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Iraq War Wounded Rebuild Lives

In November 2004, thousands of US ground troops begin a massive assault on Fallujah -- a sacred city of Sunni Islam straddling the Euphrates River and a hotbed of Iraqi resistance forces.

As he enters the city, Rifle platoon leader Dennis Skelton, a 27-year-old from South Dakota, spots an unknown object on the ground. He immediately orders his men out of the area. As he moves away a homemade bomb detonates. He takes a direct blast from what the US military calls an improvised explosive device or IED.

Mr. Skelton says when he thinks about how massive his injuries were; he thinks he should still be in Iraq -- dead. “I had shrapnel through my right cheek that destroyed all the bone in my jaw and mouth and then passed out my left eye. I lost my left eye. I had shrapnel through the chest, through the stomach and liver. It shattered my left arm and left hand and my right leg as well.”

Medical professionals say that in previous conflicts -- even the 1991 Gulf War -- the odds are high that Mr. Skelton would have been another soldier killed in action. Yet he is alive and recovering quickly. His shattered jaw has healed. He learned to talk and walk again. Despite his physical losses, he wants to return to the combat zone in a few months. He is one of a growing number of troops that are surviving extensive injuries.

Jeffrey Gambel is chief of the amputee clinic at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. He sees more than 60 wounded US soldiers every week. He says their use of advanced body armor often saves vital organs from severe damage.

Also, new medical technology helps field surgeons treat the wounded near the battlefield. Fast-moving medevacs also help raise the survival rate among soldiers. “If someone were to step on a land mine or be hit by an IED today, they would be back in the United States between three and seven days after that injury,” he says. “In contrast, in the Vietnam War era, the same person injured in that part of the world would have taken on average, 30 days or longer.” Dr. Gambel believes the changes have saved many soldier's lives. But fewer battlefield fatalities mean more survivors are coming back with complex and debilitating injuries. “With more people's lives being saved, there's more challenges in terms of their life long recovery to move on and create a new chapter as they go on with their lives.”

Many soldiers, like Melissa Stockwell, a 24-year-old officer from Colorado, face huge obstacles with the loss of limb. Five weeks into a year-long tour in Iraq, Mrs. Stockwell's vehicle was struck by an I-E-D [improvised explosive device]. Her foot was severely injured in the blast. The wound became infected, forcing doctors to amputate her leg above the knee. “I still have the hard days -- it is tougher at first because you are not really used to it,” she says. “Now I know when I wake up in the morning, I must put on my leg. Whereas before, like the first couple of months, you think, now wait a minute, did this really happen, was it a dream? But now the reality has set in.”

Mrs. Stockwell now wears a prosthetic leg that helps her to walk again -- though with a lot more effort. She says meeting other amputees has been extremely helpful to her recovery. The instant bond she feels with them has helped her plan the next stage of her life. “I will be medically retired from the army within a couple of months and I am going to go back to school to be a prosthetist to make artificial limbs for other amputees.”

That's not such an unusual choice, according to Dr. Gambel at the Walter Reed Amputee Clinic. He says some of his patients also consider medical or physical therapy training to help those who've suffered similar losses. But caring for and rehabilitating the growing number of wounded soldiers will require more than just supportive veterans. Dr. Gambel says he's worries that the American public does not fully understand the long-term commitment required to take care of the wounded Iraq War veterans. “It will take a lot of effort and society will need to support them for many decades into the future and I think people need to be prepared to provide that support.”

That support will cost money, of course, for facilities and expensive medical technology. President Bush's latest budget proposal calls for cuts in drug benefits for some veterans but proposes a slight increase overall in the government's veteran-care programs.