Two Iraq war veterans who are amputees show how far a rebound can go.
By DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
Major David Rozelle puts on his prosthesis as he prepares to begin the biking portion of the Ford Ironman World Championship 70.3.
[Joseph Garnett, Jr. | Times]
CLEARWATER - Maj. David Rozelle and former Sgt. Andy Hatcher removed their right legs and stood at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday morning. With the sun edging over the horizon and a gentle breeze swaying the American flag, they placed their right hands over their hearts for the national anthem. Then the starter's gun sent the two Iraq war veterans diving into the chilly gulf for the first part of the Ford Ironman World Championship 70.3.
Rozelle and Hatcher, who lost their right legs in combat, were among 1,466 triathletes from all 50 states and 52 countries to compete in Saturday's championship in Clearwater. American Andy Potts captured the men's title in 3:42:33. Mirinda Carfrae of Australia won the women's title in 4:07:25, setting a world record.
But compared to what Rozelle and Hatcher endured in the last several years, swimming 1.2 miles, biking 56 miles and running 13.1 miles were almost relaxing.
"When you go through something as catastrophic as losing a leg, working to get back in shape physically helps you mentally," said Hatcher, 23, after completing his first 70.3-mile triathlon in 6:05:21. "It's hard to put into words, but completing the race helps you feel normal."
Rozelle, 35, had just completed the race in 6:18:18 when he walked over and slapped Hatcher's hand.
"Well done, my friend," he said. "I'm so proud of you. Two years ago, you couldn't even walk."
* * *
For the second year, the world came to Clearwater for the championship, which tied up traffic for several hours across much of North Pinellas. In places, cars backed up for blocks as cyclists passed by. More than 60 frustrated motorists complained to the city.
Particularly troubled intersections were Tampa and McMullen-Booth roads, Keene Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and several intersections along Belcher Road, city spokesman Doug Matthews said.
"You had about a 20- to 30-minute window where it was very difficult to get cars through safely," he said. "But we did get fewer calls than last year."
Officials monitored the race by helicopter and cameras at various intersections, Matthews said. Nine race participants were taken to local hospitals for non-life-threatening injuries caused by mishaps with vehicles, bike wipeouts or other problems.
Matthews said the city would analyze the race's problem areas and map the locations of complaints. For now, however, it seemed the race went more smoothly than last year.
"The expectation that there's going to be no impact is not a reasonable expectation," he said.
By noon, crews had removed cones along the race route, and traffic began to return to normal.
* * *
In June 2003, Rozelle was in command of the 139 soldiers in K Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment in Hit (pronounced Heat), Iraq.
Local leaders warned Rozelle, then a captain, that an insurgent group had put a $1,000 bounty on his head. He was advised not to go on patrol.
But Rozelle refused to allow his men to go into danger without him. One day, an antitank mine exploded under his Humvee and shattered his right foot. His leg was amputated just below the knee.
"I couldn't imagine that anyone in the city would try to kill me," Rozelle said, pointing to the fact that he helped bring basic necessities to the city. "It was really frustrating, but I always tried to lead from the front."
After the injury, Rozelle returned to Fort Collins, Colo., where he said he turned to whiskey and morphine. A letter his wife mailed to him in Iraq was returned to Fort Collins. Reading the letter, Rozelle pondered what his wife would have gone through if he had been killed instead. That thought led him to take charge of his life.
Rozelle stopped taking morphine and he started working out. In October 2004, he competed in a 1.2-mile swim. In March 2005, Rozelle returned to Iraq.
"I was the first soldier to be wounded in battle, become an amputee and return to the same battlefield since the Civil War," Rozelle said.
Back at home, Rozelle helped start Challenged Athletes Foundation's Operation Rebound, which helps veterans with disabilities pursue athletic goals.
"I feel like a healer," said Rozelle, who was recently named the aide to the Army surgeon general. "I'm helping veterans forget about lost limbs and helping them to do great things in this new battlefield."
* * *
A roadside bomb took Hatcher's right foot on Thanksgiving Day 2004 during the second invasion of Fallujah. The Special Forces Marine had always told himself that he would rather be killed than to live without a limb.
"But it actually happened, and I didn't feel that way," said Hatcher, now an analyst with the Department of Homeland Security.
While recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Hatcher met Rozelle. The major encouraged Hatcher to consider triathlons and Operation Rebound. Saturday he ran his first 70.3.
"He shows a lot of people, not just military people with physical disabilities, their true capabilities," Hatcher said. "He looks after the guys and gives us a firsthand look at the expectations."
For Hatcher, Saturday was the Marine Corps' birthday and today is Veterans Day.
"I'm taking a lot pictures because this is going to be a memorable day," he said.
Saturday will be memorable for Geoff Cotter of Tarpon Springs and his 9-year-old son Robert, who assisted Rozelle and Hatcher during the race. They helped the two racers in and out of the ocean. After the bike ride, they helped the men change from their biking to their running prosthetics.
"My biggest hope is that my kids see the immense human spirit that these guys have," Cotter said as he held Hatcher's biking prosthetic in his hand. "Not only are they great Americans and heroes for serving our country, but they are role models not just for other injured veterans, but everyone."
Times staff writer Jacob Fries contributed to this story. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or email@example.com.
[Last modified November 10, 2007, 22:23:43]
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