War costs a soldier his hand, leaves him cherishing life more

Days mixed with good, bad, as Army sergeant copes with painful reality

November 23, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The day before surgeons removed three more inches of his mangled left forearm, Army Sgt. Gary Yoakam sat in his hospital room cradling 2-month-old Layla in his right arm and gauze-covered stump.

"Oh, my God, you got so big," he said in a baby voice to his daughter, born Sept. 27 while Yoakam was home in Ohio on leave from Iraq. "You remember Daddy, huh? Yes, you do. You're my baby girl. Daddy missed you."

Leaning closer, he said, "I can't hold you with my other hand - it's gone. Does that make you mad?"

For Yoakam, life now is an intense mix of good and bad. He is happy to be alive, to see his baby and to celebrate his wife's 18th birthday. He is also trying to cope with a painful new reality that began a little more than two weeks ago, on Nov. 7. That day in Mosul, Iraq, an exploding rocket-propelled grenade shredded his left hand, forcing its amputation.

Yoakam, a lanky, blue-eyed 20-year-old with good manners and an ornery streak, hated losing still more of his arm last week, but doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here said the revision surgery was needed to make his prosthetic hand fit. Yet he seemed intent on staying upbeat, focusing on the life he still has rather than the hand he has lost.

"I have a good attitude," he said, glancing down at his arm as morphine coursed through his body. His room was cluttered with signs of hospital life: a half-eaten cafeteria burger; intravenous tubes; a blue, stuffed-animal bunny from his wife; a vacuum to pull fluids from his wound, a hat emblazoned "Proud to Serve."

Yoakam, a member of the 101st Airborne Division, is one of 62 U.S. military personnel who have lost a hand, foot, arm or leg in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Fifty-four of them have been treated at Walter Reed.

News accounts often render their fates with one word - "wounded" - and, unlike the dead soldiers, their names rarely make the news.

But on the hospital's Ward 57, amputees are the center of attention. Many are alive only because of advances in combat medicine and body armor. Had he been injured years ago, Yoakam might have died, given the blood loss and the impact of the machine gun bullet that hit his high-tech ceramic chest plate during the grenade attack.

Inside the hulking 1970s-era Army medical center near the Maryland line, Yoakam and his new comrades are laboring to restart those saved lives, physically and emotionally. Once ultrafit athletes who saw themselves as warriors, they make up an unwilling elite of the injured.

They don't go it alone at Walter Reed. Psychiatrists fan out hoping to prevent rather than treat mental problems. Experts fit soldiers with top-of-the-line prostheses with costs in six figures. Therapists teach those such as Yoakam how to tie shoes and crack eggs one-handed until they get used to a faux limb.

Visitors parade past, wishing a speedy recovery. Soldiers have seen senators, generals, cheerleaders, a wrestling star, Ravens players, Cher, NASCAR drivers and, despite his avoidance of military funerals, President Bush two or three times.

"We've got to do everything we can for them," said Chuck Scoville, manager of the Army's amputee care program. "They've had a major change in their life because of doing the right thing."

In the world of Ward 57, Yoakam considers himself relatively fortunate. He lost a hand, but it was his nondominant left hand. Most soldiers lose the dominant hand, hospital officials say, perhaps because it is reflexive to reach with that one.

And Yoakam lost one limb. Three soldiers at Walter Reed lost parts of both arms. Two others lost both legs, and one of those also lost an arm.


Yoakam has found that it can be challenge enough to deal with the loss of his hand, even with a positive outlook. For one thing, he is having to learn about the prosthetic devices the Army will supply him.

Downstairs at the occupational therapy room, Yoakam took a seat opposite Margaret Wise, an upper-limb specialist. She briefed him on the three types of prostheses he will receive, at a cost to the government of more than $150,000.

One is a lifelike hand that has little function beyond holding paper. The other is a body-powered hook that opens when shoulder movements pull a cord. With the third kind, called myoelectric, the flexing of the arm muscles triggers a battery-powered hand to open and shut.

The variety is meant to make sure soldiers find models they will use. But, because different "terminal devices" attach to the ends, it can be tricky to keep all the options straight, and Yoakam grew visibly frustrated.

After relaxing, he had one other important question: "Which one is best for golf?" (Answer: Probably a golf club adaptation for a body-powered prosthesis.)

Later, Wise asked 20-year-old Spc. Robert Acosta of the 1st Armored Division to demonstrate the hook model.

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