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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 25, 2006

Amputee wins fight to remain in infantry

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

After losing part of his left leg and working through rehabilitation, Sgt. Brandon Wooldridge has been deemed fit for duty by an Army board. Some other soldiers don't even realize he wears a prosthesis.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Sgt. Brandon Wooldridge says having a prosthetic leg hasn't ruled out a return to Iraq. "That's what I enlisted for," he says. "That's where my friends are going, and I want to be with them when they go."

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Sgt. Brandon Wooldridge may have lost part of his left leg, but "he can perform physically fine," says Staff Sgt. Stephen Novak.

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Sgt. Brandon Wooldridge is a true Army grunt, a ground-pounder who liked jumping over walls and being in the thick of things in Iraq.

The Schofield Barracks soldier likely will have to go back to the country.

But there was his "situation" to deal with the fact that his left leg now ends 6 inches below the knee. From there down it's carbon fiber and titanium sheathed in his desert combat boot.

The 25-year-old's calf was blown off in a firefight in Iraq in late 2004. Doctors amputated his lower leg.

For more than a year and a half, Wooldridge fought and finally won a separate battle for the right to return to what is now a Stryker brigade unit as a frontline soldier. He said he wouldn't object to going back to Iraq.

"That's what I enlisted for. That's where my friends are going, and I want to be with them when they go," he said.

Wooldridge figures his combat experience can help his soldiers and others.

Over time, the North Carolina man has moved beyond the loss of his leg and foot. His prosthesis became just another piece of equipment that he doesn't advertise and some other soldiers don't know about.

His "fit for duty" status came from an Army Medical Evaluation Board in late July.

"Most of it came with my ability to march and run and be able to do the things with if you want to call it a handicap with my situation," Wooldridge said. "I believe that's what helped."

The U.S. military tells many amputee service members they can return to duty if they want to, but the reality is Wooldridge beat the odds.

According to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., as of Sept. 1 there were 468 service members with limb loss from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As of April 18, 195 of those service members had completed the Medical Evaluation Board process and Physical Evaluation Board process. Thirty-four were listed as continued on active duty, continued on active Reserve, fit for duty or return to duty.

'I WANT TO STAY IN ARMY'

Col. William J. Howard III, who was chief of occupational therapy at Walter Reed and now holds the same position at Tripler Army Medical Center, said to stay infantry "is pretty unique," and there are only a handful of soldiers with limb loss making that choice.

"It's hard," Howard said, "and if you're a young person who has the rest of their life in front of them, it's sometimes easier to be medically boarded (out of the military) and do something different."

Maj. David M. Rozelle lost a leg in Iraq, returned to combat there, and now works at the amputee center at Walter Reed. "If they want to go (back to a frontline unit), they can go, but nobody wants to hinder their unit," he said.

But Howard remembers the conversation he had with Wooldridge when the soldier arrived at Walter Reed for treatment and rehabilitation.

"In Brandon's case, he was clear, from the first day we worked together, (and I asked,) 'What do you want to do?' " Howard recalls. " 'I want to stay in the Army,' " was Wooldridge's answer. Further, he wanted to remain infantry.

Wooldridge wanted to make the Army his career. On Nov. 13, 2004, however, Iraqi insurgents made that ambition a little harder.

The 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry "Wolfhound," was in a three-Humvee convoy in the northern tip of the Sunni Triangle, about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk, when he and fellow Schofield soldiers came under heavy fire.

"There was a lot of stuff they had fired. A few (rocket-propelled grenades). Some people said there might have been a roadside bomb. Lot of heavy machine-gun fire," Wooldridge said last year.

Manning an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon in the open-backed Humvee, Wooldridge remembers, he first took cover and then quickly returned fire over the makeshift armor hung on the wooden side rails of the vehicle.

He's not sure what hit him. He believes it was a rocket-propelled grenade blast. Whatever it was, it tore out his calf.

DETERMINED TO KEEP UP

On Friday, the married father of two kids was sprawled on his stomach at Pu'uloa training range in full combat gear with 19 other soldiers conducting shooting practice. He walks with a slight limp.

"He can perform physically fine," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Novak, 32, who was Wooldridge's squad leader in Iraq. On Friday, Novak was safety coach at the range where Wooldridge was shooting.

"It's up to him how far he wants to excel or push himself," Novak said. "Yeah, he has limitations, but it's not like he's the weakest link in the chain."

Evaluations of his progress were forwarded to Fort Lewis, Wash., for review, but Wooldridge did not have to appear before a Medical Evaluation Board.

"I just had to continue to do the same things that everybody else was doing without falling back," he said.

If his request to remain infantry had been denied, Wooldridge said he could have appealed to the Physical Evaluation Board.

Wooldridge said he received "100 percent support" from his chain of command and doctors and therapists he worked with, but that also came with hard work on his part.

On eight-mile road marches, he's in the middle of the pack, he said. His unit does five-mile runs on Mondays. He has proved himself in an eight-mile competition with stops along the way where soldiers had to perform different soldiering skills.

Wooldridge has four "legs" for running, swimming, high-intensity activity and road marching.

A big plus is that his injury was below the knee.

"It's a huge advantage," Tripler's Howard said. "If you have a knee, your ability to ambulate is much better."

LOVING SUPPORT

There's still the matter of Wooldridge's re-enlistment to work out. He put in a re-enlistment contract before his injury. But afterward, he said, the Army would not go through with it until he was found fit for duty.

He would have re-enlisted in Iraq, and was supposed to get a tax-free $20,000 bonus, but he never put pen to paper, was wounded, and now the Army is balking at paying the bonus, he said.

"We're negotiating a new contract," Wooldridge said.

Wooldridge said his wife, Carla, "will tell you that I'm crazy (for possibly going back to Iraq), but she also supports me 100 percent."

She understands her husband's drive and desire to stay infantry.

"It makes him happy and I love it," Carla, 26, said. "I know he can do it."

She also understands his feelings about Iraq.

"He needs to go back for personal reasons," she said. "I don't necessarily want him to go back, but no military spouse wants their husband or wife to go to Iraq or overseas anywhere."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.