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    More U.S. war wounded duty-bound again

    Medical advances curtail discharges

    By Anne Hull

    Washington Post


    WASHINGTON – After an anti-tank mine destroyed his foot and part of his leg in Iraq, Capt. David Rozelle, 31, considered his future. In another era, the commander of a cavalry troop would have been heralded for his bravery and likely issued a medical retirement.

    But Rozelle experienced a different message while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Nearly every officer who visited his room cheered on a comeback.

    The Texas native spent the next nine months swimming, weightlifting, mountain biking and getting used to running with an artificial leg. He passed the necessary physical fitness tests given by the Army medical board and was declared fit for duty. Next year, Rozelle is slated to deploy to Iraq as the commander of a 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment headquarters troop.

    “I see so many young men that say, ‘Hell, yeah, I want to continue to serve and fight,’ ” Rozelle said.

    In a shift in military culture, the U.S. armed forces have recently announced new efforts to keep seriously wounded or disabled soldiers on active duty. Although there is no clear written policy, the sentiment is being echoed down from the White House.

    “When we’re talking about forced discharge, we’re talking about another age and another” military, President Bush told wounded soldiers at Walter Reed last year. “This is a new age, and this is a new (military).”

    Military commanders cite advances in medical technology as the main reason for the shift. Better prosthetics – such as Rozelle’s $7,000 leg – are allowing some of the wounded to regain their fitness and continue to serve. Others say the military’s new attitude toward the disabled is simply mirroring society’s.

    But one observer says the change is also practical. In an era of constant deployment, the Pentagon needs a more flexible and diversified workforce, said Laura Miller, a military sociologist with Rand Corp.

    “Part of this is a response to the stress on the all-volunteer forces due to the war on terror,” Miller said. “And part of it is adapting to future warfare: smaller expeditionary forces that can respond to a variety of missions, including peacekeeping and humanitarian. Why throw away someone with years of training and expertise, only to re-train someone new?”

    Although much of the nation’s attention has focused on the more than 1,250 U.S. troops who have died in Iraq, more than 9,300 have been wounded, and the number climbs daily. Various service branches say they are trying to do a better job helping the wounded through the paperwork and medical board evaluations, but backlogs remain.

    Amputations account for 2.4 percent of all wounded in action in the Iraq war – twice the rate in World War I and World War II, said Chuck Scoville, the amputee program manager of Walter Reed. Sophisticated body armor and medical techniques in the battlefield have preserved lives but not necessarily limbs. Available figures through Aug. 31 show that Army hospitals have treated 138 amputees from Iraq.

    Officers who spoke recently at the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army emphasized the more welcoming policy toward retaining disabled soldiers.

    “Our view is that once a soldier, always a soldier, and the Army is looking for ways to keep a number of them on active duty rather than medically retiring them,” said Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel.

    David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, said he wishes the government would focus more on making sure that transitioning service members and veterans receive quality health care and timely access to benefits. But Autry applauds the Pentagon’s new spirit.

    “I suspect that there will be wonderful success stories and fairly miserable failures,” he said.
 
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