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For Wounded Soldiers, Hand Cycling Therapeutic

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More than 12,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded since combat began in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, about half of them were injured severely enough to prevent their return to duty. When they return home, these soldiers face a double challenge. They have to cope with the mental trauma of war. And they have to reshape their lives to accommodate a new disability. As a part of our year-long series Disability Matters, David Sommerstein reports on an adaptive cycling program that helps amputees return to physical and mental fitness.

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It's a summery afternoon in the parking lot of the Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown.  Sergeant Raymond Gilbert, from Fort Drum, is sitting on a hand-powered bicycle for the first time.  Trainer Susan Zabriskie teaches him how to shift gears.

So you're going to have to flip that.  "On this side?"  You gotta do it while the wheels are turning, just like a racing bike.  You want me to tool around the parking lot and check it?  Yeah, I want you to get out of here.

[gear sound]

Gilbert turns the hand pedals and clicks the gearshifts at the same time.  It's a balancing act that's new for him.

I can't manipulate it very well so I'm slapping the gear by taking my hand off the turn thing when I'm going through.

This one challenge is a teeny footnote in the long list of adjustments Gilbert has made in the last year and a half.  He's a fit and stocky 36-year old, from Boonville. 

Sergeant Gilbert was shot in combat on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2003.  His right leg was amputated below the knee.  The injury ended an 18-year career as an Army infantryman.

I miss it, but life continues on.  I found a new job.  I went down to the inspector general's course at Fort Bellevore.

Gilbert wanted to be a police officer when he left the Army.  Now he's focusing on being an MRI technician.  He says he's surprised at his ability to adapt.

That I can do more than I thought I could able to do when I was sitting in the hospital at Walter Reed.  Getting out and doing stuff and finding out what you're capabilities still are is probably the biggest part about it.  If you sit around and feel sorry for yourself and don't try to experience most of the stuff you did before, you'll never have any fun.

Gilbert and four other soldiers are training for a 17-mile bike race at Southwick Beach on Lake Ontario in June.  Susan Zabriskie runs the North County Access Cycling Club, which is providing the bikes. 

Recreation like this is the way that you build fitness and it's a way to socialize too.  People with disabilities tend to be separated from the mainstream.  This is a way to bridge the gap between people who are able-bodied and disabled.

It's a wide gap for many soldiers.  And it's increasingly common.  Better flak jackets mean more soldiers survive explosions or gunshots, but lose limbs in the process.

There are a lot of soldiers that are still in denial.

James Sheets is a counselor with the Syracuse Vet Center.  He's also a combat veteran from the first Gulf War, Somalia, and two tours in Afghanistan.

If you come back with a below the knee amputation that's traumatic enough on top of the trauma of witnessing traumatic experiences, carnage and stuff like that it's difficult. It's a difficult readjustment to come back.

Sheets helps soldiers' families and friends identify the signs of post-combat stress.  Thing like night terrors, emotional swings, and withdrawl from everyday life.  He says it's a stigma for some soldiers to admit it.  They're used to being durable and coping with fears on their own.  But activities like the handcycling can provide an entry-point.

If we can get to them now, while the trauma's still fresh in their minds, we won't have the Vietnam era type servicemembers suffering for 20 or 30 years before they finally seek help.

[sound of sheets helping]

Sheets helps Sergeant Dan Swank adjust a bike for his first ride.  Swank sets the cane he uses against a car and sits down.

He was injured in December 2003 when someone threw a grenade in his truck while he was on patrol in Kandahar.

First year I was injured I had so much damage in my leg, I couldn't stand on it, couldn't move anything below the knee and I basically had to make the decision to have my leg amputated, but as soon as I had it done, I knew I made the right decision.  Once I got up on my prosthetic and was walking around probably better than I would have with my own leg.

Swank is moving on.  He's leaving active duty.  He likes to ride horses so he and his wife bought a horse farm in Carthage.  But it's been harder for other guys in his unit.

One of the guys in my squad would call me up all the time while I was at the hospital.  It was eating him up because he kept wondering how come it didn't happen to me, how come it didn't happen to me.

Readjustment counselor James Sheets says that's why an activity like handcycling and the goal of a bike race can be so powerful.  Injured soldiers get outside, get active, and begin repairing their lives.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein in Watertown.

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