By Terri Moon Cronk, American Forces Press ServiceNovember 11, 2011
WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2011 -- Wounded veterans who come to the San Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center for their prosthetic care find the clinic there offers more than top-notch medicine.
They also find a compassionate caseworker in Tristan Wyatt, himself a wounded veteran who's lived the to-hell-and-back journey that proves there is life after losing a limb.
Wyatt has worn a prosthetic leg since shortly after an insurgent attack in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2003 left him and two of his six squad mates each without a leg.
As assistant chief of the prosthetics service, Wyatt helps introduce new veterans to the VA's program. Many, recognizing that he's overcome many of the same obstacles they now face, look to him for guidance.
"I spend a lot of time with them," Wyatt said. "And when they do ask, I tell them they'll have to let go of certain things or come to terms with them to assimilate back into 'the world back home.'"
Wyatt said severely wounded veterans know that losing a limb will shape many of their life experiences, but tells them the road ahead doesn't have to be a lonely one.
Through trial and error, Wyatt said he learned that getting a new prosthetic leg is about progression -- how to use it, what feels normal and what doesn't. He thought he had to live with the pain he felt, but found that adjustments or even new devices could mitigate the problem.
"When you're a new user," he tells patients, "you're not sure how it's supposed to feel or function or what a normal level of pain or discomfort is." If it hurts, he said, take the prosthetic off, relax, and look into an adjustment.
But Wyatt's experiences weren't just about learning to use prosthetics.
"There are things I could've done to make my life a lot easier -- things I could have avoided and didn't," he said. "You want to tell them about things they shouldn't do, but they're not thinking that way right now."
Soon after he was injured, Wyatt found he'd lost his passion for snowboarding in the Colorado Rockies because it was frustrating and became a lot of work. With time, he found that he excelled at rowing and kayaking.
Wyatt said leaving the Army was tough. Wyatt was 19 years old, he said, when he enlisted at Fort Carson, Colo., and right away, he knew he'd found his calling. He was just 20 years old when he was injured.
"My biggest hurdle was I couldn't go back to the Army," Wyatt said. "That's what I wanted, and I didn't know what I was going to do and didn't necessarily care. I fixated on what it was I couldn't do and lost track of [options]."
Wyatt spent six months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was awarded the Purple Heart right after his arrival while he was still in a wheelchair.
He spent a month fighting a stubborn infection and numerous surgeries that each took more of his thigh than doctors first expected. The physical therapy was grueling and the prosthetic fittings frustrating as he learned to walk again.
"It was difficult because prosthetics was uncharted territory for everybody," he said. "And we wondered, 'What's going to happen from here?'"
Wyatt said he found it easy to isolate himself from people. He spent one Christmas alone, four-wheeling his Jeep on a beach, and increasingly "disappeared" from family during holidays.
Social situations weren't comfortable for him, either.
"I didn't want to see anybody," he recalled. "The thought of being in a closed environment with a lot of people, having to share things, and being 'on display' was something I didn't want."
Eventually, Wyatt grew tired of living in the past, and discovered that other opportunities did exist. When the VA offered him an entry-level job in 2005 in its new information technology program for veterans, he jumped on it and moved back to Washington.
Once there, he testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, encouraging the expansion of service member assistance programs like the VA's.
"My separation from the Army was made a lot smoother than expected because of these people who truly cared and [were] willing to take a chance on a busted Soldier," he told committee members.
After a few years working for the VA, Wyatt applied for the agency's internship to work as a program manager in a prostheses clinic. There, he knew he could make a difference.
"I saw an opportunity where I could maybe go above and beyond in that arena, because of what I'd been through," he said. "It seemed like a perfect fit and too good to pass up."
Now on the job three years at San Diego's VA hospital, Wyatt said he's recaptured much of the camaraderie he enjoyed in the Army as he bonds with new patients beginning the same journey he started seven years ago.
"It still brings up a lot of emotion to see them because I know what they're going through," he said.
He shuns the suggestion that he's an inspiration to new prosthetics patients, but said he hopes they can benefit from his experience.
"There's only a limited amount of what you can say or do for them, so you feel a little helpless," he said. "But I hope they take something away from it."
Wyatt says he's fortunate to have a job he looks forward to every day. Today he feels he's reached a place in his life where the term "wounded warrior" doesn't define him anymore.
When he reflects back on all that's happened over the past seven years, it's a lot to digest, he said. "And it's a good feeling."
His journey back to the "real world," Wyatt said, wasn't without help. "I've been given every opportunity to succeed, so it's not only on my shoulders," he said. "It's a testament to the people of this country and the VA. Look at what they've given me -- it's unbelievable."