The Wounded Come Home

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STEPHANIE SINCLAIR FOR TIME/CORBIS

SSG Charles Gallegos, of the 720th Transportation is airlifted

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For Wyatt and Castro, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a baby, the grimaces that come from pedaling a bike with a single leg are followed by grins. Both men are certain that they are getting better all the time. They, along with Meinen (who is finishing his recovery at the Denver VA so he can be close to his wife Amber and baby daughter Abbigail), were each fitted late last week with a CLeg, which "knows" when to bend because its built-in microprocessor detects stresses 50 times a second and uses lithium-ion batteries to flex. Soldiers using the $100,000 device after having worn older, mechanical limbs that have to be swung forward with every step say the CLeg is much more natural. "Civilians get crappy legs," Castro says, "but ours is going to be top of the line."

There is a can-do spirit inside Walter Reed and scant grumbling from these soldiers about the war or the wounds it has inflicted on them. Most of these men were at the tip of the spear — warriors, in military parlance — and tend to gripe less about hardships than other troops. "We're on the brink of being able to walk again," Wyatt says. "When we first got here, I felt I was screwed and thought I never would." Seeing other soldiers learn to walk is powerful medicine. "They don't see it as a problem. They see it as a challenge," says Dr. Harold Wain, a Walter Reed psychiatrist in charge of monitoring the patients' psychological states. "These guys are very proud of what they've done, and they don't want people to feel sorry for them. They want people to support them."

Each of the three soldiers wounded in the back of their APC two months ago says he is glad he went to war in Iraq and misses his buddies who are still there. "I think the Iraqi people will finally get a government that works over there," Meinen says. "You don't want to get wounded, but you can't go to war and expect nothing to happen to anybody." His apartment in Colorado is near the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's home base at Fort Carson, and he hopes to remain in the Army. But his voyage back was not made easy. When Meinen wanted to head to Denver, the military would not buy him a direct ticket and said he had to hitch rides on military planes, which hopscotch the country and are not regularly scheduled. At one point he was stranded at an Illinois air base for a week, which delayed his therapy. He finally made it to Colorado when an outraged soldier got him a commercial flight.

He has been back home for a month now, preparing for his new leg. "This life has its challenges," he says. "When the baby cries, I can't just run over and pick her up to put her in the crib. I'm kind of a stationary person right now, and sometimes I just have to drag myself across the floor." On the day he received his new leg at Denver VA last week, he walked around on it for two hours. But the VA won't let him take it home just yet. That's fine with him: he was thinking that his missing limb could make a fine homemade Halloween video. "I'm planning on getting together with my brothers-in-law," he says. "I'm going to make it look like they ran me over in a parking lot and have these other guys pull me out and make it look like they ripped my leg off." He never executes the idea, but the thought of it makes him laugh.

The three wounded soldiers are united not only in their good humor but also their unequivocal support for the war. Wyatt doesn't much care for those who think Bush fudged the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. "That makes you feel like you fought for nothing or you fought for a liar," he says. "They're telling me I went out there and I got my leg blown off for a liar, and I know that's just not true." Wyatt says he would stay in the Army if he could remain in a combat unit, but he knows that's unlikely. So he's considering college.

Castro says he just did what he signed up to do. "Someone has to do the job, and we did it," he says. "The price was my leg." He plans to return to college — his four-year hitch was up a week after he lost his leg — and marry his fiance Elizabeth Gonzalez, who quit her California job and moved to Washington to help him recover. Later this month, if all the paperwork comes through, Castro should reach another milestone: becoming a U.S. citizen.

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