. There wasn't one utterance, not one indicator of 'Feel sorry for me.'"
Bramlish and Dean kept in touch regularly via telephone as Bramlish helped the family cut through red tape and navigate the benefits process. During that time, Ohio National Guard leaders were realizing the need for assistance for all of the state's veterans. So when Maj. Gen. Gregory L. Wayt, the Ohio adjutant general, first mentioned creating a new full-time position for someone whose sole job would be to help Ohio's Soldiers and Airmen through the veterans benefits process, Bramlish said he immediately thought of Dean.
"My only concern was that he was young. He was only 25," Bramlish said. "Most of his counterparts in other states are 35 to 38 years old. His job is complex; it's master's degree work. But, Terry was the guy. He was the right person for the job."
Dean reported to Beightler Armory in Columbus to begin his new job Jan. 17 this year, the day after he was medically discharged. As the state benefits advisor, he acts as liaison between the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and advocate for Ohio's Soldiers and Airmen. His main focus is walking his fellow veterans through the benefits process - one that he's intimately familiar with.
"I love it. It's a great opportunity to assist other veterans," Dean said. "Instead of sitting around at home, I can help other vets get what they've earned. I kind of get to give back."
<strong>Life after loss</strong>
Although he admits the incident in Iraq changed him, Dean is determined not to let the loss of his leg interfere with his everyday life.
"I don't let it keep me down. I still do everything that I did before. My wife and daughter help keep me positive," he said.
Alissa and Dean have no regrets, they said. Dean is a stronger person with a better appreciation for life and their family is closer than ever, Alissa added.
"We're proud Americans," she said. "He loved serving his country and he believed in what he was doing. If he didn't, I'm sure it would have been much harder."
Initially, Dean didn't allow himself to dwell on the loss of his friends, instead concentrating his energy on recuperating and bonding with his family.
"For the first year or so, I was so busy that I didn't have time to really think about it," he said. "It's harder now. I think about them all the time. I get emotional; I tear up all the time."
Dean maintains contact with several of his former unit members and said he feels a strong sense of connection with both the Army and the individuals he served with.
"I definitely miss being a Soldier," he said. "And I wouldn't take anything back. I tell my wife if I was single, I'd be back in Iraq. I'd do it all over again."