This one was actually in the MSM (the Wall Street Journal) today and sent by the dozens to me. Thanks for the links.
Below is the story of Special Forces Sergeant Andy McCaffrey - it's about his struggle to get back on a Special Forces Team even though he lost his arm. I'll post the entire article in case it goes into archives.
at...It's harder for enlisted
soldiers to return to the front lines after losing a limb, Army officials say.
Very few even try. Yet today, the unthinkable has at least become thinkable.
About 300 soldiers and Marines have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Technological and medical advances are allowing these amputees to perform at
levels that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. In recent
months, the Army has found two enlisted front-line soldiers -- both of whom are
below-the-knee amputees -- fit for duty and ready for a return to combat.
Sgt. McCaffrey and amputees
like him are raising tough questions for a military eager to encourage these
soldiers, but also worried they could put colleagues at risk. "Andy is a
real asset and the Army has made a considerable investment in him over the last
14 years," says Maj. Thomas Leitch, his commander. "But I have 82
other soldiers in the unit I am responsible for."
His superiors have pushed
Sgt. McCaffrey to think about a job training Green Berets at Fort Bragg, or a
position with a Special Forces unit that does reconstruction and relief work.
In either post, he'd be eligible for full salary and promotions.
Other soldiers, confronted
with similar situations, have relented. Capt. Lonnie Moore, an infantry officer
who lost a leg to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, began his rehabilitation
determined to return to battle, commanding tanks. That front-line job requires
less walking than the infantry.
As time passed, however, he
began to have doubts. Although he could run and jump on his new leg, the
prosthetic broke frequently. A fellow officer, under whom Capt. Moore had
served in Iraq, asked him what would happen if his tank were hit. Could he
scramble out of the burning vehicle as quickly as a soldier with two legs?
Could he pull fellow soldiers to safety? The questions haunted the 29-year-old
"A leader's job is to
mitigate risk," Capt. Moore says. "With my prosthesis the way it is
today, I would be creating risks for my soldiers."
Now, he plans to take a
civilian job with a small defense company. He's hoping to convince the Army to
put him on the "temporary disabled retirement list." If a soldier's
condition improves while on that list, he can return to his military job.
"That way if prosthetics continue to improve, if they become more
reliable, I could go back," Capt. Moore says.
By contrast, Sgt. McCaffrey
says his best chance at a return to active duty is now. "I didn't bust my
hump for two years to get this close to achieving my goal only to give
up," he says.
"This is a mission for
Andy," says Lt. Col. Jeff Gambel, Sgt. McCaffrey's physician. "For
him it is a way of being whole again."
Sgt. McCaffrey, a native of
Massapequa, N.Y., speaks in a rapid-fire cadence that stands out in an Army
full of southern drawls. When he greets someone, he thrusts his prosthetic arm
out to shake hands, almost as if it were a challenge. "A lot of people see
this hand when they first meet me and nothing else," he says.
His father, a track cashier
for the New York Racing Association, served in Korea. He lost both legs in a
car accident in 1965. "I never knew my dad with two legs," Sgt.
McCaffrey says. His experience with his father lessened the shock of losing a
limb and gave him an insight into the challenges he would face. "There is
a thick line between people who have lost a body part and those who
haven't," he says. "As an amputee you always have to prove and
In 1990, after graduating
from high school, Sgt. McCaffrey joined the Marines because he thought they
were the "toughest thing out there." But he says he grew bored and
when his contract was up after four years, he left. Three days later, he
enlisted in the Army, convinced it offered more challenge. "The recruiter
thought I was nuts," he recalls.
Shortly after joining the
Army, he married his wife, Irma Ortega, who had a 10-year-old son. They had two
more children, a boy, then a girl. About the time his daughter was born, he
started getting restless, Sgt. McCaffrey says.
He signed up for the U.S.
Army Special Forces qualifications course. Only about one-third of those who
start the course become Special Forces soldiers, also known as Green Berets. In
training at Fort Bragg they learn how to survive for weeks in unforgiving
conditions, stage ambushes behind enemy lines and fight alongside rebels as
well as foreign armies.
"It was a lot more than
just manual labor. You had to think," Sgt. McCaffrey says. As part of
training, he learned French and studied African culture. His first deployment
was to Mozambique, where he spent six weeks training African security forces.
In March 2003, his unit
deployed to Afghanistan to train its fledgling security forces. Three months
into the tour, Sgt. McCaffrey was disposing of Chinese-made hand grenades at an
ammunition dump outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. He pulled the pin on a grenade
and prepared to throw it. But the faulty grenade exploded prematurely, taking
off his right hand and most of his forearm below the elbow. Sgt. McCaffrey
remembers almost every detail of what came next.
"It is etched in your
skull for the rest of your life," he says. He reached down to grab his
wounded hand and quickly realized it was gone. A buddy threw him to the ground
and kneeled on what remained of his arm, in an attempt to stem the bleeding.
Sgt. McCaffrey remembers reaching up with his good hand to pick grenade and
bone fragments from his friend's face before the medics arrived.
He was rushed to a field
hospital outside of Kabul where his battalion commander came to visit him. Sgt.
McCaffrey says he told him: "I don't want to be kicked out of the
It was the beginning of what
he calls a "lonely crusade" to overcome both the loss of his arm and
his commanders' deep doubts.
Two days after the
explosion, Sgt. McCaffrey arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in
Washington, D.C. During his treatment, his wife and children shuttled between
their home at Fort Bragg and Washington.
Rehabilitation was slow and
frustrating. One day, Sgt. McCaffrey was in the hospital cafeteria, near a
soldier who was complaining the Army sent him to Iraq even though he had a
hernia. In Iraq, the hernia grew more painful and he was sent home, the soldier
told his dining partner. After a few minutes overhearing the story, Sgt.
McCaffrey says he couldn't take it any more. He pushed his stump, which had
been sheathed in his sweatshirt, in the stranger's face.
"Stop bitching. A lot
of people in this hospital have problems that are worse than yours," Sgt.
McCaffrey recalls telling him. "While you were trying to get yourself
evacuated from a combat zone, I was trying to get back there."
To some at the hospital,
Sgt. McCaffrey was abrasive and impatient. "Not everyone shared his sense
of urgency," says Col. William Howard, chief of occupational therapy at
Walter Reed. Others, like Oren Ganz, his occupational therapist, found his
obsessive determination challenging and went out of their way to help him.
Mr. Ganz joined Walter Reed
just three months before Sgt. McCaffrey arrived. When he walked into his
hospital room to meet Sgt. McCaffrey for the first time, the soldier was
vomiting uncontrollably -- a common reaction to painkillers. Sgt. McCaffrey's
3-year-old daughter was in the room, hiding behind a chair. "She was quite
scared," Mr. Ganz recalled. "I asked if he wanted me to come
back" when the nausea passed.
Sgt. McCaffrey shook his
head no, threw up again and then started telling Mr. Ganz, "OK, here is
what I need to work on," Mr. Ganz recalls.
Sgt. McCaffrey asked his
battalion at Fort Bragg to send him a rubber replica of an M-4 rifle and a
model 9mm pistol. Such replicas, called "rubber ducks," are standard
training tools. Sgt. McCaffrey had little interest in the therapy regimen
developed for him at the hospital, which revolved around using his fake arm to
stack blocks, eat and get dressed.
Instead, he spent his
sessions working with the guns. Some on the hospital staff were concerned the
fake firearms would disturb patients suffering from post-traumatic stress. So
Sgt. McCaffrey and his occupational therapist retreated to a small, windowless
room near the main therapy ward. He spent hours raising his rubber rifle and
pretending to open fire. Then he'd let it fall around his shoulders, and draw
Mr. Ganz had almost no experience
with firearms. So he peppered Sgt. McCaffrey with questions: "Why do you
hold the rifle like that? What if you slid your prosthetic hand a little
further down the barrel?"
He began to do research on
the Internet, searching Army and Marine Corps Web sites for firing tips. To get
a better sense of the weapon's recoil, he took trips to the rifle range.
"Andy was so determined. I found it extremely interesting to work with
him," Mr. Ganz says.
Sgt. McCaffrey's drive has
been made possible by big advances in the treatment of amputees and the
technology of prosthetics. Army field surgeons have learned that if they
administer nerve blockers immediately after an injury they can greatly reduce
chances of "phantom pain" -- the debilitating pain amputees often
feel in their stumps.
Doctors at Walter Reed Army
Medical Center have developed new surgical techniques that allow them to
preserve larger portions of amputees' stumps. Soldiers with longer stumps
typically have better luck manipulating their prostheses.
And in the past few years,
prosthetic devices have made huge leaps. Today's prosthetic arms boast
microprocessors that are 250 times faster than ones in use just 12 months ago.
Amputees manipulate prosthetics, which cost about $40,000 each, by contracting their
bicep and tricep muscles. The muscle contractions send electronic pulses that
cause the computerized fingers to move. The faster chips allow a more
Some improvements are the
direct result of Sgt. McCaffrey's push. A team of prosthetists spent extra
hours designing special arms and hands he needed to get into shape. The Army's
physical-fitness test, for example, consists of push-ups, sit-ups and a
Sgt. McCaffrey knew push-ups
would be the toughest, so he asked John Miguelez, a prosthetist at Walter Reed,
to design a special push-up arm. Mr. Miguelez found a "sports hand,"
developed by a Colorado company. Although designed for catching a basketball,
the hand had a flex at the wrist that made it good for push-ups. He modified
the hand so it would better spread the weight of Sgt. McCaffrey's body across
his stump when doing push-ups.
"For most amputees, the
thought of putting any weight on their healing wound is really scary,"
says Mr. Miguelez. Sgt. McCaffrey did push-ups with such intensity that he
re-opened the wounds on his stump. To get him to slow down, the staff
threatened to take his fake arm away.
The push-up hand was the
first of at least five prostheses the staff designed for Sgt. McCaffrey.
"Our relationship with Andy was way more than a professional
relationship," Mr. Miguelez says.
Soldiers like Sgt. McCaffrey
who want to rejoin their units after a serious injury must have their cases
reviewed by a three-person "Physical Evaluation Board." After
evaluating a packet chronicling the soldier's career and recovery, the board
declares the soldier fit or unfit for duty.
Most soldiers remain at
Walter Reed until the board rules on their case. But in December 2003, Sgt.
McCaffrey persuaded his doctor to let him leave the hospital before his case
was reviewed, and return to Fort Bragg. There he hoped he could amass a record
that would give the board no choice but to find him fit.
Just before Christmas 2003,
he met with the U.S. Army Special Operation Command's senior physician, Col.
Warren "Rocky" Farr, and plotted a strategy. Sgt. McCaffrey made a
list of all of the tasks he would need to return to his job as a Special Forces
engineer. Engineers are the Army's ordnance experts. They defuse bombs, clear
booby-trapped rooms and rig bridges and buildings to explode. In Special Forces
units, they must also provide basic medical care to injured soldiers, train
foreign armies and be experts in urban combat.
Sgt. McCaffrey's list of
tasks ran six pages and 77 items. It included everything from tying a
"western union pigtail splice knot" to guiding an I.V. needle into a
soldier's vein with his prosthetic hand. Each time he mastered a task, he had a
senior Special Forces soldier watch him, then sign and date his list. By
summer, he could perform most of the tasks. He met the Army's basic
marksmanship standards, learned how to disassemble and reassemble an M-4 rifle
in minutes and don a gas mask in less than 10 seconds.
Using a special arm that attached
to his stump with a silicone suction seal, he proved to Col. Farr that he could
do six pull-ups -- the minimum troops must do to qualify for parachute jumps.
On a piece of scrap paper, the Army doctor scribbled a note clearing Sgt.
McCaffrey to jump out of planes. In March 2004, he secured a spot in the Army's
"Basic Airborne Refresher course" and jumped.
When Sgt. McCaffrey came
back to Walter Reed to have his prosthetics adjusted, he was a hero to other
patients. He broke wooden boards with his stump, like a karate chop, to amuse
patients in the occupational-therapy wing. Physicians showed videos of him parachuting
from planes, doing pull-ups and pushing an I.V. into a patient's arm.
Frequently, they had him talk with patients who were struggling with
While training at Fort
Bragg, he regularly smashed his prosthetic hands. So on his return to the
hospital, he huddled with the staff to build a sturdier model he could take to
war. The prosthetists at Walter Reed encased fingers of a fake hand in carbon
fiber. To protect the hand's small electric motor, they fashioned small steel
plates that clamped on to the palm. Finally, they filled the pinky with an
extra hard polymer.
In April 2004, Sgt.
McCaffrey spent a month at Fort Bragg training with newly minted Green Berets.
His new hand held up. "The environmental conditions were rain and
temperatures near 100 degrees. At no time did SSG McCaffrey's [arm]
malfunction. Nor did it hamper the detachment's operational mission," the
instructor wrote in an evaluation. A few weeks later, Sgt. McCaffrey took his
annual fitness test -- a combination of push-ups, sit-ups and two-mile run. He
scored higher than he did before his injury.
Sgt. McCaffrey's unit
returned from Afghanistan in June 2004. After the company got back to Fort
Bragg, its commander and its senior enlisted officer left, as part of a normal
rotation. They were replaced by Maj. Leitch and Sgt. Maj. Blake. Their
evaluations would play a huge role in determining whether Sgt. McCaffrey was
found fit for duty.
Sgt. Maj. Blake, 50, had
spent 20 of his 28 years in the Army in the Special Forces. His current
enlistment contract ends in 2007, at which point he hopes to retire. Decades of
jumping from planes had taken a toll on his back and knees. He expected his
unit's coming deployment to Afghanistan would be his last.
Maj. Leitch, the 39-year-old
unit commander, joined the Army in 1991. He became a Green Beret in 1996. The
two commanders had spent most of their deployed careers in Africa, working with
local forces. Neither had seen combat.
Upon taking command of the
company, both were surprised to learn they had inherited a one-armed soldier.
They weren't pleased.
"Andy was testing
himself, jumping out of airplanes and shooting rifles. I had no idea what he
had been cleared to do," Maj. Leitch says. To Sgt. Maj. Blake, it seemed
as if "people in Washington didn't want to make the hard calls." He
says the Physical Evaluation Board should have reviewed Sgt. McCaffrey's case
and found him fit or unfit before returning him to Fort Bragg to train.
Maj. Leitch became worried
about Sgt. McCaffrey's ability to operate in the intense conditions Green
Berets often encounter. "Decisions have to be almost instantaneous,"
Maj. Leitch says.
Watching Sgt. McCaffrey at
the rifle range, he noticed it took him two or three seconds longer than other
soldiers to reload his 9mm. A former right-hander, his accuracy with his left
hand was good enough to meet Army standards, but not great, Maj. Leitch says.
"Andy lost his right hand and it seemed to me he had not completely become
a switch hitter."
If his pistol jammed, Sgt.
McCaffrey couldn't grasp hold of the slide and unjam it. Instead, he bashed it
with his prosthetic arm until it worked, Maj. Leitch says.
In October 2004, the Army
started the review that would determine whether he was fit for duty. His
folder, now in a file cabinet at the Army's Physical Disability Agency in
Washington, contains his medical records, along with letters from his doctor
and occupational therapist. "Sgt. McCaffrey is the standard bearer for
upper extremity amputee rehabilitation. He consistently challenges and
overcomes obstacles," wrote Col. Howard, chief of occupational therapy at
Sgt. McCaffrey made sure the
packet included the six-page list of tasks he had learned to do with his
prosthesis -- each signed and dated by a superior -- as well as videos of him
inserting an I.V. needle into a patient's arm and parachuting.
A five-paragraph letter from
Maj. Leitch countered all that.
performance in staff areas has been exceptional.... But his ability to employ
his individual weapon systems needs more work. He cannot effectively change
magazines and reduce stoppages," Maj. Leitch wrote in September 2004.
"SSG McCaffrey no longer possesses all the skills required to serve in a
In January, the board found
him unfit. In standard procedure, it offered no explanation. Sgt. McCaffrey
says, "That letter [from Maj. Leitch] didn't do me any favors," he
Sgt. McCaffrey applied for a
special waiver from the Army's Physical Disability Agency to stay in the
service. While waiting for a ruling, he continued to train with his unit for a
deployment back to Afghanistan this summer.
In March, Sgt. McCaffrey
went to a remote, mountainous corner of Montana for a month of intense
training. For the first few days, the soldiers did nothing but fire weapons.
Then they began elaborate mock missions. In the middle of the night, Maj.
Leitch would get orders to seize a cache of missiles or a prominent terrorist.
Typically, they would have 24 to 36 hours to plan and execute a mission. Other
soldiers would play the enemy. Sgt. McCaffrey was treated like any other member
of the company.
In Montana, he received a
fax telling him his waiver had been granted. This meant he could stay with unit
-- doing as much as his commanders would allow.
After the unit's return from
Montana, Sgt. McCaffrey and Maj. Leitch stayed after work to discuss his
future. It was 11 p.m. and the battalion headquarters had emptied out, both men
recall. Over beers, Maj. Leitch told him he belonged in the Army and even in
Special Operations -- but he couldn't hold his own in a front-line combat unit
with just one arm. "What if your pistol jams?" he asked. "What
if you get injured again?"
Sgt. McCaffrey recalls
telling him none of the problems were insurmountable. "What drives me
crazy is the 'what ifs'. Just give me a standard and I will figure out a way to
meet it," he said.
These days, Sgt. McCaffrey
is the first to work and the last to leave, says his boss, Sgt. Maj. Blake.
"I've got the utmost respect for him. He will bust his ass," says
Sgt. Maj. Blake. "He's here at 5:30 a.m. every morning working out. He'll
spend hours trying to figure out how to use his hand or come up with new ways
to cock his pistol or shoot his weapon."
After the sergeant major
criticized him for re-loading his pistol like a wounded guy, Sgt. McCaffrey
figured out another way to do it. Instead of wedging the gun between his knees
-- a move Sgt. Maj. Blake said could lead to an accidental discharge -- he
shoves the gun in a holster on his belt, pops in a new clip and then withdraws
Maj. Leitch and Sgt. Maj.
Blake watch these efforts with a mixture of admiration and frustration. They
were hoping, says Maj. Leitch, "that Andy would accept that he does have
limitations. I understand he is looking for answers. But that doesn't change
the fact that the limits are there."
Sgt. McCaffrey's wife
initially asked him to consider retiring or taking a position that would allow
him more time with their children. But she has relented. "Andy feels like
his career got cut short. I think he needs some closure on the whole
thing," she says.
Others in the battalion have
tried to convince Sgt. McCaffrey that the example he has set for other amputees
is a tremendous achievement in itself. But he dismisses such praise. "I
didn't do this for other amputees. I did it for me," he says.
Earlier this month, Sgt.
McCaffrey returned to Afghanistan with his unit. He is scheduling aircraft in
and out of the unit's base camp and serves as the battalion-retention manager,
helping soldiers re-enlist. He likely won't get to leave the base much, or go
on patrols or raids. "They offered me a job I can basically do with no
hands," he said just before deploying.
Typically, commanders stay
with a unit for 1½ to two years before being reassigned. Sgt. McCaffrey says he
hopes his next commander will have the "intestinal fortitude" to let
him back into the fight.
"I just want an
opportunity to fail," he says.