ARLINGTON, Va. — When Sgt. James Brannen was struck by shrapnel from a rocket in Afghanistan in the summer of 2019, he wondered if he'd ever be able to do the activities he once enjoyed. A little less than two years later, he'll be one of nearly 100 Soldiers to participate in the 2021 Army Trials — a testament to how far he's come.
On that fateful day of Aug. 10, 2019, Brannen shattered his femur, severed an artery, and suffered multiple shrapnel wounds all over his legs. He went to Germany and then Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, suffering constant pain and unable to walk.
Eventually, he ended up at Fort Bliss Soldier Recovery Unit (SRU) in Texas, and was unsure about his future and about participating in adaptive activities. But he started to progress with physical therapy and discovered new activities like the hand bike that helped him take on new challenges. Now, he’s an Army Trials participant and adding some new sports to his repertoire.
"I started hand cycling and lifting weights again," Brannen said. "I just recently started some field stuff like wheelchair racing as well as shotput and discus."
Although he's currently taking a class which limits his time to train, he makes sure he gets in the necessary physical activity.
"This morning I've already hand-cycled," he said. "We kind of have a schedule. It's pretty much every day I'm doing something to train."
Physical therapy has been challenging on the whole, but he's making progress.
"At first, I had range-of-motion issues," he said. "I still do, and it's kind of hard to do a lot of things. I started walking in a pool on a treadmill, and that's really helped me to start to walk again."
Brannen has progressed from the wheelchair to crutches to a cane, but it's still difficult to do activities like ride a recumbent bike. He feels like he's plateaued in the last six months in his recovery, but is hopeful that he'll continue to get stronger and walk better.
Some activities were more difficult to get into than others. The hand bike was somewhat frustrating at first, but Brannen was motivated to overcome those issues.
"I progressed with it pretty quickly because we had started talking about Trials and the games, so I just kept going with it," he said.
Brannen's thoughts have turned to his home state of Nevada lately. He expects to be cleared by the medical board soon, giving him an opportunity to start a new phase in his life.
"I'm hoping to go home in a few months, and I'll continue training there," he said.
Luis Cortez, his physical therapist, said Brannen won't avoid something just because it’s difficult.
"[He] thrives on a challenge," Cortez said. "If you challenge him to something, he will strive to achieve it."
Alan Cooksey, adaptive reconditioning support specialist at Fort Bliss, said Brannen is committed to continually getting better.
"He's always on board," he said. "He's always been active, and he wants to continue doing whatever he can. He's motivated to do what needs to be done to get better and heal."