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Sunday, March 7

Wounded soldiers face challenging transition

By Katya Cengel | (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - The headlines from Iraq and Afghanistan may be of battlefield victories or political upheaval, but accompanying them are near-daily reports of soldiers killed in battle.

The dead make headlines, but the injured often don't merit a mention until later, if at all. It is true that they have not lost their lives. But they have lost much.

Some won't walk again, many will have to find new careers, and others - including Army Spc. Patrick Collins - may never remember what it is like to live without pain.

Collins is proud that, almost a year after a bullet wound in Iraq shattered part of his vertebrae, he can take out the trash.

On his belt is a small black device that stimulates electrodes suctioned onto his neck, which sometimes helps to ease the unbearable pain.

He also carries around what he calls a "bag of fun." A small, soft cooler contains a bottle of morphine and several bottles filled with pills whose names he can't pronounce. "That's my life. Isn't it great?" says Collins, 39.

Dr. Brett Logan, staff psychiatrist at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell, Ky., headquarters for the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, said the recovery period for injured soldiers can be a difficult one. "They pride themselves on being complete and whole."

A major adjustment

"Anyone got a quarter?" Heath Calhoun asks.

Staff Sgt. Calhoun, 24, sits on a mat in the physical-therapy room at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, fitting his upper legs - which end in red ovals above where his knees used to be - into prosthetic legs.

Several physical therapists step forward with small change. Calhoun uses a quarter to tighten his high-tech titanium legs. Calhoun's 20-month-old son, Mason, lost the key.

On crutches, Calhoun makes his way to a set of parallel bars, hangs on and wills himself to jump. His wife, Tiffany, 21, smiles, metal braces peeking through her grin.

She got the phone call at 5:30 in the morning on Nov. 7. The satellite connection had been so bad that it wasn't until later, looking at pictures Heath had sent over the Internet, that Tiffany really understood.

"I had trouble with the full-body pictures," she says from the couple's two-story house in Clarksville, Tenn. "It's really hard looking at those pictures for the first time."

But she never turned away. When Heath was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., several days later, Tiffany was waiting for him.

"Since I was 19 and became pregnant with my son, I have grown up so much," she says, lifting Mason into his high chair. "I used to be a party girl. But then with Heath getting injured, everything depends on me."

On his wrist, Heath wears a bracelet etched with the name "SSG Morgan D. Kennon, 7 Nov. 2003." Kennon was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq that day. The same blast blew off both of Heath's legs.

"I could tell my legs were chewed up bad; there was lots of blood," he said.

Heath opens the pictures taken the day of the accident. In each one, he is smiling. That almost half his body was missing didn't hit him until two weeks later.

"It got to me: How am I supposed to play with Mason now?" he says. "I got no legs. I can't run. How am I supposed to live my life with no legs?"

Aside from "Daddy" and "Mommy," Mason knows one word: "booboo." Everything to do with his dad's legs is booboo; the prosthetic legs that must be plugged in at night, the crutches, the wheelchair, all of it is booboo.

Soon Heath will be medically discharged; his and his family's health insurance will be paid for life, as will his salary. He likes to think of all the things he can do, but sometimes the things he'll never do haunt him.

"You know when your feet are tired and you walk on soft carpet?" he asks. "I don't get that anymore."

Losing control

Howard Contant, 68, who lives in North Carolina, journeyed to Fort Campbell recently to retrieve things he had loaned his son Stuart over the years, things his son no longer needed. Like a boat.

"'Come and get it,' he said, 'I have no use for it,'" Howard Contant recalls.

He looks down, trying to hide the crack that comes in his voice whenever he talks about the helicopter crash that injured his youngest child, Chief Warrant Officer Stuart Contant, 40, in Afghanistan.

Stuart Contant, sitting beside him, dumps out of a doctor's specimen bottle an object resembling a piece of a bicycle chain. Eleven of these hold his jaw and the left side of his face together. He can feel the one under his left eye.

He opens a medical book to the section on spinal cord injuries and points to all the places marked with an 's'. The letter covers most of the legs, anus and pelvis. Those are the places that have been damaged on his body.

"This is all numb," he says. "From the waist down, I am numb and tingly."

Tall and handsome, with the confidence of a natural athlete, Stuart Contant headed to Afghanistan in January 2002.

He returned to America on a gurney, his strong, 6-foot frame shrunken to 135 pounds, stitches holding the left side of his chiseled face together.

Doctors in Germany, and then in Washington, D.C., would only tell him what he might not be able to do - walk and urinate on his own. Stuart Contant did everything he could to prove them wrong.

"I tried to make goals for myself," he says. "Not knowing they were unattainable."

The transition would be hard for anyone, but for Stuart Contant, a cocky pilot with lanky, relaxed ease, it has been doubly hard. He is used to being in control, to looking good and getting what he wants. Slowly, he taught himself to walk again.

Almost two years later, he walks with a slightly strange gait that comes from trying to stay on the few spots on his feet that he can feel. But he loses his balance easily; he tires quickly. He still needs to catheterize himself in order to urinate.

The changes in his body tore at his confidence. His self-assurance crumbled. When he saw his image in the surround mirrors of his brother's Florida bathroom in the summer of 2002, he cried for what he had been.

Although his injuries have grounded him from the military, he holds out hope that different regulations for commercial pilots will enable him to continue flying.

Whatever he does, he is leaving Fort Campbell and heading back to Florida, where his two young sons live with his ex-wife. He is leaving the military.

"A lot of things changed so fast," he says, watching a planeload of soldiers disembark on the airfield at Fort Campbell. "It's out of my control. And I'm normally in control."