‘Wounded warrior’ reaches out to help other amputees

Courier Post/ NJ

Everything went right east of Tikrit on Nov. 15, 2004. At least that’s the way 1st Lt. Ed Salau sees it, though that was the day he lost his left leg.

As platoon leader, he had 20 of his guys and two Bradley Fighting Vehicles out to do a reconnaissance patrol of a route that afternoon because arms and insurgents were coming into the area. An Operation Iraqi Freedom offensive to find insurgents had been launched just south of them in Samarra.

“It was what I like to call routine patrol,” recalled Salau, now 35. “We’d been there 10 months. We were not likely going to see something new.”

They did. An ambush.

That was the day Salau’s new life began. Salau now sees himself as part of a new demographic — veteran amputees who may have died in earlier wars but instead were saved by an expert, efficient military medical system on the battlefield and off. More than 50 percent of injuries suffered by those on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan are due to high-energy explosions and blasts such as the one Salau faced, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

The U.S. Air Force has flown more than 31,000 troops in the war on terror back to the U.S. for treatment, Air Force Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. reported at the recent State of the Military Health System 2006 Annual Conference.

David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the system has produced the lowest loss among wounded that the country has ever seen.

Salau is grateful that he survived but he is now living a life that is different and difficult. This father of two decided to meet this challenge head-on — he’s a one-legged skier, a runner and a walking inspiration.

He works full time for the Wounded Warrior Project, which meets up with wounded soldiers right from the beginning, at their bedsides, and helps them through their rehabilitation and beyond.

If Salau is concerned with anything, it’s his men. All soldiers are in war together, he said. They have the same mission, the same purpose. They move forward together on the battlefield. They move forward together to accomplish a task. They move forward together in physical therapy. Nothing’s changed.

“Guys like me went to war and got wounded with a life-altering injury,” Salau said. “Whether we left with a traumatic brain injury, a spinal cord injury or amputation, we’re a demographic by ourselves now. We’re at the prime of our lives, a good military age. We’re athletically fit. We’re carrying around 100 pounds on our back in 100-degree heat and all of a sudden struck down flat on our backs.

“Guys like me need some help. I’m a guy that can help. So I do.”

His experience has him looking to the future in ways he would not have imagined. Soon Salau will be visiting the bedsides of wounded soldiers at Fort Dix. For him it will be like coming home. He grew up in Hillside and his father, Edwin Salau Sr., a Vietnam veteran, lives in Hope, Warren County. The younger Salau’s experience, a respectful embrace by the American public, moves the father profoundly.

The ambush

After three hours of patrol that day in November 2004, Salau’s Bradley, the lead vehicle, was on its way back. It proceeded around a curve where there were two sand berms, one on each side of the road.

“I noticed the one on the left first and I thought if I was going to set up an ambush, that’s where I would be sitting right now, thinking maybe later that night when we came back, that’s where we’d sit,” Salau said. “As soon as I looked to the left, the ambush was launched from the right. The insurgents fired two rocket-propelled grenades at my vehicle. They hit simultaneously, the best I can figure. Didn’t see the launch. All I heard was the bang.”

The Bradley’s reactive armor repelled one with another explosion. The second pierced the crease between the turret and the hull.

Salau was knocked back into his seat. He looked at Sgt. Andy Butterworth, his gunner, sitting next to him. Butterworth couldn’t make the turret spin to return fire. Salau couldn’t get on the radio to warn the second Bradley. The explosion had shut down all electrical systems.

The driver got the Bradley out of the kill zone and when Salau and Butterworth felt it stop they jumped out of the turret. There were gunshots and Salau went for the rifle he had tied off on top of the turret.

“At that moment my left leg flopped off and landed in my lap,” he recalled. “It was attached by an artery or a tendon or something. I grabbed my leg. I slid off the front of the track, got the driver’s attention. Driver cracked the lid, gave me a thumbs up that he was OK. I rolled off the front of the vehicle.”

The radio operator threw his belt to Salau, who used it to start his tourniquet before finishing the fight. Their medic tended to Salau and Butterworth, whose right leg was blown off and bleeding badly. In 20 minutes an ambulance, complete with battalion surgeon, was working on the two of them and on its way to the hospital.

“The next night we were in Germany,” Salau recalled. “Night after that we were in D.C.”

On the slopes

Fast forward to Wintergreen, Va., a ski resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains earlier this month. It’s 18 degrees early on a Saturday morning. The sun shines from a crisp blue sky and the lieutenant and his gunner stand next to each other, taking off their prostheses at the top of a 3,200-foot mountain.

They are ready to ski as part of a fundraising Mardi Gras event for Wintergreen’s adaptive ski program, one of a half-dozen places in the country where wounded warriors, and anyone with a disability, can learn the sport. Though he’s only been skiing for a year, Salau is now an instructor.

“Butter, what do you say we try that synchronized skiing event?” Salau asked. “We’ll tie our stumps together and go down the mountain.”

“Absolutely,” Butterworth answered. “Planning and preparing, they’re overrated, anyway.”

The two friends smile. They enjoy these outings and each other, and living life to the utmost with the bodies they have left.

“Skiing taught me that,” Salau said. “The thing I like about skiing is this: Hey, I’ve got one leg and two good arms. I need all three of those things to make skiing happen for me. No one skis for me.

“It’s not like being in a wheelchair and someone can push me. I remember my son, God bless him. When I first got wounded we’d get out of the hospital and take a ride to the mall. He’d say, “Dad, you need me to push ya? Dad, you want me to push ya?’ I’d say, “No, son, thanks.’ In skiing that’s not an option. It’s get your own skis, get your poles, follow me. Hey, live life. We can have a pity party or we can be productive. Be productive.”

Salau is not about to live his life on his back, he says. Or in a wheelchair.

He was in the Marine Corps for 12 years until 2000, the year he joined the North Carolina Army National Guard and started a civilian life teaching information technology and business courses. He had earned his master’s degree while a Marine and married and had two children.

The friendly competition between him and Butterworth at Walter Reed Army Medical Center got them out in record time. All the way they taunted and encouraged each other with who was finished with his operations first and who went off the morphine drip first.

“Everything was a competition,” Salau laughed.

After 13 operations — some to position his femur for his new prosthesis but most to cut out Acinetobacter baumannii, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria common in Iraq — Salau was released in two weeks. For the next six months he was an outpatient, getting used to having one leg made of carbon fiber, aluminum and titanium and to plugging it in every night to recharge the battery.

He learned to walk, and then to run, and then — for the first time in his life — to ski. Not that learning any of it was easy. His ski instructor had to pick him up all day during the first lesson and he was ready to give up and try something else when he looked down from the ski lift and saw a blind skier who was making his way down the hill only with the verbal cues of his guide.

“The guy couldn’t see the hill!” Salau said. “I felt like a punk. I could see the hill. I could see all the obstacles. I didn’t want to go down like that so I stuck with it. The next day I continued to learn it. I was able to stop and turn and link turns and finally get it. It was just a matter of time. That’s all it was. Once I realized that, I decided to keep doing it and got better at it.

“Now I enjoy it more than anything. My kids do it with me.”

A matter of attitude

That’s the attitude he exudes on the slopes when he walks up to children with disabilities learning to ski.

“Hey, what’s your name?” he says. “You look good.” Their little faces light up as they look into his face. They know he’s a wounded warrior. The Wintergreen Adaptive Skiing openly welcomes and invites amputee veterans on their public announcement system.

That’s the attitude Salau also took to Walter Reed the day before to talk to new amputees recently flown in from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He goes there and he remembers what it was like for him only 14 months ago.

“I’m mostly concerned with the 19-year-old kid who married his high school sweetheart two weeks before he went to war,” Salau said. “Now he’s missing both his legs. Oh, by the way, his baby’s on the way, and now what? Somebody has to make sure that he understands he can go to college and still get paid, that he can better himself to better his family down the road, that he can be a productive citizen.”

The Wounded Warrior Project was started three years ago by John Melia, a Marine injured in a helicopter crash off the coast of Somalia over the Red Sea in March 1992. He was evacuated to the states with only the clothes on his back and remembers having to ask everybody for everything, even shaving cream, and feeling lost.

The project’s first mission was to provide each wounded soldier who arrived stateside with a backpack filled with socks, underwear, phone calling cards, a CD player, shorts, a T-shirt and a sweat shirt.

“The backpack says Wounded Warrior Project on it,” Melia explained. “These guys are not with their units anymore, and seeing the words makes them realize they’re still appreciated and loved by the American people. That means something.”

From there, the project grew into the personal peer and advocacy organization it is today.

Back in time

When Salau’s father even contemplates the Wounded Warrior Project, his eyes well. He was a Marine, too, from 1959 through 1971. He served in Vietnam, on and off, from 1966 through 1969.

“What my son and the rest of the troops are getting now is deserved and I’m naturally proud of what my son and the other troops are doing,” he said. “But I also have a deep sense of pride and appreciation for the people supporting this Wounded Warrior Project. It’s tremendous how they’re giving of themselves. It’s so very necessary that these folks realize that somebody gives a damn.”

Things were different in his day when, he said, the troops were demonized. He said he treasures but one small moment of support. He arrived home with four other soldiers at Kennedy Airport at 6 a.m. on Dec. 23, 1966. Everything they owned was in their pockets and they flagged down the only cab they could find. The passenger door was tied shut because it had just been hit by a bus.

“It was the driver’s last day to make tips, he told us,” Salau recalled. “Then he would be out of business, out of commission.”

When the taxi reached the Port Authority, it had started to snow and they all poured out of the vehicle and dug into their pockets. Salau asked what the fare was.

“Then the driver gave me a $5 bill. He said, “Sarge, here, buy your guys coffee and doughnuts when you get inside.’ He wouldn’t take any money,” Salau recalled. “I remember that all my life. I can’t forget it. Support is important.”

Emotional help

That the younger Salau won that fight near Tikrit helps his emotional healing. The enemy was just doing its job, he said.

He also feels good about his involvement in the war. If the purpose of the war is to return Iraq to the Iraqis, then he did his part, he said. Iraqi security forces thrived under his tutelage and that of his men and, in the 10 months he was in Iraq, he saw them develop from a ragtag bunch to a lethal combat force. He even heard that in January 2005 the key to the base was handed over to the battalion commander of the Iraqi security forces.

“It’s their base now,” he said, “so they’re doing something right.”

But trauma is trauma and one downside to his experience is that he cannot get reasonable access to treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If I’m going to meet for therapy to help cope with my stress, or if I’ve got PTSD and I need therapy to treat the disorder, I shouldn’t have to drive 2 1/2 hours or an hour-and-a-half, which is what I’m required to do, to sit in that room with the provider,” he said. “Those are my options. I can either drive an hour-and-a-half to the Vets Center at Greenville, North Carolina, or 2 1/2 hours to the VA medical center in Durham, North Carolina. I’ve got to drive five hours total to sit for an hour and be treated.”

He has made the trip to Durham and had good counseling when he has, but, with his job, he cannot do so regularly, especially during working hours. What he wants is a contracted psychiatrist in his community.

“They contract out my prosthetics works,” he said. “Why can’t they contract out my brain work?”

For the time being, he talks to his pastor and appreciates the chance to help others. He also has a personal ritual he likes to follow.

Every morning he puts on his prosthetic leg and, in the 15 to 20 seconds it takes to do that, he thanks God he’s alive. He patted his leg as he spoke. Every morning, he said, the first step he takes is with a positive thought.

Reach Lorraine Ash at (973) 428-6660 or lvash@gannett.com.

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