December 25, 2007 – Army infantry Sgt. Wally Fanene’s sister calls him “the face of who came back from the Iraq war,” a reminder of the savagery confronting American troops daily.
Fanene, while on foot patrol in Kirkuk in September, stepped on a fist-size land mine, heard a pinging noise and temporarily went deaf from an explosion that tore off his right arm and leg and seriously injured his remaining limbs.
The 25-year-old Temecula man’s fight today is to rebuild himself as completely as possible, regain as much as he can — to surf, pick a nickel out of his pocket, change his daughter’s diaper, resume his Army career as a weapons instructor.
With the assistance of a new rehabilitation center at Naval Hospital-San Diego, it’s a war Fanene says he intends to win.
The $4.4 million Comprehensive Combat Casualty Care Center — C5, for short — opened in 2006 and provides the latest treatments and prosthetic devices for amputees. The new center means soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel and Marines who live in the West won’t have to move from family and friends to rehabilitate their injuries at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio or Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Fanene’s father, Lynn, calls the center a “godsend” and attributes his son’s progress to being so close to home.
“We’re a hop, skip and a jump away from San Diego,” Lynn Fanene said. “We can provide all the emotional help he needs.”
In the 15 months since opening, the center has evaluated and treated 34 amputees, fitting many with prosthetic limbs, providing them the physical and mental-health therapy that’s part of any successful recovery. It also helps those who can’t return to service to forge civilian careers.
All told, about 725 American military personnel have lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Computer-assisted composite material prosthetics are helping service members learn to walk again, to run, swim, lift weights and play basketball and volleyball.
C-5 staff members say the prosthetics make some amputees resemble 21st century bionic men and women.
Jennifer Town, C-5 program director, said the goal is to return the superbly conditioned young military service members to the active lives they led before their injuries.
“They don’t want people to feel sorry for them,” Town said.
Indeed, Town said, Fanene’s attitude is off the charts and that his dream of continuing in the Army is not just possible, but probable. Many wounded veterans have returned in training roles.
Talk to Fanene and no hint of bitterness or pity enters the conversation.
“I don’t feel upset at all,” Fanene said. “I joined the military knowing full well this was possible. The infantry is the Army. We are the working parts and I wanted that experience.”
Fanene’s wife and family have journeyed with him since his injury.
Lynn, a Temecula police officer and Navy veteran who served in Vietnam, bathed Wally in the early days after he was wounded, and found helping his son to be therapeutic. He said he’d rather struggle to help Wally shower than stand over his casket.
His mother and sisters say they are ecstatic because they can hug Wally and he can return the embrace.
No more deployments in war zones for him, said his sister, D’Lynn Fanene-Gascon.
“There’s no burden for us,” she said. “We’re happy because he’ll be here to make more memories with us as a family. So many others have died. We wanted him to make it home. He’s made it home.”
These days, Fanene and his wife, Scarlet, and 9-month-old daughter Nalia walk the block or so to a neighborhood park in San Diego’s Sierra Mesa neighborhood, where active-duty military personnel reside. He comes home to Temecula every weekend.
“He’s a very positive person who sees the glass as half full,” said Scarlet Fanene, 26, who met her future husband when both were students at Temecula Valley High School.
Terror in Iraq
Fanene drove trucks in Alaska before putting on the uniform.
He completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2005. He and Scarlet married May 20, 2006, right before his outfit, the 25th Infantry Division, deployed to Iraq.
Fanene frequently patrolled in and around Baqouba and Kirkuk, missions that he loved — “I got the chance to play G.I. Joe,” he said. But it left him mentally drained. Ambushes and house searches were particularly stressful, Fanene said, and he often smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes to take the edge off.
On Sept, 8, while on another foot patrol in Kirkuk, Fanene said he spotted someone running from a house. He knelt on a landmine known as a “toe popper,” the kind designed to maim. It detonated when he stepped off the pressure-sensitive device.
Fanene said he never lost consciousness. He looked down, saw his left leg shredded and the right one gone. The blast blew off part of his left pinky and left him with ugly purple, raised scars on his left leg and arm.
Phantom pain persists, like needles being shoved into his missing limbs. He quit taking the powerful painkillers, instead preferring to “gut out” the hurt rather than risk addiction.
Doctors operated in Iraq, Germany and at Walter Reed. On Oct. 1, three weeks after he was wounded, Fanene took his first steps on a prosthetic leg.
His gait has improved since then.
Fanene wears his leg up to six hours at a time, far more than the two hours in the weeks after receiving the injuries. He can shave and hold a fork and brush his teeth with his prosthetic arm, all abilities he had to re-acquire. His prosthetic leg includes a “power knee” that can swing freely or provide more resistance, depending on whether Fanene is walking up a hill or running. Sensors in the knee let orthopedic specialists know via computer whether it is operating at maximum efficiency.
Temecula residents raised $40,000 for a new, specially adapted Chevy Tahoe for him to tool around town in. He received it Monday.
In a year, he hopes to return to surfing at Hawaii’s North Shore, just like he used to when he was a kid.