War amputees to Boston's injured: 'Life's not over'

By Oren Dorell | USA Today | usatoday.com | April 28, 2013

Veterans who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan traveled to Boston to provide information and moral support to those seriously injured in the bombings.

BOSTON – Cameron West used two hands to lift his right leg into the SUV that would take him from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital to Boston’s Logan Airport.

The move was the only visible sign, apart from West's prosthetic limb and a barely noticeable limp, that he doesn't have a right leg anymore. West, 27, stands, walks and works pretty much like a full-bodied person. And during his visit to Spaulding that's what he wanted to show amputees who were injured in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing.

"Life's not over," West says. Surviving a blast and losing a limb "is a traumatic event, but with hard work and rehab, they're going to get back to a normal life."

Marine Capt. Cameron West
Marine Capt. Cameron West, in the red shirt, and Gabriel Martinez, a retired Marine sergeant in the black shirt, wait for a ride after meeting amputee patients from the Boston Marathon bombing. (Photo: Oren Dorell, USA TODAY)

West, an active-duty captain in the Marines, traveled to Boston with about a dozen other amputees who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide information and moral support to those injured in the attacks.

The trip was paid for and organized by the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that assists critically injured Marines and servicemembers. The fund is now raising money for Boston's survivors, especially amputees who now face months of rehabilitation.

At least 15 people lost limbs in the bombings, which created the largest number of patients with multiple traumatic injuries in the country, said Ross Zafonte, vice president of medical affairs at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Eight bombing patients, including five amputees, have transferred to Spaulding, and at least that many more will arrive next week, said David Crandell, director of Spaulding’s amputee program. Spaulding is the Boston area's premier rehabilitation hospital research and training center. On Saturday, it moved its 121 patients to a brand-new facility in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard, 1.2 miles away.

Those injured in the bombings will be treated in a building designed by and for people with disabilities. The facility has lower window sills, wider hallways, state-of-the art equipment and a staff that runs one of the country's most advanced biotechnology research and development centers, Crandell said.

Patients face several months "of very hard work and lots of adjustments to their loss," he said. But surrounded by a top-notch team in a world-class facility, "it might not be surprising to see some of these folks acquire even more advanced activities like climbing, hiking, skiing and running."

Master Sgt. Damion Jacobs and Capt. Cameron West
Master Sgt. Damion Jacobs and Capt. Cameron West, both active duty Marines and war-injured amputees, chat at the Boston EMS building where they met with EMS workers during a visit to boost morale for bombing victims.(Photo: Oren Dorell, USA TODAY)

Despite the expertise at Spaulding, it doesn't have many staffers who have had an amputation, Crandell said. For that reason, peer support by Semper Fi and other veteran and civilian amputee groups "is incredibly helpful," Crandell said, because they teach new amputees that "they'll see bumps in the road and they'll get over them."

Karen Guenther, founder and president of the Semper Fi Fund, said the power of the visit was evident soon after the Marines and veterans entered patients’ rooms.

At first, patients "look like they're feeling like their whole lives have been turned upside down," Guenther said. "A half hour later, they're laughing….They didn't want them to leave."

Gabriel Martinez, 24, a retired Marine sergeant with the Semper Fi group, has been a double amputee since 2010. He gets around in a normal gait on a pair of high-tech prostheses, and said patients at Beth Israel Deaconess and the Boston Medical Center greeted him and his colleagues with bright smiles and lots of questions during Friday's visit.

Martinez said the patients wanted to know how hard it is to shower, and if they'll be able to do the things they love, like going to the beach, or routine activities like driving a car and going to work. He drives a specially outfitted truck, races a hand-operated tricycle and gets help around the house from his service dog, Wonka. He and his wife, Kayla, celebrated the birth of their first child, Madelynne, in October.

Martinez said he exchanged contact information with the Boston patients and promised to stay in touch.

"We're in this for the long haul," he said.

Although the Boston victims face a long adjustment to their new reality, the veterans say a positive attitude and access to good prosthetics are crucial to reclaiming a normal life.

West, the Marine captain, lost his leg when he and his radio man were struck by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol with the 3rd battalion 5th Marines in a town called Sangin, in Afghanistan's Helmand province. The radio man was killed, and West's leg was amputated on the battlefield. His right arm was shredded, and his right eye was damaged beyond repair.

West, a native of Acworth, Ga., said his greatest worry after the blast was "not being able to live your life the way you want."

Helping him through the process was Master Sgt. Damion Jacobs, now 37 and a Pentagon aide, who also lost a leg in battle. Jacobs was also along for the visit to Boston.

With Jacobs' help, West learned to allow his body time to heal, and then focused on getting stronger. West works out about an hour each day, focusing on his core, his remaining healthy leg and what's left of the shortened one. He talked to other vets with similar injuries, and studied prosthetics and how to change his daily routine to become a successful amputee, he said.

"You're fitting into a hard plastic or carbon fiber socket; you don't want to be overweight," he said.

Accepting the injury and moving on is crucial, he said.

"You figure out what you need to do to get back to a normal life and do it," West said.

And financial assistance helps, too. Prosthetics are not cheap. A state-of-the-art custom leg with an adjustable pneumatic actuator can cost up to $100,000, and every activity – walking, running, mountain biking – requires a different specialized leg. And then the equipment needs to be maintained. West and his comrades get help with all of that from Semper Fi or other veteran support groups.

"If you're a civilian, it's tough" to come up with that kind of money, he said.

That's why the Semper Fi Fund is trying to raise money for the Boston victims.

"If every person in America gives 100 pennies, that'll pay for a lot of prosthetics," West said.

West says that the attack in Boston was the work of extremists who share the same anti-American ideology held by his attackers in Afghanistan.

"This was an act of terror," he said. "We're all in this together."

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