Peter Archer Rowing Center in Long Beach, Where Injured Vets Learn to Get Moving Again
|Injured veterans practice adaptive rowing.|
He was walking through the combat zone when he slipped and fell. Sgt. 1st Class Rorey Nichols landed hard on his lower back. He lay there for a while. He was alone, which was bad. But it was daytime, and he thanked God for that. Slipping sounds stupid. Slipping on your way to the chow hole while carrying 75 to 100 pounds of gear, on a so-called road in Afghanistan that's nothing but rocks and sand, sounds stupid and dangerous. He pulled himself up.
Nichols was no stranger to peril. He'd served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and learned that you could be sitting on the toilet when a stray bullet whizzes through the wall and kills you. Or lying in bed -- in which case not even a tattoo of the Archangel Michael can protect you. (Nichols got his on his right forearm when he first enlisted.) A decade and a half in the Army inures you to fear. But when he found out he'd broken his spine, for the first time in his life he was scared. Really scared.
Two years, three ruptured spinal discs and one fractured vertebra later, Nichols is standing barefoot on the dock at Peter Archer Rowing Center in Long Beach. He watches a group of injured soldiers gingerly pick their way onto a long, slim boat. They are learning how to row.
"We were all in pain" in Afghanistan, he says. "We sucked it up and drove it on."
He sucked it up for two weeks after his fall. Then he got slow. He started to worry about not being able to carry a soldier in an emergency. "I was jeopardizing others."
When he finally got checked out, he was told he had a broken back.
"Honestly, I thought they were going to fix me up," he says. It turned out that they couldn't: The injury is permanent. Nichols shrugs. "At least we have this. The vets from Vietnam, they didn't have none of this."
By "this," he means the whole organized recuperation process. When soldiers get injured or wounded on duty, the military sends them to a treatment facility if they need intensive medical care or, if they don't, back home to join a Community Based Warrior Transition Unit, where adaptive sports are part of the drill.
"We don't want soldiers to go back home and plug into an Xbox," says their commander, 1st Lt. Bryan Addington. Rowing, an upper-body sport, is ideal for this particular bunch of soldiers, 80 percent of whom have lower-extremity injuries.
With arms and legs mostly intact, they don't look hurt. Looks, however, are deceptive. "The media doesn't want to interact with people unless they're double amputees playing basketball," Addington continues, sizing up the troops. "But these guys have just as many problems."
Problems like theirs -- orthopedic injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, the traumatic brain injuries that have become the "signature injuries" of the Iraq war -- are invisible to casual observers. It took Nichols' dad, a former Air Force man, to recognize the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in his son: anxiety, exaggerated startle response, aversion to crowds, anger.
Today, the sky is overcast. Of the 40 or so soldiers present, Nichols is the only man who isn't in the water rowing. He's a 35-year-old with the back of a 72-year-old. During practice, when his muscles began to seize up, he had to stop.
Absently, he reaches under his shirt and rubs the scar on his flank. The skin is taut and discolored. He taps the hard plastic neural stimulator implanted beneath it. The stimulator confuses his brain, which keeps the nerves from hurting too much, he says. It's not a cure, nor are the trigger-point injections, epidurals and pain meds he takes daily. The pain is always there. He is well acquainted with its many flavors: sharp, shooting, stabbing, prickling. Like a kick in the back. Like a current buzzing down his leg that he can never turn off. Sometimes only in one leg. Sometimes both.
He gets a lot of groin pain, Nichols says, embarrassed. "Every day is a battle. It's frustrating." His legs are tingling now.