It was a blazing July afternoon in 2006, but the rehab floor at the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, DC was icebox cold. My hour of physical therapy was done and I had moved on to occupational. The arm amputees were working one-on-one with therapists across a desk, while I stayed with the hand weights working from my wheelchair. It had been four months since the blast and, after 27 surgeries, I was down to a scrawny 125 pounds.
The atmosphere was a lot like a football locker room — except for the missing limbs. If you focused only on our faces, you’d see the determined look of athletes. You’d hear the grunting and forced exhalations during exercises and pointed jabs between Army soldiers and Marines as we ragged on each other. It was like being with my guys again — my Joes — and I felt good.
Across the room, I saw a knot of uniforms and business suits. VIPs were flocking around a dark haired woman who looked vaguely familiar. She scanned the room, as people around her tried to direct her attention. I kept moving, focusing intently on my body’s workout, when I sensed her entourage closing in on me. Someone said, “Hey, soldier, Cher wants to say hello.”
I didn’t look up right away. I figured I’d give her a chance to take it all in. Here I was, a 24-year-old with a bare stump covered in surgical staples where my right leg used to be, and wearing a giant metal cage on my left leg. I had two pins going straight through my knee, another six from there to my ankle and two more anchoring the foot. Every strain in my upper body made my lower body leak blood, so my left sock was stained reddish brown. Still, maybe I looked more inviting than the guys with tubes coming out of every known orifice, or the ones discolored from iodine baths – new amputees who had just arrived from Afghanistan and Iraq.
I looked at Cher sideways over the hand weight and she met my eyes. “So, what’s your story?”I could hear my dad’s repeated warnings playing in my head, “Please don’t say anything embarrassing. For once, Luke, can’t you just be nice?”But before I knew it, the sarcastic me answered: “Oh, I was just playing with fire.”
So what is my story? I like to think I’m just a regular guy. A young kid from a small town in south Florida who watched westerns and war movies and had a burning desire to be a soldier. A guy who convinced his dad to sign a form that would allow me to enter the National Guard at seventeen. And someone who, after 9/11 put college on hold to protect the Miami International Airport in my first active-duty assignment.
I also had a curiosity that couldn’t be tamed. Veterans told me how crazy war is, but I had to see for myself. I wanted to answer that calling I’d had since I was a little kid: to serve my country like my dad, my friend’s dad and my grandfather. Growing up, my dad called me “Lucky Luke” and I guess you could say I added to that nickname by becoming a member of one of the most storied divisions in the U.S. Army — the 101st Airborne — and within the 101st, I was assigned to the most decorated regiment: the Rakkasans. That’s where my story begins.
Since the injury — the blast — people see my fake leg and say they can’t imagine what it’s like. And they start asking questions. These are the same people who can’t watch an R movie, but when they see a mangled car on the side of the road, they have to look. They want to know the story.So I tell them, but I’m not doing it for me. I’m telling them for the soldier who can’t — the one whose injury goes beyond the physical. The one who feels awkward when someone stops him on the street to say, “Thank you for your service.”
That’s the main reason I’m writing this book — to give a voice to this new generation of wounded service members.
I’ve been telling pieces of my story as I travel around the country as a National Campaign Team member for the Wounded Warrior Project. Now I’d like people to hear the full story. A face needs to be placed on the costs of that great American dream people are living. They need to know the human side of it. Like the agonizing doubt and extreme loneliness I felt at night in a German hospital when I wondered, “Why didn’t I just give it up?” They need to hear about the pain of rehabilitation that a soldier goes through just to re-learn skills of daily living with what has become their “new normal.”I want them to meet the self-sacrificing medical personnel who helped put me back together again. I’ll introduce them to the crazy guy who came to the Army Hospital and told the soldiers — some who were missing three limbs – that he wanted to take us snow skiing in Snowmass, Colorado. They’ll also meet the woman named Mary who saw me at one of my lowest moments in the hospital room and proposed I race a marathon. And they’ll hear the rest of the story: how I answered that challenge only a year after my injury, eventually taking second place in the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Marathon.
There’s another reason I’m writing this book. I want people to know that while the injury deformed me, and caused me unimaginable pain, it will never define me. I have no regrets. I’m 33 years old and I’ve experienced more than a person could dream of experiencing in three lifetimes. I caught my first yellow fin tuna on Jimmy Buffet’s boat. I’ve climbed mountains in Utah and skied black diamonds. I’ve spoken to thousands of people at park gatherings and at the Pentagon. I helped start philanthropies that allow service members to enjoy the outdoors, like hunting and fishing. And I went back to college, got my degree, and pledged a fraternity at age 27.
Maybe by hearing my story, the person reading it will be inspired to get through whatever is challenging them at the moment. Maybe they’ll tell themselves, “If he can do it, I can do it.”
With the funds raised, I will collaborate with a professional writer and work diligently with the hopes that our book will stand with the great military memoirs that serve to reveal a generation’s story. Let valor not fail.