In 2001, I volunteered to deploy to Bosnia for a peacekeeping mission with the 29th Infantry Division. I served as a Public Affairs Officer in the Joint Visitors Bureau where I planned and executed itineraries for distinguished visitors including high-ranking military, government leaders and celebrities. It was the best job I held during my 12 years of military service and I wanted to extend for another tour. However, two weeks before the end of the eight month deployment, I developed a DVT in my left leg. I wanted to stay and return with the Division, but I was considered a health risk and returned stateside to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While at Walter Reed, I was diagnosed with the blood disorder Factor 5 Leiden. I was placed on coumadin and experienced coumadin-induced skin necrosis six months later. The doctors noted how rare, unusual and unpredictable this was and that it affects a very small percentage of patients. I was immediately taken off of coumadin and placed heparin. Within a week, I suffered a severe allergic reaction that started with spontaneous hemorrhaging in my legs. The pain was so intense, I could not bear to stand, walk or sit. It felt like razor blades were running up and down on the insides of my legs. I was rushed to Walter Reed, admitted and diagnosed with heparin induced thrombocytopenia (HIT). My symptoms continued to worsen and my condition progressed to disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). I had such life threatening symptoms that the Army retired me immediately and I was placed on imminent death status with less than 24 hours to survive. The doctors were so certain I was going to die that the social worker asked my parents if they preferred to have me buried at Arlington National Cemetery or to take my body home. Even in this dire time, the doctors continued every effort to save me. They attempted one last hope with the medicine rifludin, and by a miracle, my condition started to reverse. Fortunately, I had survived, but not without losing my left leg below the knee on Saturday, 28 September 2002. I also had extensive tissue damage on my legs and buttocks which was removed through many debridement surgeries. I also had two pulmonary emboli.
My time at Walter Reed was seven months. It took longer for my leg wounds to heal than my amputation. I had to wear vacuum pack machines to remove any infection and speed up the recovery of wounds for grafting. The gauze packing was changed every three days during an operation because it would have been too painful to change bedside, even though I was on an incredible amount of pain medication. Overall, I underwent 20 plus surgeries including several skin grafts on my legs and rear end. I finally took my first steps in January 2003 after being in bed so long.
My life was changed, but I knew I had two choices, either give up or make the most of the situation and my life. I chose the latter and realized why it had happened to me in March 2003 when the first group of amputees from the war arrived at Walter Reed. I was still in therapy and would see the newly injured soldiers in the clinic. I would kindly approach them and introduce myself. Their responses were always that they did not need any more candy or other comfort items. At that time, I would pull up my pant leg and say “I am a soldier too” while showing them my prosthetic. In that very instant, a bond was made and the soldiers would ask me questions about being an amputee. I knew I was chosen to be a role model and inspiration, especially as a female officer. Their attitudes changed when they said, “if you (she) can do it, so can I,” as they faced the same difficult physical and mental challenges ahead.
This new mission gave me great strength and motivation to better myself and continue helping the wounded soldiers after I was released. I got actively involved with several athletic organizations including the Achilles Track Club, Disabled Sports USA, U.S. Paralympics and the Wounded Warrior Project. I have completed four marathons, one triathlon and now both snow and water ski, kayak, scuba dive and hope to skydive someday. Sports gave me a new found self confidence that I encouraged all of the injured soldiers to try sports as well to help aid in their recovery and rehab.
As I continued to flourish in sports and started work for DoD as a Public Affairs Specialist at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center in Dahlgren, VA, I unexpectedly sustained another injury. Without any symptoms or warning signs, I suffered another blood clot or minor stroke that caused permanent vision loss in my left eye. Yet again, I found the reason why when I attended a dinner at the Italian Embassy with a large group of wounded warriors. I was at a table with five other soldiers and as the conversation progressed, we discovered each of us was blind in one eye. Only one soldier wore an eye patch, for the rest of us, it was not obvious. As we went around the table stating this fact, I knew right then I had lost my vision as another way to reach out and connect with the soldiers with similar injuries. We instantly shared stories of the trials and tribulations of vision loss. Some were funny, some were not, but the important thing I realized was that we all have each other to lean on, to laugh and even cry.
Through my experiences, I discovered an inner fortitude that I did not know existed before. I have depth and character that shows in my outlook on life and with my interaction with people. I have applied this new empowering attitude to even more outside work with wounded warriors. I am a certified peer counselor with the Amputee Coalition of America, a national outreach coordinator for the Achilles Track Club Marathon Freedom Team, comprised of wounded warriors from Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval Hospital, Brooke Army Hospital and Balboa Naval Hospital, a trained counselor for kids with disabilities with Disabled Sports USA and an Area Outreach Coordinator with the Wounded Warrior Project.
I also serve as a national spokesperson for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. I am honored to hold this position as the Memorial represents all disabled veterans from the past, present and future. It will be a place for healing, closure and new beginnings and I look forward to the day it is proudly dedicated. I work closely with actor Gary Sinise, as he serves as the official spokesperson for the Memorial. I have had the pleasure to speak with him at events on Capitol Hill, the National Press Club and in both the local and national media. I have visited injured soldiers at Walter Reed on several occasions with him as well.
My active involvement has given me the opportunity to narrate an upcoming documentary, The Road Home, about several wounded soldiers, including myself. It follows us from injury, recovery, rehabilitation and entry back into either military or civilian life.
Again, I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and my combined experiences led to my selection to recently serve on the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, co-chaired by both Senator Dole and Secretary Shalala. I was the Wounded Warrior Advocate and had the most important job. I took the phone calls from over 500 veterans and helped them with their situations, but more importantly, listened to their stories. My role was very rewarding and I will always be thankful for that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, just as I will always be thankful for my second chance at life.
Still today, doctors have not been able to provide exact diagnoses as to why these complications occurred. More than one doctor has stated I may have a clotting condition that has not been discovered. Even though I live in the unknown and can never be sure what may happen next, I have finally found an inner peace that keeps me strong, motivated and loving my life!