WASHINGTON POST — No one questions Sgt. Bryan Anderson’s sacrifice. He holds the gruesome honor of being one of the war’s five triple amputees. Bryan, 25, lost both legs and his left arm when a roadside bomb exploded next to the Humvee he was driving with the 411th Military Police Company. Modern medicine saved him and now he’s the pride of the prosthetics team at Walter Reed. Tenacious and wisecracking, he wrote “[Expletive] Iraq” on his left leg socket.
Amputees are the first to receive celebrity visitors, job offers and extravagant trips, but Bryan is in a league of his own. Johnny Depp’s people want to hook up in London or Paris. The actor Gary Sinise, who played an angry Vietnam amputee in “Forrest Gump,” sends his regards. And Esquire magazine is setting up a photo shoot.
Bryan’s room at Mologne House is stuffed with gifts from corporate America and private citizens: $350 Bose noise-canceling headphones, nearly a thousand DVDs sent by well-wishers and quilts made by church grannies. The door prizes of war. Two flesh-colored legs are stacked on the floor. A computerized hand sprouting blond hair is on the table.
One Saturday afternoon, Bryan is on his bed downloading music. Without his prosthetics, he weighs less than 100 pounds. “Mom, what time is our plane?” he asks his mother, Janet Waswo, who lives in the room with him. A movie company is flying them to Boston for the premiere of a documentary about amputee hand-cyclers in which Bryan appears.
Representing the indomitable spirit of the American warrior sometimes becomes too much, and Bryan turns off his phone.
Perks and stardom do not come to every amputee. Sgt. David Thomas, a gunner with the Tennessee National Guard, spent his first three months at Walter Reed with no decent clothes; medics in Samarra had cut off his uniform. Heavily drugged, missing one leg and suffering from traumatic brain injury, David, 42, was finally told by a physical therapist to go to the Red Cross office, where he was given a T-shirt and sweat pants. He was awarded a Purple Heart but had no underwear.
David tangled with Walter Reed’s image machine when he wanted to attend a ceremony for a fellow amputee, a Mexican national who was being granted U.S. citizenship by President Bush. A case worker quizzed him about what he would wear. It was summer, so David said shorts. The case manager said the media would be there and shorts were not advisable because the amputees would be seated in the front row.
” ‘Are you telling me that I can’t go to the ceremony ’cause I’m an amputee?’ ” David recalled asking. “She said, ‘No, I’m saying you need to wear pants.’ ”
David told the case worker, “I’m not ashamed of what I did, and y’all shouldn’t be neither.” When the guest list came out for the ceremony, his name was not on it.