KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - The sniper team was in a hurry. The sun was up and they weren’t in position yet. Staff Sgt. Donald Thompson took the lead as they passed through a gate and into an orange grove.
When he went to take a knee to cover his men, the ground gave slightly beneath him. For an agonizing split second before it detonated, Thompson knew he had stepped on the pressure plate of an improvised explosive device.
The explosion blew his uniform off, leaving him naked except for his boots and body armor. His right ankle was shattered and most of the skin on his left leg was vaporized, leaving the muscle and bone exposed. A piece of shrapnel ripped his face open, and he could barely see.
At first, he worried about keeping his legs. Then he saw the blood in his groin and his pleas quickly changed. “Please, God, you can have my legs, but at least let me be a man.”
Then he thought of his new wife, and worried that she wouldn’t want him anymore.
Though some of his memories have faded, the former sniper team leader vividly remembers the young soldier who helped evacuate him. When the private saw the torn flesh on his face and legs, he had to look away.
Thompson was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he spent six months undergoing surgeries, skin grafts and rehabilitation.
But not long into his recovery, he became determined to return to his Recon platoon with 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment in Yusufiyah, Iraq.
It was 2006 and the brigade was on a 15-month deployment. The way he figured it, he had just enough time to get back. Not wanting his wife to dread his return, he hid his intentions until the week before he left.
Thompson is part of a growing number of veterans who are returning to the battlefield after being severely wounded, many of them rehabilitated from injuries that would have killed or permanently maimed their World War II or Vietnam predecessors.
In previous wars, troops who lost limbs on the battlefield often died from blood loss. But today, better first aid training and faster medevac keep many more troops alive, with a significant number returning to active duty.
In the Army, for instance, out of 881 soldiers who endured major amputations — above the wrist or ankle — from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan since October 2001, 171 have been able to continue to serve.
The Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery could not provide numbers for Marines and sailors.
Col. Evan Renz, director of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Brooke, said that the strides made in medicine, and especially surgery, have benefited most from the last decade of war.
“The advances in care realized during a period of conflict are accelerated due to the urgency of the problem at hand,” he said. “Economic, political and humanitarian forces combine to expedite advances in casualty care in a way that rarely occurs in peacetime.”
According to Renz, recoveries that seemed miraculous when the wars began are viewed as increasingly routine.
“This is the type of positive change that we as surgeons all hope for — witnessing not only survival, but true life emerging from the ashes of carnage and destruction,” he said.
For many of the returning veterans, it’s not just medicine or determination that gets them back in the fight, but a duty to those who didn’t make it out.
Staff Sgt. Alphonza Whitmore, of 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, is haunted by the cries of the driver who was trapped when their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle rolled over an IED in Wardak province, Afghanistan, in 2009. The blast threw the vehicle on its side, killing the front passenger instantly.
Whitmore climbed out of the burning MRAP through the turret, dragging the unconscious gunner with him. When he returned to rescue the driver, the engine and tires were engulfed in flames, and the cabin had filled with a thick, black smoke. Ammunition rounds were cooking off inside the vehicle.
“I don’t want to die,” he remembers the driver yelling.
Whitmore crawled back through the turret, but he couldn’t see. His lungs filled with smoke, and he couldn’t breathe. Other soldiers arrived and pulled him away.
It was then that he realized his left foot had been crushed. His forehead was slashed open and his left hand was badly cut.
Moments later an AT4 rocket launcher exploded in the vehicle. The driver went silent.
Whitmore was evacuated to Bagram Air Field, where he would lose four toes. He couldn’t lie flat because his lungs were so severely burnt, and he struggled to breathe.
He would spend the next six months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, recovering and learning to walk without his toes. He was determined not to limp, and to return to his life as a soldier.
“People were telling me you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” he said. “I’m stubborn.”
When he returned to his unit at Fort Drum, he was given the choice to leave the Army.
“I’m staying,” he told them. “I don’t know anything else.”
Whitmore returned to the 2-87 Infantry Regiment and redeployed to Afghanistan in March 2011. His foot aches sometimes, causing him to limp, but he refuses to let it deter him. When he faces pain or adversity, he thinks of the driver he tried to save.
“I tell myself this: ‘I lived,’ ” he said. “So anything else, I can deal with. If it didn’t kill me, it can’t do it now. So I got to get on with it.”
Lisa Jaycox, senior behavioral scientist with the Rand Corp., said researchers still don’t have a firm grip on why some seriously injured soldiers can make a full recovery while others succumb to mental health issues.
Some of it simply depends on the injury, she said. Physicians have found marked success with treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression-related setbacks in recent years, but similar approaches for individuals fighting traumatic brain injuries haven’t worked as well.
And often the answer is a mix of individuals’ support network, their pain tolerance, their early access to treatments and the extent of their wounds.
“The fact is that each injury is so different, there are no perfect predictions on who can recover,” she said. “Even individuals who can handle some traumatic events can suddenly fall apart after others.”
For Thompson, not returning would mean not only letting himself down, but his soldiers as well.
“There’s a sense of duty to the Army, to the guys you serve with. When it gets down to it, this is my chosen profession and this is what I do. And there isn’t anybody that’s going to keep me from doing it if I’m still capable and still performing.
“You’re an infantryman,” he said. “It’s what should be expected of you, and it’s what you should expect of yourself.”
Thompson deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 with 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, where he works as a platoon sergeant in a Pathfinder Company.
Steel pins hold his ankle together and his arms are flecked with explosive residue and shrapnel. His left leg is severely scarred from multiple surgeries and skin grafts. Sometimes, he feels the twitching of nerves that are no longer there. He hates that the most.
His job as an infantryman regularly takes him to the battlefield where he still navigates IED emplacements. Sometimes he’ll get an eerie feeling when he’s on a mission, usually when it’s dark and he can’t see where he’s stepping. He’s learned to work through his fear, though, and those feelings are increasingly rare.
Thompson believes that getting blown up made him a better soldier, and a better man.
“It puts a lot of things in perspective. You have sort of a confidence that you didn’t have before. You’ve passed through the breach.”
He never considered not returning to the Army.
“You’re supposed to go back. It’s not like the job is over,” he said.