Amputee Blazing New Trails… Leading By Example, Inspiring Others
June 14, 2007
On June 4th, we featured a story here about amputees in the military and mentioned several of them. One of the amputees I mentioned, Major David Rozelle, has done amazing things since his recovery from his injury, including returning to Iraq to command his Troops on the battlefield. Major Rozelle’s nothing short of amazing and inspirational and I feel that he’s deserving of an even more in depth story about him. He’s faced the demons that come along with losing his leg in such a horrific way, and been successful in ways that many who have no disabilities, have been unable to achieve.
As with most amputees, Major Rozelle (then Captain) faced many challenges, including the possibility of becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol. Instead of succombing to those demons, Major Rozelle fought back, determined to overcome all obstacles in his way, but to also show the Army that not only could he still lead his Troops, but that he could return to Iraq and lead them. He did just that, returning to Iraq almost 20 months after being injured.
“Gave my last command as a cavalry troop commander, which is secure the area and evacuate the casualties,” Rozelle recalled. “I was the casualty. They got me out.”
“They made a decision on that day that I was going to get injured,” he said. “But I wanted to turn it around and say, ‘I can beat this.”
“I went back and I faced the demon,” he said. “I overcame my fears and I went back to war.”
The road back to Iraq was a rocky one. Rozelle faced the possibility of being medically retired, which he was entitled to. He, however didn’t want to be medically retired and his chain of command told him that he would be able to return to active duty with 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, if he was able to prove his physical ability and pass the PT test. With odds against him, Rozelle began training in earnest and despite his amputation and the grave concern of his family and friends, he was ready to show after just 8 months that he was once again combat ready.
“When the Army puts an officer in charge of troops, it wants to make sure that the individual can get it done - lead them into battle and be successful,” said Maj. Rozelle, who is now administrator for the Amputee Care Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“When I took my Oath of Office, it never mentioned giving up if I was injured. It was my responsibility as a leader to lead from the front and return to duty,” he said.
During his recovery, Rozelle began running and competing to increase his physical strength and endurance and ensure that he truly was “combat ready.” In 2004, he participated in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, sponsored by Challenged Athletes Foundation. During the competition, he found himself surrouded by athletes, ech of whom were dealing with overwhelming disabilities. He was impressed by the fact that despite the disabilities, there was no complaining and that everyone was supportive of each other, all with the goal in mind of raising money to help others with disabilities.
Rozelle redeployed to Iraq in 2005, and wasn’t able to compete in another Triathlon until late June 2005, just 5 short days after returning home from his second tour in Iraq. Rozelle was also preparing for a new job in the Army, that as the deputy to the manager for amputee care at the new Walter Reed Army Medical Amputee Care Center. Rozelle is in charge of the construction. As with all the challenges he’s faced, Rozelle takes this new one in stride, leading by example and inspiring all who cross his path, wounded soldiers and co-workers alike.
“I’ve been there,” said Major Rozelle, who spends the bulk of his day working to establish programs and system for the new amputee center.
“I want to help them realize that there is life after this kind of injury. If they work hard and have the right mind set, anything is possible.”
When he’s not doing that, he competes in marathons, triathlons and also skis. Rozelle also recently competed in the Ironman competition. Rozelle is also the founder of Operation Rebound which is a program by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, aimed at helping seriously injured veterans get involved in sports and serves as both a role model and mentor for the soldiers served through Operation Rebound.
Rozelle recently gave a tour of his “work in progress,” the new Amputee Care Center at Walter Reed which will open later this fall. He’s now back at the very same hospital which gave him back his foot, his Army career and his life as he enjoyed it before his injury. The path he’s currently walking takes him on the forefront of amputee care, as the deputy to the program manager. When completed, the center will be equal to the Center for the Intrepid which opened earlier this year at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. While the Amputee Care Center will be smaller than the Center for the Intrepid, it will boast some of the same capabilities that it has, including upper and lower body specific training rooms, prosthetic adjustments, an indoor running track, a climbing and rappelling wall, and other exercise facilities aimed at getting patients to the â€œhighest level of recovery and rehabilitation. The center will serve more than just amputees, including those suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury and other severe injuries.
The building that will house the Amputee Care Center will be about 30,000 square feet.
The building will feature two sides with glass walls, to allow the sunlight to enter the building and shine down into the lower level exercise rooms.
â€œIt gives them hope as they are working out. They can look up and out and see the sunlight and think, â€˜You know, Iâ€™m on my way to being back outside,â€™â€ Rozelle said. â€œIf theyâ€™re up on the track running, they will see people on the road running right next to them. That will give them hope to take that running outside.â€
When finished, the center will offer â€œthe worldâ€™s best equipment and the worldâ€™s best therapists and the worldâ€™s best therapy,â€ he said.
â€œThese guys and girls are going back to active duty, and on to world-class athlete sports programs, and off to college. We get them back to where they deserve to be, and thatâ€™s at the highest level of physical training and ability,â€ Rozelle said.
Rozelle was handpicked for this position due to his passion and committment to amputee care. As an amputee himself, he can guide the builders and engineers to ensure that the center will provide optimum functionality for other amputees. He takes his job, which is to build the center, help develop policy and programs and act as a mentor for the soldiers who come there, very seriously, pouring his heart and soul into it. Hopes are to have the center completed and the doors opened by October.
â€œI think some people initially thought that I was here just to be to be kind of a feel-good guy on staff and walk around and shake hands, but Iâ€™ve been working really hard since I got here to get this building up and get the program straight inside the building. I like to think that Iâ€™ve been integral in a lot of different things, but obviously my blood and sweat goes into this project here,â€ he said.
â€œAny day that this facility is not open is a day that we donâ€™t have the best care for our veterans,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s going to be a world class facility.â€
Rozelle said that the Army has come a long way in breaking the previous models on how it treats and rehabilitates amputees. He’s on the forefront in making that happen. Where care plans used to focus on getting the amputee into a wheel chair or getting them using crutches and turning them over to the VA system for continued rehabilitation, they now focus on completing their entire rehab at one place. There was little discussion about a servicemember returning to active duty, following such an injury. Rozelle said officials tried to push him that direction, but he wouldn’t have it. According to Rozelle, 63 amputees have now returned to active duty across all military services.
â€œThe VA came to my room and gave me my separation paperwork. I kept saying, â€˜Whatâ€™s this separation thing? Just because I am an amputee? You guys are telling me about all of these prosthetic legs and stuff. I can continue to serve,â€™â€ Rozelle said. â€œSo, I was one of the first to break the mold.â€
Rozelle recounts returning to Iraq and the accomodations that had to be made, as an amputee on the battlefield. While it may have been difficult at times, it wasn’t anything that he wasn’t up to the task for.
â€œIt depends on how you define difficulty. I just had to plan things a little better. I had to have a back-up foot in my backpack. I had to always carry back-up parts,â€ Rozelle said. â€œYou have mechanical failures that you wouldnâ€™t normally worry about with your body.”
Currently Rozelle is trying a new prosthetic leg. After a recent surgery, he now has more prosthetic legs and feet available to him. The liner he is testing is one of only three being used on a socket with a unique foot. It is an original running leg model with an attached high activity foot. It is designed to be more dynamic, allowing for more mobility and activity without having to change the foot.
â€œItâ€™s pretty amazing. I can actually bend my knee all the way back,â€ he said.
He now changes his foot to match the activity he’s participating in. When he swims he doesn’t wear a prosthetic, when cycling he changes to a high energy foot and a different foot for running.
Rozelle has completed his command-time requirement and is now awaiting a seat at the Intermediate Leadership Education course, which was formerly known as the Command and General Staff College course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He’s hoping that the Amputee Care Center will be completed by the time he leaves for class. If he isn’t assigned a class date before the center is completed, Rozelle is pretty matter of fact about what the next step in his career will be.
â€œAs soon as this is done, Iâ€™ll go back to the Cav, â€¦ back to Iraq â€¦ and keep fighting,â€ he said.
Once again, I encourage each of you to get a copy of Major Rozelle’s book Back In Action-An American Soldier’s Story Of Courage, Faith and Fortitude. It is available for purchase at Amazon. Trust me when I say, that you won’t be disappointed and that you’ll be as inspired as I am by Major David Rozelle and his story.