Paratrooper who lost leg in Iraq re-enlists

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — George Perez still feels the sweat between his toes when he exercises. He's still plagued with nagging cramps in his calf muscle. And sometimes, when he gets out of bed at night without thinking, he topples over.

Perez, 21, lost his leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq more than a year ago, but despite the phantom pains that haunt him, he says he is determined to prove to the Army that he is no less of a man — and no less of a soldier.

"I'm not ready to get out yet," he says. "I'm not going to let this little injury stop me from what I want to do."

Perez is one of at least four amputees from the 82nd Airborne Division to re-enlist. With a new carbon-fiber prosthetic leg, Perez intends to show a medical board he can run an eight-minute mile, jump out of airplanes and pass all the other paratrooper tests that will allow him to go with his regiment to Afghanistan next year.

On Sept. 14, 2003, Perez, of Carteret, N.J., and seven other members of his squad were rumbling down a road outside Fallujah when a bomb blast rocked their Humvee. Perez recalls flying through the air and hitting the ground hard.

The blast killed one of Perez's comrades. Perez felt surprisingly little pain, but when he tried to get up, he couldn't. He saw that his left foot was folded backward onto his knee. His size 12 1/2 combat boot stood in the dusty road a few feet away, still laced.

A photograph of Perez's lonely boot transmitted around the world and spread across two pages of Time magazine became a stark reminder that the war in Iraq was far from over.

Doctors initially tried to save part of Perez's foot. But an infection crept up his leg, and Perez agreed to allow the amputation below the knee joint.

"I was going to stay in no matter what," he recalls telling the surgeons. "Do whatever would get me back fastest."

Perez was left with a rounded stump that fits into the suction cup of the black carbon-fiber prosthetic leg.

When he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for his rehabilitation, Perez asked a pair of generals who visited his bedside if it was possible for him to stay in the Army.

"They told me, 'It's all up to you, how much you want it,'" he says. "If I could do everything like a regular soldier, I could stay in."

He wasted little time getting started. At one point, a visitor found him doing push-ups in bed. He trained himself to walk normally with his new leg, and then run with it.

Perez has to rise at least an hour earlier than his fellow soldiers to allow swelling from the previous day's training to subside enough for his stump to fit into the prosthetic.

But it is a comfort for Perez to know he's not alone.

At least three other paratroopers in the 82nd have lost limbs in combat during the past two years and re-enlisted. One of them, Staff Sgt. Daniel Metzdorf, lost his right leg above the knee in a Jan. 27 blast. He appealed three times before the fitness board allowed him to stay on.

"I think it's a testimony to today's professional Army," says division commander Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell. "I also think, deep down, it is a love for their other paratroopers."

In July, amputee program manager Chuck Scoville of Walter Reed told a congressional committee that amputations accounted for 2.4% of all wounded in action in the Iraq war — twice the rate in World Wars I and II.

Perez is one of about 160 service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan who have passed through Walter Reed's amputee patient program. The military says it does not track the number who choose to stay in the service.

"It isn't something that historically we've had to deal with a whole lot," says Lt. Col. Frank Christopher, the surgeon for the 82nd Airborne.

Today, Perez looks every bit the part of paratrooper — tall, in ripped-ab shape and serious-looking. His uniform is sharply creased, his maroon beret sits at an exact angle above one eye and the black leather boot on his good leg gleams with a mirror shine. The only thing that sets him apart at a glance is the white running shoe on his prosthetic leg.

Perez has to go before another medical fitness board to determine whether he will be allowed to jump again. He also must pass the fitness test for his age — run two miles in just under 16 minutes and do at least 42 push-ups and 53 sit-ups in two-minute stretches.

For now, he must content himself with a job maintaining M-16s and M-4s, machine guns and grenade launchers in his company's armory. But his dream is to attend the grueling Ranger school at Fort Benning, Ga., a serious challenge to even the most able-bodied soldier.

"I got a lot of things to do," he said. "I want to do as much as I can, as much as they'll let me."