Capt. David Rozelle, commander of a U.S. Army cavalry troop, lost his right foot when his Humvee ran over a mine in Hit, Iraq, in 2003.
Fitted with a prosthetic leg, he was swimming, running and skiing before a year was out. Soon he was even competing in triathlons. Restored to command of a cavalry troop, Rozelle will return to Iraq next month, becoming the first battlefield soldier to undergo an amputation and return to the same battlefield.
Rozelle’s book, Back in Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith, and Fortitude, published by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS, will be out this week. HUMAN EVENTS Editor Terence P. Jeffrey spoke with Rozelle early this month.
Have you noticed much of a contrast between your personal experience in Iraq and the attitude of the U.S. forces you served with there, and the way the war and the troops are sometime portrayed in the news media here at home?
Rozelle: Yeah. Unfortunately, there was about a year there where, I think, the political situation in the United States, specifically the election, affected how America saw the war, because of the way that the media treated it. In order to make our President look less strong, they painted a drab picture of Iraq. And since the election, I have seen a pretty good rebound. So, that’s a clear indicator to me, over the last 18 months, of just how troubling our events in Iraq have been portrayed. Because these guys are–I would get e-mails from the front and letters from my friends who are fighting–and they had just these great stories and great things to say about what is occurring in Iraq, and then you turn on the news and it’s just this dire situation.
You believe that the coverage has gotten better since the election?
Oh yeah. It has.
So, you actually believe that before the election some of the media were painting a bleaker picture of Iraq than reality warranted because they wanted to affect the outcome of the election?
Without a doubt.
Where exactly did you serve in Iraq, and what was your mission there?
I was in the Al Anbar Province, which is western-central Iraq, just north of the Ar-Ramadi, Fallujah area, still in the northwestern corner of the Sunni triangle.
So you were in the toughest part of the country?
Without a doubt.
And what was your mission there?
I was the de facto sheriff for a region, which included a Ba’ath Party headquarters, called Hit, Iraq, H-I-T [pronounced ‘heat’], of which I was the lawman, kind of the lone lawman, because there was not quite as much interest from the local police, initially, until I was able to get rid of [fire] all them and start over again.
You think you made progress when you were there toward that goal?
Tremendous. Within weeks we had schools open again. We had electricity and water within the first week back up. Markets and commerce began almost immediately. Probably within the first two weeks we were able to settle all the debts, get money back in the banks, and get things going again.
And the majority of the people there wanted to get on with life, and get things back to normal, and establish a peaceful state of existence?
Yeah, the majority. The problem was being in a Ba’ath Party-headquarters town like I was, a regional headquarters–the next higher headquarters was Ar-Ramadi, that was where they got their orders from, and then the next higher was Baghdad–they were pretty high on the food chain. So, there were a large number of folks that I put out of work pretty quick. And they weren’t real happy.
This would really be right in the core of the area where there were people who had owed their livelihoods and their prestige and so forth to the Saddam regime?
Yeah. They didn’t work, they just lived off their, I called it a welfare system, they didn’t like that expression. But they lived off their monthly payments, of just keeping law and order in their town. In Hit and that surrounding area really the only thing there was was a cement factory, and they made bricks in town out of stone from the desert. Really, those were the only two manufacturers in the whole region, so a lot of people were just living off the Ba’ath Party welfare.
Have you heard how the elections went there, or whether people voted there, and how things have gone since you have been back?
I actually haven’t seen a demographic breakdown of voting, that’s maybe because I haven’t done very good research. No, I haven’t. I’d like to see that, though.
How many surgeries have you had to go through to heal your injuries and then prepare your leg for prosthesis?
Originally they did a disarticulation of the foot, which was the initial amputation in Baghdad. That didn’t involve any hacksaws or anything, they just conducted a disarticulation, they took all the meat and ligament and bone out from my ankle joint. There were a total of eight surgeries, the last being the final revision, because it looked like the meat that was left inside my stump was going to keep. So, that actually worked to my advantage because I could have had many more surgeries. I just was a good healer, and I didn’t have too much infection or anything that they had to cut out. I have known guys who have had 16 surgeries because of burns and other things, having trouble with skin grafts. I had a lot of good skin left for the surgeries. So, it ended up being a fairly easy amputation in a lot of ways–in that I only had eight surgeries.
At some point you came back to Walter Reed Hospital here in Washington, D.C., and were treated there. How do you feel about the general caliber and quality of the treatment that you were given by the U.S. Army medical people?
It is without a doubt the best treatment in the country. When I went through, of course, I think I was No. 10 of amputees from OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom]–between Afghanistan and Iraq, I was No. 10–so they were still getting their skills down with me, but the treatment facility there is world-renowned. That’s the place to go, that’s the place to be, and that’s why I’m thrilled after this deployment to go and to work there as a program manager.
In your book you say that the surgeon who actually amputated your foot in the field told you that you would be running within a year.
He really gave me the option. He said you have the opportunity for me to try to put something back together. Because my foot–as some people imagine–wasn’t clean blown off. That obviously would have been even more traumatic. But it was certainly destroyed. There weren’t any existing bones and tendons left that were usable. So, if he had put something together, it would have relied on my staying off it for a very long time and letting those crushed bones kind of merge and heal into a sort of clubbed foot. I never would have use of my toes. I would literally just walk on a clubbed foot. There’s a stigmatism–this is why they give you the choice–that people have about having something cut off their body.
You had to make the choice right there in the field?
Right then. I mean it’s not like a mole. It was my foot. And he made it easy for me with the words, ‘We can cut it off now, and you can be running in a year. Or we can give you a clubbed foot and you may never walk again, and will have to eventually probably want to cut it off anyway.’
But that sounds like such a remarkable goal to go from having a foot that needs to be amputated near a battlefield in Iraq to being able to run in one year. Did you actually achieve that goal?
About six months ahead of schedule, yes.
Six months later, you were running?
Were you sent back to Iraq?
I’m headed back in a month.
In one month’s time you will back in Iraq in command of a Cavalry unit?
Are you excited about that?
Was it an easy decision for you to continue in the Army and continue in a Cavalry command?
That’s several fold, in the sense that, certainly, I wanted to prove myself able to go back and serve in the Army and to be an example to my fellow soldiers who are also coming back injured. But I wasn’t sure if, one, the Army would want me, because they were still deciding their policy on amputees in the military service.
Has anybody ever done this before?
Not in the same fashion that I am. There have been those who have been kept on active duty and they go into sort of lighter duty for a couple of years and then eventually have returned to higher levels of command. But I will be the first battlefield soldier to have been injured, become an amputee, and then return to the same battlefield.
In your book, you describe in this Iraqi town of Hit quite intense and harrowing battle scenes. You are in fact going back into the same type of command where you could end up in the same sort of situation, right?
Somewhat. I have a different sort of Cavalry troop, but I still will be in harm’s way. Some of the missions I had in Iraq, I probably will not repeat. It’s less likely I will do things like raids and assaults, but I will still conduct tactical missions in Iraq. So, there’s still danger.
You write about a group called DSUSA. What is that and how did you become involved with it?
Disabled Sports USA was the first organization I became involved with. They were a group of Vietnam veterans, who were amputees, who created this organization during Vietnam. . . . . They have gone to their old mission of taking care of soldiers. They were the first group I became involved in in order to both get myself back on two feet to do things like skiing and to have the courage to do triathlons, and then also now to be a spokesperson for them and help other guys get back on their feet.
They sponsor disabled servicemen in teaching them how to do things like skiing and being involved in that sort of athletic activity?
In your book, you describe meeting President Bush in Colorado, and he invited you to come jog with him at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
Did you get to do that yet?
The challenge is still out there. I am just waiting on the phone call.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I think the spirit of the book, what I want people to take away from the book, is probably the most important thing. And that is not a celebration of David Rozelle necessarily, but to really understand the modern American soldier. We are a generation of people who have come back from this war, and although injured, these young kids have an incredible attitude. Even today, they continue to say, yeah, I would go back to be with my men in a heartbeat. Just give me a prosthetic leg and let me go. That is just an incredible spirit. Patriotism is not dead in our country. These brave men and women show that every day.
To purchase Back in Action, click HERE.