Army specialist tells his story
Surviving a blast in Iraq didn't bring down a 22-year-old's spirit.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- U.S. Army Spc. James Stuck will have to learn how to walk, how to tie his shoelaces and how to begin a new life without the leg that made him a high school soccer athlete.
"People don't know how I'm alive. If I don't tell my story, nobody's going to know," Stuck told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The New Kensington man has been undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, one of the nearly 400 soldiers who have lost arms or legs since the start of the Iraq war.
"I turned 22 here," he said. "Happy birthday."
Five days before Christmas, Stuck, who was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, was driving an up-armored humvee when an improvised explosive device detonated to his left.
Half his right leg was gone, leaving only a stub below the knee.
He said he doesn't remember the attack, but has seen pictures: the mangled Humvee with only a tiny piece of the front right axle seemingly intact, the scorched bumper lying several hundred feet away, the radio mount blown into the back seat.
He's also seen pictures of his shattered leg.
"You could see the bones, the muscle," he said.
He said his leg swells overnight and itches. He also occasionally feels phantom pain from the amputated leg.
Doctors estimate Stuck's recovery will take at least five months, much shorter than that of the average soldier amputee.
"I put him in the highly motivated category," said Dr. Brian Belnap, chief of inpatient amputee service at Walter Reed. "I think he'll be out of here before June or July."
Sorrow over the loss of his leg lasted only a half-hour, Stuck said. He just wanted to know what he could do to heal.
He met daily with psychiatrists and took their advice about looking ahead. In March, he went skiing in Vail, Colo. Although he hadn't skied before, Stuck quickly mastered the slopes.
Vail ski instructor Ruth Demuth wasn't surprised.
"Someone with a disability, they want it so bad, they don't make excuses," Demuth said. "They know that if they can do this, they can do anything."
Stuck, who attended a suburban Pittsburgh college for two months -- "I couldn't juggle soccer, partying and school," he said -- enlisted in the Army Reserves and trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Campbell, Ky.
Days before he left for Iraq, Stuck's father, Doug, offered this caution: "Ten fingers, 10 toes -- come back whole."
When Doug Stuck got the call about James' injury, he felt devastated.
"My knees were shaking," Doug Stuck said. "I thought I was going down. I lost it. I couldn't talk to anyone, I was mentally deranged."
He has watched every step of his son's recovery.
James Stuck's rehabilitation includes doctors and physical and occupational therapists measuring his moves -- long tests to calculate the force of his foot as it stumps on the floor, even the length of his steps.
Engineers place quarter-sized markers across his thighs, chest and back in a 90-minute evaluation to gather data that could help build an ideal prosthetic leg.
"I feel like a freaking robot," Stuck said.
Learning to walk is tough, he said. "You've learned everything once and now I have to learn it again."
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