At first glance, he looked like just another jogger out for an afternoon run.
Then the sunlight glinted off his metal legs. And his arms didn’t match.
He was a triple amputee, a wounded serviceman taking the next steps in his recovery.
Wobbling, he ran down the road, encouraged by a uniformed friend jogging backward ahead.
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Outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the mega-hospital in Bethesda, Md., they might have attracted attention.
But on the base grounds, such sights are common.
For most of America, the cost of our two wars for the past decade remains hidden. Given the tiny fraction of our population that serves in the military, and then the small sliver of that deployed to combat, it’s easy to go through life without encountering the damage done.
At Walter Reed, you can’t miss it.
Practically everywhere you look, men and women missing a limb or maybe two go about their business. Some are new patients, still bandaged, still looking ill at ease with their loss. Others in uniform swing their prosthetic arms and legs confidently.
What happened to them? Which bomb or firefight hurt them? It doesn’t matter, really. They’re not dwelling in the past at Walter Reed.
They’re working on their futures.
They may present sobering reminders, but they’re also inspirational figures, trading their cards for a better hand than the one life dealt them.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Military Advanced Training Center, a wondrous gym within the hospital.
If there’s a more positive vibe somewhere, I’d like to see the place. People don’t come to the MATC, as it’s known, to socialize or preen.
They show up to work, to walk. Or relearn how to handle a fork or hold a pen or turn a page.
Victories can be small. A bench press of 5 pounds. A half-lap around the track. They’re all part of transformations. On tables, mats and machines, maimed people refuse to accept themselves.
They can be someone else, someone mobile, someone capable.
Others believe in them, too.
Physical therapists exhort these fighters to greater heights — forcefully if needed. One man, on his back and cycling his prosthetic legs through a core exercise, unleashed a shout of exertion. His therapist’s cheers were even louder.
“There’s nothing else on this planet that’s organized like this to help their injuries,” said Sean Hartswick, of State College, an Army soldier watching his son recover from a double amputation. “It’s an amazing process.”
Down at the MATC, it’s serious business. But there’s always room for a little humor.
Asked by a therapist how a new walking stick was working out, one amputee expressed his pleasure.
“It’s wonderful,” the serviceman said. “I feel like skiing with it through the Alps.”
I wouldn’t bet against it.