Vets find life after amputations

It took Andy Hatcher mere minutes to make the most difficult decision of his life.

The former Marine had been in a coma for two weeks after being injured by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah while serving in Iraq, with the blast occurring on Thanksgiving Day 2004 — just five days after his 21st birthday. When he awoke, he was faced with an agonizing choice: Try to rehabilitate a right leg that would return to only 50 percent of its original capabilities under the best-case scenario or have it amputated and learn to live with a prosthetic.

“It took me 10 minutes to decide to cut it off,” said Hatcher, now 23. “They said if I kept the leg, I would never be able to run again because of permanent drop foot. And once I heard that, I knew.”

Hatcher had run a marathon before his military deployment, but the loss of his leg has motivated him to reach a level of athletic achievement he is unsure he would have had he not lost his limb. Sunday, Hatcher will compete in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon with two other Iraq veterans who have amputated limbs as a result of military duty. Former Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (who lost her left leg at the knee) will do the 1.5-mile swim, former Army Spc. RichIngram (who lost his left arm below the elbow) will complete the 18-mile bike route and Hatcher will finish the relay with the eight-mile run.

The race begins at 7 a.m., when Stockwell will dive into the icy water just off Alcatraz Island and swim to the shore at Marina Green.

“I’ve always heard about this race and thought it would be really cool to do,” Stockwell said. “I’ve done a few other triathlons and I can’t explain what a difference it makes just to prove to myself I can still do certain things.”

Stockwell was medically retired after a roadside bomb exploded near her Humvee on April 13, 2004, during a routine convoy through central Baghdad. The University of Colorado graduate began her rehabilitation and physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., at nearly the same time as Hatcher and the two soon showed enough progress to begin working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which helps physically challenged people maintain active lifestyles. Stockwell, 27, hadn’t swum competitively since she was a child, but has caught on to the sport quickly and is hoping to qualify for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

Ingram, the third member of the trio, was injured July 20, 2005, after the Humvee he was traveling in near Yusufiyah was struck by an IED. He is now a student at North Georgia College and State University, a military school, and has become an avid biker. Ingram is the reigning USA Triathlon Physically Challenged Champion in the below-elbow amputee division.

For Hatcher, the return to competition has sparked his self-esteem.

“It gets your ego back up,” said Hatcher, who is now working for the Department of Homeland Security while studying architecture at Northern Virginia Community College. “I was part of a unit that was pretty arrogant and, when you lose a limb, it kind of gets to you psychologically. But doing this stuff makes you realize you’re not acripple. … I can’t complain, man. I’m more successful now than I was before I lost my leg.”

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ

WHEN: Sunday, 7 a.m.

COURSE: Swimming is the first leg, beginning from Alcatraz Island and going 1.5 miles to shore at Marina Green Beach. Next up is 18 miles on a bike, followed by an eight-mile run through San Francisco.

WHO: More than 1,800 triathletes ranging in age from 12 to 74. Included in the field are top triathletes Matt Reed and Becky Lavelle, Andy Potts, Brian Fleishman, Joana Lawn and Alexis Waddel.

DEFENDING CHAMPS: Men’s—Matt Reed; women’s—Becky Lavelle.

MORE INFO: www.escapefromalcatraztriathlon.com

melliser@examiner.com


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