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Wounded warriors show grit, determination on journey to recovery

John Moore / Getty Images

Sgt. JD Williams, 25, and a triple amputee, flowboards on a wave machine at the Center for the Intrepid on Aug. 7. The wave therapy is designed to improve balance, coordination and strength for injured soldiers, most of whom have lost limbs in combat. Williams lost his legs and right arm in October 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while his unit was on a foot patrol in the Arghandab Valley of southern Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel Donald Gajewski swears he has the best job in the military.

As an orthopedic surgeon and chief of the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Gajewski oversees the care of soldiers who return from combat with the most severe wounds.

The center, which opened in 2007, is one of three military facilities in the country for amputees, and it also rehabilitates soldiers with serious burns and injured limbs that were not amputated. More than 1,000 service members have been treated at the Center for the Intrepid in the past five years, many of them for lost limbs.


The joy in Gajewski's work comes from watching these soldiers confront the reality of their injuries with the same drive and determination that characterized their military service.

Sgt. JD Williams, 25, (above) lost his legs and right arm in October 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while his unit was on foot patrol in the Arghandab Valley of southern Afghanistan. Gajewski calls Williams a "superstar" whose nearly two-year-long stay at the center has been defined by his leadership.

"The inspiring thing about JD," Gajewski says, "is that he comes in here and he knows that there are other (amputees) that will look up to him."

One of Williams' goals was to hunt by himself again. Now, Williams not only dresses deer in the field by himself, but he recently took other triple amputees into the woods too. He also has taken up bow hunting.

There is grief and pain, though, as soldiers work to meet their ambitious goals.

Gajewski says they often arrive at Brooke Army Medical Center devastated after three or four days of being evacuated from the front lines to the U.S. hospital. They've spent the time thinking: "My military career is over, my girlfriend is going to leave me, I won’t be able to fly-fish with my dad," Gajewski says.

John Moore / Getty Images

A U.S. Army soldier and leg amputee scales a two-story climbing wall at the Center for the Intrepid on Aug. 7.

John Moore / Getty Images

At the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, soldiers confront the reality of their injuries with the same drive and determination that characterized their military service.

The center tries to show patients a different future by matching them with a soldier in rehabilitation, who might walk through the door on two prosthetic legs. "That’s when it clicks," Gajewski says. 

A soldier with a single below-the-knee amputation might stay at the center for six months, receiving a prosthetic and physical and occupational therapy. The timeline lengthens with the severity and number of amputations; for those who lost both legs above the knee, a stay at the center might last as long as two years.

Among the amputees treated at the center, 17 percent have returned to active duty once recovered, and some eventually deploy again, often in support roles. A handful have even returned to combat. Of the 49,000 Iraq and Afghanistan casualties, more than 1,400 have been amputees. 

"These guys have a lifetime of adversity in front of them, but from what they show us," Gajewski says, "I think they’re going to do pretty well."

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at NBC News. Follow her on Twitter here.

John Moore / Getty Images

Certified prosthetist Robert Kuenzi holds a life-like sleeve for a prosthetic arm at the Center for the Intrepid on Aug. 7. Artists paint the rubber covers, complete with custom tattoos, which slide over prosthetic arms and legs made at the center for military amputees.

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