Lonnie's still out there. The other team members have already cooled down, munched muffins, shucked their prostheses to let the October air cool their blistered stumps; for a few of them, the Percocet has begun to take hold. The 2005 Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C., is nearly four hours old. Thirteen thousand runners have crossed the finish line. Soldiers are gathering trash in the Pentagon parking lot. By the time the team members straggle to the bus, each of them has shaken off enough of the post-run daze to notice: "Lonnie's still out there?" asks one, then another. When the answer is a nod, many of the well-wishers, wives and physical therapists--but especially the other leg amputees--wince. Everyone passed Lonnie Moore at some point, and he was struggling. Around the eight-mile mark he fell, then hauled himself up and kept running.
Not that the others didn't suffer too. Balky prostheses, backache, unseen potholes, take your pick: Today hurt everyone. But while these nine amputees came as a team--the jaunty Missing (Parts) in Action squad, composed of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq--their unity is a brittle construct. Some barely know one another. They hail from all points on the map, from the Army, Navy and Marines. Some come from the ranks and some from the officers' corps. Hell, they even bickered beforehand about whether they should all run together, arm amputees pitting their needs against those of leg amputees. Accept the early start time set aside for them, or blend in with the able-bodies? Then one Army hand amp called a Navy hand amp a "retard" for suggesting they not start as a team--but bolted from the group the instant the start cannon was fired.
No, the one thing that unites them this morning is what they hate--the loss of a limb--and the hard truth is that, despite the fact that the several amputees run with staffers from nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center, each of them wrestles that hate alone. Lonnie's still out there? I hope he's O.K., but, well, whatever....
In truth, it's no surprise that Lonnie's not in yet. Moore, 30, a retired U.S. Army captain from Wichita, Kans., hasn't been able to train much. He got his latest socket only 10 days before the race, and 10 days aren't enough for a casual runner--let alone a kneeless amputee--to get ready for the shock of 10 miles. The rocket-propelled grenade that blew into Moore's Bradley Fighting Vehicle outside Ar Ramadi, Iraq, in April 2004 took his right leg at mid-thigh. By the end of the first mile, after passing the side of the Pentagon that took the hit on 9/11, his right hamstring was in full rebellion. Moore slowed to a walk, then ran until the spasms flared again. His stump began to dehydrate and shrink, loosening the grip of the prosthetic socket, making the sweaty flesh slip and its tender tip pound ever harder against the carbon-fiber shell.
Still, they've all seen worse every day at Reed or at Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas: faces speckled by shrapnel or covered with scars that look like melted wax, men wheeling through the halls missing two or three limbs. They've seen blood and heard screams, in battle and out. For some Missing (Parts) first-timers, today's run was the mountaintop they'd spent months trying to reach, the point they needed to prove. From the moment they regained consciousness in the hospital, they were goaded to get up and move, if not by their devoted "physical terrorists," then by one group after another that organizes sporting events for the disabled: the Wounded Warrior Project, Disabled Sports USA, the Achilles Track Club, U.S. Paralympics. They've gone camping, rock climbing, rafting, skiing, biking; they've tried sports they never would've considered trying before; they've fallen face-first into dirt and into snow. They've all had good days and bad.
Since late 2001, when U.S. soldiers began fighting in Afghanistan and then Iraq, 2,375 of them have been killed and 16,535 wounded, as of last Friday. Three hundred sixty-five of the wounded have lost a limb. Moore was number 114. He has been disabled longer than most of his teammates, so this run isn't his big breakthrough. That came last December when, two months after his fiancée broke off their engagement, he entered a ski event that lifted him out of a deep funk. Today? A mid-race bomb scare forced organizers to extend the course 1.2 miles. Today is one of his bad days.
But back at the bus, they'll wait. Amputee number 130 is stretching on the pavement, number 158 is chattering away, number 34 is holding up his prosthetic hand so you can better read the letters A-I-R-B-O-R-N-E scrawled on the plastic knuckles. Some of the runners are displeased with their times; some are blasé; some are grinning. This is not your typical team, or race. This is recovery--each body healing, each finishing at its own pace.
LANCE CPL. AARON RICE
DEPLOYED MSU STUDENT LANCE CPL. AARON RICE WAS INJURED DURING A ROUTINE PATROL IN IRAQ.... RICE, A POLITICAL SCIENCE MAJOR AND A MEMBER OF SIGMA ALPHA EPSILON, HAS BEEN SERVING WITH THE MARINE RESERVE SINCE EARLY THIS YEAR. IN ADDITION TO SEVERAL LESSER INJURIES, HE SUFFERED A SEVERE LEG INJURY.
--THE REFLECTOR, STARKVILLE, MISS., APRIL 1, 2005
The black dog bit Aaron Rice seven weeks after the mine blast tore through his Humvee's left wheel. One article of faith in amputee treatment is that depression is a predictable, even necessary part of healing; when a piece of you dies, it's only human to mourn. But Rice's grief came at him sideways. He seemed fine until the phone rang in his room at Walter Reed's outpatient apartment building, the Mologne House, but as soon as he heard Staff Sgt. Michael Brady's voice, Rice knew that MAP-7, his 20-man mobile assault platoon in Iraq, had been hit. Ambushed on May 7 near Haditha. Seven wounded, three of his buddies dead: Sgt. Michael Marzano, with whom Rice had spent his last morning in Iraq, trading tales at the shooting range; Sgt. Aaron Cepeda, who had tried to pull Rice out of his wrecked Humvee as mortar shells rained down; Lcpl. Lance Graham, who scribbled memorials to U.S. casualties on the 40-mm grenade rounds he fired at the enemy, one of which read in memory of lance corporal rice's leg.
Rice, then 21, broke down before he could hang up. He stayed in most of the day, weeping until the tears wouldn't come. Guilt, and a sense of his uselessness, overwhelmed him: What was he doing in bed? "I know it's irrational, but hell had broken loose on them for four hours, and I'd told them, 'I'll be there to watch your back.' And I couldn't pull a trigger. Guys were bleeding out and still shooting, bleeding to death and shooting, but I couldn't be there."
Rice had been in Iraq only 14 days when he hit the mine, but by then all his senses--all six of them--were sending out alarms. The evening before, he and his best friend there, Cpl. Stan Mayer, had been talking about all the men who'd been blown apart. Rice had enlisted in his home state of Mississippi, eager for action, and found it after becoming attached to the Ohio-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, a unit that has suffered more deaths than almost any other in Iraq. "I can't go home missing a leg," he told Mayer that night. "I just cannot do that."
On the afternoon of March 18 Rice's Humvee was trailing Mayer's on patrol when Rice saw a group of kids playing soccer. He wondered why they weren't swarming the unit begging for candy. "Something's not right," Rice said, and 30 seconds later the three-ton vehicle seemed to leap in the air. He felt excruciating pain everywhere: fingers, ears, teeth. Rice looked at his lap and found himself studying the sole of his left boot. It's gone, he thought. Mortar shells dropped all around as two Marines pried away the curled metal that had pinned Rice's right foot. A corpsman pumped Rice full of morphine and scrawled an M on his forehead with a black Sharpie, and Rice was dragged into a nearby school. Later, after a Blackhawk helicopter lifted him away and darkness fell, a group of Iraqis was spotted near Rice's gutted Humvee, setting land mines. Mayer says his unit opened fire and "took some of those guys out." Other insurgents ran into a cluster of shacks. The Marines called in an airstrike, and soon a 500-pound bomb fell on the huts.
On the helicopter out, Rice showed the crew a picture of his wife, Kelly; they'd married a month before he was deployed. A medic said, "She's beautiful, man." Then Rice passed out for three days.
Aaron and Kelly had begun dating five years earlier as teenagers in Mississippi. Aaron ran track and played recreational soccer at Oak Grove High in Hattiesburg, and, as a senior, after years of pumping weights with his twin brother, Ryan, made the football team. Aaron and Kelly went on to Mississippi State, where he majored in political science. As a sophomore he left school to work on Haley Barbour's 2003 gubernatorial campaign, then joined the Marine reserves with every hope of going to Iraq. His mom didn't like it, but what could she do? Ryan joined the Marines exactly one year later.
Kelly was nervous until the day Aaron got hurt, but that afternoon she told herself, Everything's going to be O.K. The next morning she answered a knock at her door, found two Marines there and collapsed, sure that Aaron was dead. Who ever heard of a doorstep notification for a lost limb?
Aaron woke up at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to the sight of Kelly's face. The next two months involved a half-dozen surgeries to remove dead skin and debris from the jagged wound where his leg had been severed, four inches below the knee; to take skin from his thigh for skin grafts; to build up the sound flesh around the ends of his bones and then stretch it for a strong, tight seal over the stump. Every step involved pain. Two weeks after arriving at the hospital, Rice slipped while hopping out of the shower. As he fell, all his weight drove the butt end of the stump into the floor. "Feels like getting run over by a train," Rice says.
In late May a group called Creative Mobility visited Walter Reed with custom-made bicycles, and Rice rode one-legged in D.C.'s Rock Creek Park. A month later he went mountain biking in Colorado and fell again, slamming his stump into the asphalt. In late July he took part in the D.C.-Baltimore stretch of Soldier Ride, a cross-country biking fund-raiser for disabled vets, and fell--but bent his knee this time and spared the stump. The skin grafts took a long time to heal, delaying the fitting of his first prosthesis until Aug. 1. Everyone at Reed talked up October's Ten-Miler, but staffers weren't sure Rice was ready for it. He had never run 10 miles in his life. He signed on anyway.
Two weeks before the event Rice received his Flex-Foot Cheetah racing leg, a sickle-shaped spring that takes considerable experience and strength to control. He was able to train on it only twice.
On the morning of the race Rice woke up wired. Half a mile into the run, Kelly, who was jogging beside him, felt ill. Though she would finish the race, she waved him on. She knew that he didn't dare stop. Running at a sub-11-minute-mile pace, he passed all the leg amps, at least one hand amp and plenty of able-bodies. When he crossed the finish line in two hours, he threw his arms over his head and screamed for joy. "I'm totally flabbergasted," said Army Lt. Col. Barbara Springer, the chief of physical therapy at Walter Reed. "I thought his stump wasn't ready. I will never doubt anybody again."
Rice kept walking for a minute or so, 30 yards past the line, cushioned by adrenaline. "I've been waiting on that finish line for so long," he said. "I had that picture in my head." He began heading toward the Walter Reed tent to pry off the Cheetah when his face suddenly twisted in pain.
"Oh, God," he said softly. "This is the worst pain I've ever felt."
He took a step, gasping. "Oh, my," he said.
He took another. "Oh, man."
The next morning he walked into Reed, sore but sure that he'd passed an important marker. "I ran almost 12 miles yesterday," Rice said. "I'm my own man. I don't need sympathy; I don't need special treatment. I'm whole again."
Two days later Rice rushed down to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina: MAP-7 had come home. He and Mayer and another Marine, Cpl. Jeff Schuller, flopped in a barracks room and drank beer, talking until 4 a.m. Mayer bears traces of that May ambush. His Humvee melted in the bomb blast that killed Graham; he was burned on his face, neck and right arm and took shrapnel in his face and back. "I was worried about him being different," Mayer said of the effect of Rice's injury, "worried about us all being different." But they weren't. Rice didn't sleep much that night, but for the first time in a long time it was because he felt good.
SGT. E-5 TIMOTHY GUSTAFSON
HER SON, SGT. TIMOTHY GUSTAFSON, 27, OF THE TENNESSEE NATIONAL GUARD, WAS WOUNDED MONDAY WHEN A HUMVEE HE WAS RIDING IN WAS STRUCK. SHIRLEY SAID SHE DIDN'T KNOW MANY DETAILS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED, BUT HER SON WOUNDED HIS FOOT.
--LEAVENWORTH (KANS.) TIMES, JAN. 26, 2005
His fear kicked in only after he knew he wasn't going to die. Tim had heard the stories: wives who couldn't handle their men returning broken, who saw weakness and left. Early in their courtship, in 2002, Janice had suggested a four-mile run around her family's small ranch outside Paola, Kans., and what sold Tim on her was the moment that she picked up the pace going uphill. Janice attacked the road. She loved to compete, and they finished together, stride for stride. But now, on his first stop back from Iraq, at the military hospital in Germany, his head swimming from painkillers, Tim couldn't stop worrying. I'm never going to walk. I'm not the same man. She's not going to stay.
On Jan. 24, on patrol with the 1st Squadron, 278th Regimental Combat Team, Gustafson was riding shotgun an hour east of Baghdad, making a routine check on an exposed length of oil pipeline. Some of the new, fully armored Humvees, the M1114s, were in use at Caldwell, the 278th's forward operating base in Iraq, but Gustafson's Wolfpack team was riding in an M1025, which is armored on the side, front and rear but not the bottom. For a week he had been plagued by a nagging dread and had kept tucking his feet under his seat, hoping for a bit more protection.
That morning his patrol drove over a stretch of dirt with one small section disguised by a fake tire tread. The mine was bound to two artillery shells, and the explosion blasted off the vehicle's front wheels and sent it rearing up. Gustafson's right foot plunged through the torn floor board, and when the Humvee slammed to the ground, his foot was crushed beneath the undercarriage.
A doctor told him the bones looked like the remains of a shattered candy cane. A military surgeon in Iraq amputated the foot but left the skin of the heel, because its thickness would make good padding for a stump. Gustafson was flown to Germany, where he endured cleanup surgery, and then on to the U.S., arriving at Walter Reed last Jan. 27. That night he dreamed that a pack of tiny wolves was chasing him up a tree; one bit his leg, and the sleeping Gustafson kicked his raw stump against the bedrail. He woke up drenched in sweat.
The next morning he saw Janice for the first time. "Are you going to leave me?" he asked.
She climbed into his bed. The nightmares stopped. "I didn't marry his leg," Janice says. It was Tim's head she worried about. Her father, Chuck Davenport, had served as an army medic for two years in Vietnam, returning in 1971 as a decorated veteran with a case of malaria and a uniform that drew epithets and gobs of spit from war protesters. He eventually became an abusive alcoholic, feared by his mother, wife and kids. It wasn't until the 1990s that doctors diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. The PTSD and alcoholism fueled each other, and in 1997 Davenport had a hallucinatory breakdown. He thought his wife was trying to capture him. He raved that his daughter was a Vietnamese nurse. Hospitalized for a couple of weeks, he then spent three months in a rehab center but never shook the malaria or the bottle.
Gustafson underwent seven more operations, eventually losing the heel pad, ankle, shin and half his calf. About two weeks after he arrived at Walter Reed, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker stopped by his bed on a visit to the hospital. Gustafson told him his buddies were patrolling in inadequately armored Humvees while M1114s puttered around Caldwell. Within days, says Specialist Shane Carlson of the 278th, the Wolfpack was driving M1114s. "All of a sudden," Carlson says, "they started magically appearing."
Gustafson checked out of Walter Reed and into the Mologne House on Feb. 22, still heavily medicated. Janice was handed 21 prescriptions, including some for meds to deal with the side effects of his meds. He would eventually have to kick all the painkillers--Gabitril, Clonazepam and Percocet--but the toughest drug by far would be methadone, the substitute drug for heroin addicts.
On March 10 he got fitted for his prosthesis, but his elation was cut short a few hours later when Janice got a call. Chuck Davenport's body had been found; her father was dead at 56.
Withdrawal from methadone made Tim drowsy, nauseated, forgetful and irritable. It took a month, and Janice was terrified; all she could think of was her dad. But Tim was different. When, at the end of March, he could endure four days without taking any meds, Janice raced to dump the pills down the toilet.
Once Gustafson had his prosthesis, the physical therapists at Reed pushed him to get moving. Organizers from Achilles Track, DS/USA and the Paralympics had begun recruiting him within weeks of his regaining consciousness. He had wrestled for four years at Lansing (Kans.) High and had kayaked and hiked with Janice, but running appealed to him the most. He started jogging in May. On June 26 he ran his first race, a five-miler called the Hope & Possibility Run in New York City's Central Park, with Janice. In September, the week before the Army Ten-Miler in D.C., they ran the Tunnel to Towers 5K in Manhattan, and Gustafson's prosthesis folded like a jackknife during the race. He finished anyway, but five minutes later the pain was so intense that he couldn't walk.
He had trouble in the Ten-Miler from the start. First it was nausea; then pain in his right knee began to flare. The Cheetah leg so chafed his skin that in compensating he hyperextended his leg three times. After 61/2 miles he changed to his normal prosthesis and began to walk. But then his other leg began to ache, so once the pain in his stump subsided, he put the Cheetah back on and ran until he couldn't take the pain again. By the eighth mile his left hip and calf were cramping; the word quit entered his mind. Then an old, hefty woman passed him. Walking. Furious, Gustafson tried to catch her. Then came the bomb scare. A suspicious package had been seen under the 14th Street Bridge, so the course had been altered and now stretched to 11.2 miles. Therapists from Reed suggested that Gustafson take a shortcut to the finish. He would still cover 10 miles, they said, just what he'd signed up for. Janice begged him to take the shortcut. "I came here to do the whole race, no matter how long they make it," Gustafson snapped at her. "If you say that again, you can just leave."
He started running, hard. The hefty lady was in his sights. Words from his old wrestling coach flashed through his head, providing a rhythm: Never give up, never give in, finish strong. He passed the woman. He had run for almost three hours now, but down the stretch all pain disappeared. He could feel Janice beside him, attacking to the finish, locked in with him stride for stride.
"I made a promise that whatever he ran, I would be right next to him," she says. "Until he starts outrunning me."
CAPT. (RET.) DAWN HALFAKER
ACCORDING TO FAMILY MEMBERS, STAFF SGT. NERBIE LUIS LARA AND [ANOTHER SOLDIER] WERE INJURED ... AFTER A ROCKET STRUCK THE HUMVEE THEY WERE RIDING IN.
--VISALIA (CALIF.) TIMES-DELTA, JUNE 25, 2004
In september, Dawn Halfaker attended her company picnic. The company may be a research unit of the Department of Defense, but it was still your basic weekday get-together: hot dogs, fresh air, tug-of-war. Maybe even basketball. She's not sure about that, but what is clear in her mind is how the feeling hit her all at once, for the first time: I'm watching. A couple of years ago she would've been in the middle of the action, taking on the men. Now, at 26, she could only ... spectate. A cutesy blonde, as if transported from the 1950s, sat nearby, mystified by her boyfriend's volleyball game. Halfaker tried to explain the rules, the scoring. And she thought, This sucks.
Injured veterans are not typical of the general disabled population in the U.S. Cut from a force of young, disciplined, physically fit action junkies, they're primed for the shock of physical therapy, driven to get back on their feet and go. The USOC Paralympic Military Program has already run two multisport summits for veterans in the last three months, hoping to unearth talent for the 2008 Games in Beijing. "We treat the patient at the level of a tactical athlete," says Chuck Scoville, program manager for amputee care at Reed. "The only difference between our guys and other athletes is that our season is yearlong."
After a stellar career at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, Halfaker was one of the key seniors behind West Point's turnaround 19-win basketball season in 2001, a slashing, defense-obsessed guard known for her aggressiveness. In practice she'd demand that teammates guard her more closely, and she loved nothing more than picking a dribbler clean. "If I had a team of Dawns," says Rancho Bernardo coach Peggy Brose, 54, "I'd coach till I was 70." Halfaker's favorite picture from her Army career shows her lunging at a Navy player while two teammates hold her back. "I look," Halfaker says with a smile, "like I'm going to kill her."
She loved everything about being an athlete: the locker room, the high jinks, the endless push to get better. Basketball was a way to break the ice with others, to show who she was. In late October of Halfaker's sophomore year a teammate fell on her left knee, ripping muscles from the bone and tearing the posterior cruciate ligament. The doctor said she would be sidelined for six months; Halfaker pushed her physical therapist to get her on the court in three. In January she was in the lineup. To hear her describe her best steal, against Bucknell as a junior, is to know why. "This girl was coming down with the ball really fast, it was late in the game and we were rallying," she says. "She got the ball, and I darted toward her, and I don't know how I didn't get called for a foul, but I just punched the ball hard with my left."
She stands up in a friend's living room in Washington, D.C. She's not wearing her prosthesis. Her right arm and a portion of the shoulder muscle are gone, but she doesn't care: She's got this imaginary ball and an imaginary opponent. She lunges, face alight, grabbing the imaginary ball and then spinning, almost dancing around the coffee table. "I almost barreled through her," she says, "and another girl was coming, and I just frickin' whipped the ball around, just broke her ankles. It was awesome. Whipped it around my body to my right hand"--the invisible ball bounces under an invisible hand--"and went downcourt and spun and put it up righthanded, finger-rolled it in. Everyone was going crazy. My favorite play of all time."
After graduating in 2001, a second lieutenant heading into the military police, Halfaker found there was no better way to bond with her men than by outplaying guys from other units on the basketball court. While waiting in Kuwait to head into Iraq, "guys were getting pissed off because Dawn schooled them," says Sgt. 1st Class Norberto (Nerbie) Luis Lara. "We had guys wanting to fight her."
The 4/293 Platoon's mission was to create a model Iraqi-run police station, and teaching Iraqi officers how to run an effective, ethical force. Halfaker helped spring one innocent man from prison; his wife named their child Dawn. Soon after her platoon took charge of the Diyala Province police station in Iraq, in March 2004, someone nailed a basket up in the jail. Prisoners would watch the games through the bars. Halfaker could feel the Muslim men watching as she beat men at their own game. She felt respect.
Within a month she saw her first action. There's a famous quote by Gen. Douglas MacArthur that Halfaker can recite from memory: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days will bear the fruits of victory." But she has no illusions about the parallels between sports and war. "We killed people, of course," Halfaker says of her unit. "You can never know what that feeling is like until you do it. You always wonder: Will I be able to do it? And once you do, it's something you wish you never knew how it felt. You handle it because you have to. Because life goes on."
On June 19 she was riding in the backseat of a Humvee on a street in Baquba, behind Sergeant Lara. A rocket-propelled grenade ripped through the passenger side of the vehicle, slicing off Lara's right arm and then destroying Halfaker's at the shoulder. Lara passed out; Halfaker shouted at the driver to get back to the station. She couldn't understand why she couldn't open her door. When they got there, she begged the medic, "Don't cut it off. Don't cut my arm off."
Halfaker spent the next week--in Baghdad, Germany and then Walter Reed--in a coma. Her face had been burned, five ribs had been broken and, worst of all, her lungs had collapsed. Once she was stabilized, she was wheeled into the physical therapy clinic at Walter Reed. Lieutenant Colonel Springer, who as a West Point physical therapist had helped rehab Halfaker's knee six years before, was staggered by the sight of her sunken and battered body. "Such a sickening feeling," Springer says. But she knew her patient. Two days later Halfaker was doing crunches in her bed. She couldn't get enough PT. "If we didn't push her hard enough, she'd get frustrated," Springer says. "Dawn wanted to be smoked."
She hated the way she looked, made her mother cover her bathroom mirror with a towel, but recovered her strength quickly. Lara took longer to heal, and Halfaker would visit his bedside to try to get him moving. Once, in August, she dropped to the floor and began snapping off one-arm pushups. S---! he thought. I need to get up!
The two of them went to Aspen last winter for a ski event but barely saw each other on the slopes--Lara skied and Halfaker snowboarded. Snowboarding is the only time she forgets she's missing an arm, at least until she falls to her right and eats snow. She has played basketball a few times, but it's not the same as before. "I miss the way the ball feels in my right hand, the way the leather feels," she says. "You know how good it feels when you shoot the perfect shot?"
When running she has an advantage over leg amps, but then, few of them know how stressful it is for her to maintain good running form. An amputated arm presents more problems overall than a below-the-knee severance. Army Sgt. Andy McCaffrey, a right-hand amp, cocks his left thumb and says, "This is what keeps us on top of the food chain."
Then there's the phantom pain. Seventeen months after the amputation, Halfaker still feels the shoulder and arm she used to have, and often they hurt. Phantom pain might be caused by any number of factors--infection before amputation, nerve damage, ill-fitting prostheses and inadequate surgical procedures. Without drugs, only exercise keeps the pain at bay. She tries to run every day.
In a sense, then, Halfaker began the Army Ten-Miler looking only for relief. She had walked to the start, streaming through the crush of people to the front, standing stock-still for the national anthem with a dead-eyed stare. Some members of Missing (Parts) had come looking to make a statement, but it's not in her to be melodramatic. She just wanted to run. But then the starting cannon went off, and the team got its 10-minute head start as 13,000 able-bodies watched and sunlight splashed the trees. Speaking of this moment later, she would begin to cry. With each step away from the crowd, Halfaker found herself running in deeper and deeper silence. The road drew closer to the Potomac.
Suddenly she heard a voice in her head: Look what you're doing. Not long before, she'd nearly died. Then she'd been at that picnic, sidelined, watching. Now she could hear her own breathing, her feet hitting the pavement again and again. A bridge lifted her over the river, and she heard the voice again. Look at what you're doing.
CAPT. LONNIE MOORE
A ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADE BLEW A HOLE THROUGH THE SIDE OF STERLING'S BRADLEY, SENDING A SLUG OF MOLTEN COPPER THROUGH THE LEG OF HIS LIEUTENANT AND INTO HIS ARM.
--THE SACRAMENTO BEE, MAY 6, 2004
Lonnie's walking now. He hasn't tried to do more than that for miles. His stump is so bruised that he'll be feeling it for a month. When he heard they had lengthened the course, he just about caved. Why not quit? What did he have to prove? After all, he finished the 2004 New York Marathon, all 26.2 miles, on a handcrank bike. He skied 28 days last winter. He raced an outrigger canoe 36 miles. Lord knows, he's had his fill of inspiring moments.
The stream of casualties from Iraq has provided "the most exposure America has had to amputees," says Moore, who's president of the board of directors of the Wounded Warrior Project. "I don't think I ever saw one until I was 28. But now it's a feel-good story. The amputees you see on TV or read about, you think, 'Hey, these guys can do anything!' I get that all the time: 'I saw a guy on TV do the Ironman.' But it depends on the injury. We can't all do that."
Today's lesson, then, may be that Moore isn't meant to run a serious distance. He can take that. Still, something keeps pushing him. Just finish. The course is nearly empty now, and the walking's not too awful. He passes the Lincoln Memorial, crosses Arlington Memorial Bridge. Why not keep going? It's such a pretty day. To his right he can see Arlington National Cemetery, endless rows of white headstones against the green grass. He nearly made it there himself: Two days before the grenade severed his leg and sliced off his gunner's hand, Moore had e-mailed a buddy whose face had been ravaged by shrapnel a few months before. "They're getting good," he wrote of the insurgents. "I don't think I'm coming home."
Moore did die, as a matter of fact. For a few moments on the operating table in Iraq he was dead, pulse gone, and after being resuscitated he needed nine units of blood. So, sure, he'll take these new limitations; yes, knowing everything, he'd even go to Iraq again. But the thought never fades, some days consuming him, some days not: "Life would be better," he says, "if I still had two legs."
The last mile, he begins to jog. The stump screams, and he eases up, but he can see the finish now: Pentagon to the left, the canopy of Army black-and-gold balloons over the finish line, the tiny viewing stand and ... wait. Are they pulling down the balloons? They're definitely moving. Yes, they're breaking down the finish area.
Moore begins to run. Damned if he's going to let those balloons come down before he crosses the finish line. Now he's running hard, sweat on his back, his prosthetic leg gleaming in the noonday sun. He's running, even though each step guarantees more pain tomorrow. Beat the balloons: That's the way to make a bad day good. All he has to do is get there first.
For soldiers who lost limbs in the Iraq War, running is not just exercise. It's also a way to become whole again
He felt excruciating pain everywhere, then looked at his lap and found himself studying the sole of his left boot. "It's gone," he thought.
By the eighth mile, the word quit entered his mind. Then an old, hefty woman passed him. Walking. Furious, he tried to catch her.
Halfaker couldn't get enough physical therapy. "If we didn't push her hard enough she'd get frustrated. She wanted to be smoked."
PURPLE HEART: ERIC ENGMAN/FAIRBANKS DAILY MINER/AP
Photographs by Simon Bruty