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(Tribune News Service) — Thomas Scott sat in the passenger seat outside his apartment complex, his wife in the driver's seat, his right leg gone, his left leg throbbing in pain.

He'd forgotten something in their apartment. A wallet? A piece of clothing? A decade later, he doesn't even remember what it was. He only remembers that this moment was his emotional bottom as a recently injured Afghanistan veteran.

His wife, Brittany, could have walked back into the apartment to get it for him. Instead, she told him he needed to figure it out himself.

"That was the moment," Scott recalled the other day from his home in Burnsville. "It was all irritating, being dependent on everybody else. It dawned on me: I was tired of everybody else running my life and taking over my agency. Help is great, but I needed to step into the driver's seat of my life."

That moment would set him on a path to today, where, with the assistance of a nonprofit for wounded veterans called Semper Fi & America's Fund, Scott has found his calling. He started a new business helping people transition from long-term rehabilitation facilities — people recovering from bad injuries such as gunshot wounds, car accidents or paralysis — to living on their own as much as possible. He calls his business Best Life Relocation Services. It's a tribute to fellow service members who did not return from Afghanistan; he sees it as his responsibility to live his best life to pay homage to their sacrifice.

But as he sat in that apartment complex parking lot a decade ago, Scott could not have known this sick-of-it-all moment would send him on a new path. He just wanted to live life without constantly asking for help.

It was August 2010, six months after the Navy corpsman had lost his right leg when a roadside bomb blew up his MRAP — the mine-resistant ambush-protected light tactical vehicle used in the U.S. military — near Marjah in southern Afghanistan.

The Burnsville High School graduate, then 22 years old, was rushed to nearby Camp Leatherneck, then to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then to the National Naval Medical Center outside of Washington, D.C. His right leg was gone below the knee. Doctors suggested amputating his damaged left leg as well, but Scott resisted. He did not want to be a double amputee.

Six months into recovery, though, he realized rehabbing his injured left leg while adapting to his right-leg prosthetic was not easy. Scott didn't want to complete rehabilitation at the D.C. hospital adjacent to Walter Reed; that hospital was teeming with wounded warriors. It seemed like new amputees arrived weekly. "I couldn't be around too much of that," he said.

They moved to San Diego, a sunny place for recovery. But trips to the beach were awkward, with people staring at his prosthesis. He got around in a wheelchair. An unwieldy metal fixator, which held his bones in place and stimulated bone growth, surrounded his left leg. He couldn't drive. He couldn't cook or clean. He couldn't even bend over.

He knew he was lucky. He'd survived a blast that could have killed him. Nearly a dozen Marines in the battalion he was attached to — 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment — would not return home from their Afghanistan deployment.

Sitting in that parking lot not far from the Pacific Ocean, he did not feel lucky. He felt like he'd lost control of life. He felt like, months after being a vigorous young man in a war zone who could command any situation, he now relied on other people for everything. His doctors. His rehabilitation therapists. His new wife, who he married at the chapel at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center weeks after he was injured.

Scott quit taking opioids for pain. Doctors removed the fixator. They put him in a cast, then a boot, then just a brace, which he still wears today. He learned to run, to jump, to kayak, to ride a bicycle. He knew an adapted life would be different than it was before, but he wanted that life to be his.

"I chose to wear some different lenses that day, and from that day forward, it helped me get up from where I was," Scott said. "You can get used to others doing for you. But every time people do for you when you could try yourself, you are also losing a lot of what makes life beautiful and joyful. Part of your ego and self-efficacy dies. And you start believing you can't do anything, that others have to do for you. So I said I can do some things, and I will do some things, and I'll do everything I can until I get to the point I could do almost everything for myself."

After getting his bachelor's and master's degrees, Scott worked as a clinical therapist, then as a case manager. He was always hustling, purchasing rental properties, driving for Uber, anything to help his family. During the pandemic, though, he needed a more flexible work environment so he could be around more for his wife and two sons, Andre, 6, and Marcel, 2 1/2.

He connected with his case manager at Semper Fi & America's Fund, who set him up with an apprenticeship program. He got money to get his business off the ground, buying essentials like computers and printers. He hired eight employees to be case managers who would help people recovering from bad injuries get back some independence.

"It's not like, 'I had my leg removed and I'm better now.' It's a lifelong thing," said Sara Aumuller, Scott's case manager at Semper Fi & America's Fund for more than a decade. "But I've never heard him say 'Woe is me, this is so hard.' He's always trying to help others and be of service."

Scott, now 34, sees his business as the perfect example of paying it forward: helping others adapt after they experience life-altering injuries, much as others once helped him.

"My journey showed me how I could live a life differently, a modified life that sometimes is even better than what you had before," he said. "It's finding opportunities to exercise autonomy. To feel whole again. I find opportunities to empower people."

Discharge from long-term stays at hospitals or rehabilitation facilities can be complex. Scott's business helps with the transition. He and his staff find personal care attendants or skilled nursing services, make sure homes are accessible and install adaptive equipment and software.

"It's like helping people get a new life, being their voice, advocating for them," he said. "I enjoy that, because someone had to give me a new life when I first got blown up."

In his basement, Scott still keeps that clunky metal fixator that once stabilized his leg. It's a physical reminder of everything he's been through to get to this point: self-sufficient, with a life that's different and modified but full of joy and agency, motivated by helping others.

He has a plan for that fixator. He has decided to turn it into a planter. Next year, he will sow grape seedlings in there and watch them grow.

©2021 StarTribune.


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