By Whitney Delbridge Nichels, Warrior Care and Transition
ARLINGTON, Va. - In decades past, the idea of an amputee returning to duty was complicated at best. Add in the complexities of deploying on a combat mission and the unlikelihood multiplied tenfold.
According to the Department of Defense, as of January 2018, more than 1,500 service members lost limbs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Thanks to advances in modern medicine and the availability of sturdier prosthetics, Soldiers who are able to redeploy after amputation have a number of possible options.
When Staff Sgt. Brian Beem lost his leg to an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006, he says he went through the initial emotions that many Soldiers face after a devastating injury.
"I thought my career was over," Beem said.
He credits his experience at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. with helping him assess, and eventually find, options for returning to duty.
"It took me about a year to get up to speed with [physical training], and I was feeling pretty confident," Beem said. "I also took a trip to Iraq with the Troops First Foundation, and I used that as a test run to see if I could make it work."
Sure enough, within a short time, Beem was ready to deploy to Afghanistan with his unit. Although he was no longer on patrol as he was in previous deployments, he still played a vital role in battle staff operations.
"It was really gratifying to be able to deploy," Beem said. "It's possible, but it's not easy. The process is there for those who have the perseverance."
Some of those processes include the Physical Evaluation Board which can determine if a Soldier with a prosthesis is still fit to serve. The Continuation on Active Duty/Continuation on Active Reserve program also provides options for some wounded, ill and injured Soldiers who can prove they are still physically able to serve.
"Thanks to the COAD/COAR program, I was able to continue on and reach retirement," Beem said.
According to the Washington Post, in 2005, Army Capt. David M. Rozelle became the first military amputee to go back to combat when he redeployed to Iraq. Then in 2008, Sgt. John "Mike" Fairfax, a member of the Army Special Forces, became the first amputee to complete the jump master course.
"Deployments are really what the Army is all about," Beem said. "Even the training you do at home, it all culminates with deploying. And for combat arms folks, if you don't have deployments, you can't be competitive [for promotion]."
Beem acknowledges that every case is different. For some, the will to serve alone is not enough to overcome the severity of their injury.
But for those who are able, it is very rewarding to continue to stand side by side with their comrades.
"I didn't join the Army to sit around and have a comfortable lifestyle. I joined the Army because I knew it would be hard work, and it is," Beem said. "But when you're done, you can look back and say 'wow, look at everything I did'."