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Q&A: Returning to Combat

In June 2003, Army Maj. David Rozelle was leading a convoy west of Baghdad when his vehicle hit a land mine. His right foot had to be amputated. Two years later, with a prosthetic foot, he returned to Iraq as a cavalry troop commander — the first amputee in this war to return to combat. In this excerpted conversation, Rozelle tells NPR health correspondent Joe Shapiro about going back to the battlefield and how he dealt with being "the first."

Q: Why do people want to go back to the front?

Major David Rozelle: It used to be back in WWII and the Vietnam War, when someone got injured, they called it the golden ticket — the [injury] that sent you home. And those were largely conscripted armies, draftees. In that environment, it was understandable that someone injured would just go home. With this all-volunteer Army, these volunteers want to continue to fight. Some of the moms and dads think, 'My son and daughter got injured. Now they want to go back?' But it's what we signed up to do. When I see other amputees that are in law enforcement, or a trash man, or teachers or whatever they do for a living when they get injured, I ask, 'Did you change your career?' [They say,] 'Well, no. I'm still a teacher, or in law enforcement or a trash man. Why would a disability slow me down ?'"

What did it mean to you to be the first amputee to return to combat?

It was a lot of pressure. Our president had come out in December of 2003 and said there's a place in this Department of Defense for any severely injured soldier. We'll find a way to keep you on active duty if you want. And I heard that and I kind of put it together and I thought, 'Well, I should figure out how I can do this.' My superiors supported it, from the president on down the chain of command. But for me as a leader, the hardest people to convince that I was fit for duty ... were my soldiers. And that's something that I'm proudest of — that I was able to go to work every day and convince those young, 18-year-old men that I could do what they were doing. I was not going to slow them down in combat. I could do every task that they could do.

Did everyone know you'd lost this body part? When you're in uniform it isn't obvious.

Although I wear shorts when I'm off duty most of the time, when I'm in uniform I very much hide the fact that I'm an amputee. I don't bring it up in conversation unless someone notices or gives me a hard time and says, 'Hey, did you twist an ankle or something?' And I'll say, 'Well, no, I actually got injured in the war.' Then of course they'll stop in their tracks because people don't notice — I don't want people when I'm in uniform to look at me and see that and think that I'm weaker than them. It's part of the brotherhood, you know. You're always matching yourself up against your opponents, even when they're on your own team, and I'm very careful about it. I know I can outrun most of my peers, even with a leg missing. But they'll look at me and think, 'You know, is that a guy I want to be on the battlefield with?' And I'm very sensitive about that. It's not a chip on my shoulder, but I spend a lot of my spare time staying in shape.

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