New normal: Marine learns to cope with Iraq war injury
MATT LAKIN Scripps Howard News Service
3:30 AM, Mar 19, 2013
12:22 AM, Mar 19, 2013
WHITE PINE, Tenn. - Brad Walker doesn't mind the stares he gets now and then.
Ask about his legs, and he'll show them off.
"I've had people who think I just have a sprained ankle," he said. "It'd be nice if I had an ankle. People generally stare anyway. There's no point in me hiding anything."
The onetime Marine corporal lost both legs Nov. 27, 2006, when a roadside bomb exploded beside the Humvee he drove in Haditha, Iraq. He's had his new legs for six years now - long enough to learn his way around on them.
"It doesn't define me," Walker said. "This is not me. It's just what I use to get around."
He worries more for the veterans whose wounds don't show - those battling crippling brain injuries, mental illness, addiction, battlefield stress and the temptation to suicide.
"I guess I'm always going to be the token vet guy because I have visible injuries, even though there are the guys with the invisible injuries, like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury," Walker said. "There's guys that have terrible PTSD, and people will look at them and say, 'You're not injured.' I've seen them in the hospital. They hold onto everything. They can't let it go."
Walker finished what he hopes was his last round of therapy last year at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. He's at home in Jefferson County now waiting to start the next chapter of his life - college classes and a new house.
Homes for Our Troops, a national nonprofit dedicated to building accessible housing for disabled veterans, plans to start work on Walker's home later this year. He hopes to start classes at the University of Tennessee this fall.
Walker was 25 when the bomb blast took his legs, while riding in a convoy with fellow Marine reservists from Knoxville's Delta Company of the 4th Engineer Battalion. He's now 32.
He barely remembers the explosion today, barely recalls the first moments of waking up in the hospital bed.
"I remember some things, but I'm not sure if they're actually memories or just what everybody keeps telling me over and over," he said. "In some ways it seems like it's been a long time. In others, it doesn't seem right. It doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem like it's been seven years."
He remembers the first few days after waking up at Walter Reed - the tears, the pain, the questions.
"There were times when I'd be lying there in bed crying at 2 a.m. I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know what I was doing. You're wondering, 'Am I going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life?' But I had family and friends who were a good support network. Nowadays it's the new norm."
He still wonders about some things. He wonders why the bomb didn't go off until his Humvee, the third in the convoy, passed over it. He misses having toes to stretch.
"It's the way your mind works," Walker said. "I can feel them, but I can't get the satisfaction of that. On some occasions, it's like a crazy itch."
He misses the daily runs he made each morning -- and sometimes afternoon and night. Walker weighed 320 pounds when he graduated high school. He burned it off running laps in preparation for joining the Marine Corps.
He rode a handcycle after losing his legs, racing in marathons around the country. He tried out for the U.S. Paralympics team three years ago and qualified for the second string, playing in the national Warrior Games for wounded veterans.
Illness sidelined him in December 2011, when Walker developed a blood clot in one leg. Now his old uniform from Iraq looks like a child's when he holds it up.
He says he's settled into his new life, that he's satisfied. But when he talks about his days at Walter Reed -- the days of shared recovery with other wounded Marines -- he sounds almost homesick.
He was part of a community there. He wants to be part of the community here.
"I miss the Marine Corps and the brotherhood," Walker said. "I made a lot of good friends in D.C. We basically helped each other through recovery. We were there for each other. It's hard to get some things across to some people. There's some stuff you can't understand unless you've been there. It's a weird transition, going from being with guys you can relate to and then coming back here."
Walker serves as adjutant for the East Tennessee chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, open to all wounded veterans. He's one of just two members from the Iraq War generation.
He won't say whether the war was worth the cost. He believes only time can answer that question.
"I hope everything the service members have done has been worth it and worth everything it cost," he said. "I don't regret going. I don't regret anything I've done. Everything we do, we do for a reason.
"I would hate to see all the sacrifices, all the lives lost and any gain we made fall apart. But it's on the Iraqi and the Afghan people to make it on their own now. We'll see in the long run. The training wheels are off."
(Matt Lakin is a reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)