Losing a leg didn’t keep Seabee from duty
Colleagues of Chief Petty Officer Scotty Arias call him “Number 5,” though the reason for the nickname is not obvious when he’s in uniform.
The Navy builder, who lost his lower left leg in a motorcycle accident, is only the fifth amputee in Navy history to return to active duty.
“I never doubted that I’d be back in the Navy,” Arias said in a phone interview from Manama, Bahrain, where he is the Navy’s command safety chief in the Persian Gulf.
Arias, 29, joined the Navy 10 years ago because his father, a Cuban immigrant, felt it was his son’s obligation. The Seabee’s career was going well, and after eight years, he was promoted to chief.
On Sept. 18, 2002, in Biloxi, Miss., he was following his wife’s car to drop off their three children with a baby sitter so the couple could celebrate his promotion.
Another car crossed the highway’s center line and hit his motorcycle head-on. He suffered a collapsed lung, and his left leg was wrecked. His femur had a compound fracture, and he lost the leg from the calf down.
His command master chief, Wade Howk, sat with him at the hospital. Arias, on a respirator, used a pen and paper to communicate. He had three questions for Howk: “Is my family OK? Can I stay in the Navy? What do I have to do to stay in the Navy?”
Howk got him some answers.
“I found out I had to pass the physical-fitness test and I would have to prove to the Navy I could do everything I did before,” Arias said.
Though Arias underwent several surgeries and lost 40 pounds from his 170-pound frame, he did not lose his determination.
Arias knew the Navy had allowed amputees to return to active duty. One of his favorite movies before the accident was “Men of Honor,” the story of Carl Brashear, a master diver and the first amputee to return to active duty.
Arias’ friend tracked down Brashear, who called the hospital shortly after the accident. For the next year, the two spoke weekly and Arias visited Brashear once at his home in Virginia.
“He’s just an amazing guy, just so positive about everything,” Arias said.
Brashear shared advice about recovering and how to stay in the Navy. “He told me to put my story out there,” Arias said.
And so he did.
Arias sent thousands of e-mailed petitions to Seabees worldwide.
“I asked them to e-mail me a recommendation letter if they felt I should deserve to stay in the Navy,” he said.
Several thousand responded.
“I spent the majority of my days reading e-mails,” the Leonard, Mich., native chuckled.
Arias walked for the first time in January 2003, a “miserable” process made all the more painful because he was walking on a titanium rod that ran from his hip to knee. His prosthetic rubbed against the wires in his knee, making him bleed.
Arias underwent more procedures to take the steel out of his knee and repair his femur. His first steps after that, in mid-March, were less painful.
By the beginning of April, he was running.
He requalified to shoot a rifle and operate a tractor with clutches. In June, he passed his physical readiness test, completing 100 sit-ups, 67 push-ups, and running 1½ miles in 13 minutes, 31 seconds.
Brashear agreed to testify at Arias’ medical review board in June. But he didn’t have to. Arias enlisted the help of Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose office generated a congressional inquiry that led to the waiving of the medical board.
On Aug. 11, Arias returned to duty. He transferred in October to Bahrain, where he ensures the security of Navy personnel on oil rigs and at other sites considered potential terrorist targets.
Last month, Arias got his prosthesis refitted and now has three: one he wears with combat boots; a running one that allows him to push off and accelerate; and a shock-absorbing one for athletics that is similar to cross-trainer tennis shoes.
“The running one is like a pogo stick basically ... it’s a totally different way to run because there’s no impact,” he said. His fastest 1½-mile run is 10:38.
“He outruns me,” laughed Arias’ boss, Cmdr. Charlie Gerringer, 5th Fleet safety officer.
Gerringer called Arias “the most motivated, driven person I’ve ever met.”
He said most people don’t realize Arias has a prosthesis. When a damaged ship recently pulled into port, Arias had to inspect its side.
“He had to climb down the scaffolding, he was scampering up and down,” Gerringer said. “...You’d never know it that he only has one leg.”
Arias advises other amputees, just as Brashear helped him. He is a member of a support group with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthopedics in Michigan. Through their network, he has prepared other amputees for the physical and emotional trials they face.
“It’s just like going through boot camp, you want to know everything there is to know,” he said.
He credits his wife, Marne, with helping him recover.
“She took care of me and three kids for a year, that’s pretty dang good,” he said. “She’s the one who pushed me, made me get out of bed and go to physical therapy.”
Arias said the ordeal was harder on his children — ages, 3, 4 and 5 — than on him.
“You can just imagine going to a pool and I’m wearing a pair of shorts and kids ask my kids, ‘What’s wrong with your dad’s leg?’ ” he said. “But my kids are pretty proud of me now.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.