tampabay.com

Military amputees back on active duty

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 31, 2007


SAN ANTONIO, Texas - In the blur of smoke and blood after a bomb blew up under his Humvee in Iraq, Sgt. Tawan Williamson looked down at his shredded leg and knew it couldn't be saved. His military career, though, pulled through.

Less than a year after the attack, Williamson is running again with a high-tech prosthetic leg and plans to take up a new assignment, probably by the fall, as an Army job counselor and affirmative action officer in Okinawa, Japan.

In an about-face by the Pentagon, the military is putting many more amputees back on active duty - even back into combat.

Williamson, a 30-year-old Chicago native who is missing his left leg below the knee and three toes on the other foot, acknowledged that some will be skeptical of a maimed soldier back in uniform.

"But I let my job show for itself, " he said.

Previously, a soldier who lost a limb almost automatically received a quick discharge, a disability check and an appointment with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But since the start of the Iraq war, the military has begun holding on to amputees, treating them in rehab programs like the one at Fort Sam Houston and promising to help them return to active duty if that is what they want.

"The mind-set of our Army has changed, to the extent that we realize the importance of all our soldiers and what they can contribute to our Army, " said Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesman for the Army's Human Resources Command at the Pentagon.

So far, the Army has treated nearly 600 service members who have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan as amputees. Thirty-one have gone back to active duty, and no one who asked to remain in the service has been discharged, Arata said.

Most of those who return to active duty are assigned to instructor or desk jobs away from combat. Only a few have returned to the war zone, and only at their insistence, Arata said.

One amputee who returned to combat in Iraq, Maj. David Rozelle, is now helping design the amputee program at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. The 34-year-old from Austin, Texas, said he felt duty-bound to return after losing his right foot to a land mine in Iraq.

"It sounds ridiculous, but you feel guilty that you're back home safe, " he said. "Our country is engaged in a war. I felt it was my responsibility as a leader in the Army to continue."

Rozelle commanded a cavalry troop and conducted reconnaissance operations when he returned to Iraq, just as he had before the mine blast. Other amputees who have returned to combat have conducted door-to-door searches, convoy operations and other missions in the field.

"Guys won't go back if it means riding a desk, " Rozelle said.