Sgt. Brandon Deaton: Operation Proper Exit

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By Chelan M. Keeter

Most of the soldiers posted at Fort Drum, New York, are prepared for two certainties in their military careers: heavy New York snow and a steady deployment cycle. A year abroad followed by a year at home has been the "drum beat" for the four brigades in this army community nestled in the North Country. Many of the soldiers are light-infantrymen, meaning that they spend their time in the cities of Iraq or Afghanistan, on the ground, with the locals. On foot or in Humvees, they put their lives at risk every time they "leave the wire."

Sergeant Brandon Deaton was 19 when he deployed to Iraq in August 2006. He entered the army as a private but made specialist quickly. The change in rank put him in charge of a small group of men and seemingly mundane chores, including cleaning trucks or ensuring a full count of the soldiers' sensitive equipment, such as night-vision devices. On the surface, these tasks are fairly routine, but attention to detail can have a big impact when soldiers are in a war zone.

Sgt. Brandon Deaton shoots a Barrett .50 cal sniper rifle.

The men in Deaton's platoon formed a tight-knit group. He says, "We all worked out together, ate chow together, used the phones together." Deaton speaks solemnly about the first attack in which he lost friends. On Christmas Day 2006, Deaton's team was surveying an Iraqi road after spotting a suspicious area. From a remote location, a local was watching the team and detonated a homemade explosive, killing one American soldier and injuring two others. "This was the first time [during the deployment] one of our guys got hurt," Deaton states. "[But] you really can't think about it because you have other missions to do. You just have to deal with it. After someone gets hurt or killed, there is a lot of anger." Following the incident, they were taken out of sector for 48 hours "so they didn't do anything stupid," Deaton says. This was unique, he continues, because they had been working a seven-day, around-the-clock workweek for their entire deployment.

Reacting to the danger of a variety of explosive devices became a daily threat to Deaton and his platoon, he recalls. On March 24, 2007, Deaton was supposed to ride in the turret of his Humvee but decided to take the place of a less experienced soldier and drive instead. That decision may have saved his life. When the caravan of Humvees in front of his suddenly swerved away from a "pothole," Deaton also reacted quickly. Even though there was no direct contact with the IED, the explosive was agitated by the weight of the trucks and detonated, leaving Deaton's leg shattered; however, no one else in the vehicle was injured. "I woke up screaming, and guys were working on me. They cut off all my body armor and put a tourniquet above my knee." Knowing that tourniquet placement often signifies the location of a limb amputation, Deaton knew that his condition was not good. His men put him on a stretcher and tied it to the hood of the Humvee in order to make the mile-long drive back to the base, where he was medevaced out of the country. "During the drive, I was freaking out because I thought we were going to get blown up again. They got me back to patrol base and finally gave me some morphine," Deaton remembers.

Rehabilitation

Deaton was flown from Baghdad to Iraq's Balad Air Force Base (AFB) to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC), Germany. From there, he was sent to Womack Army Medical Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and finally reached Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), Washington DC, by ambulance on April 4. Despite his initial fears, surgeons did not amputate Deaton's leg. In an attempt to salvage the leg, Deaton underwent more than 60 surgeries on an every-other-day rotation of rest and surgery for the next several months. This cycle went on until August, when Deaton was faced with yet another decision. His leg was not healing properly, and the pain would not subside, so his surgeons said they could either fuse everything in the leg or amputate his leg below the knee.

While wrestling with his decision, his eyes were opened to the freedom that a prosthetic limb could offer when he observed a man wearing a prosthetic leg running on a track at Walter Reed. Seeing what was possible made the decision easier because if surgeons had fused his leg, Deaton says, "I would have to walk with a cane or crutches for the rest of my life. I said, 'I'm not doing that!'" After the transtibial amputation, Deaton faced a long road to recovery. At one point during his outpatient therapy, he was on 22 different medications, half of which were for pain. "I couldn't really function," Deaton says. "Now I am on three." He missed a lot of his medical appointments because of difficulty with short-term-memory loss. "I had to have someone with me to help me with things," Deaton says. "They finally got me a PDA to help me remember. My memory has gotten better with time, but I still have some issues."

Being a wounded warrior, Deaton's prosthetic needs have been well-addressed. He has six different prosthetic legs, one of which has a camouflage pattern to match his uniform. The one he wears for his physical fitness training every morning is the Renegade by Ossur, Reykjavik, Iceland. He jokes that owning a prosthesis for each pair of shoes has cut the time it takes to change from running shoes to work boots from "15 minutes to 15 seconds."

Operation Proper Exit

While physical rehabilitation can help to rebuild lost strength and function, it does not address the full spectrum of psychological stress in a wounded soldier's life. Until soldiers are able to address both mind and body issues, their reintegration into society remains incomplete. The closure that some of these men craved came in September 2009. Deaton and five other men were given a historic opportunity to revisit the site of their injuries and have a proper exit. This pilot program was implemented by the Troops First Foundation, and the United Service Organization (USO).

"We went around to where each of us had been injured," Deaton says. "Some of the places we couldn't land, like my old sector, because it had been turned over to the Iraqi Army. So, we just did a fly-by over it in Blackhawks."

The trip also allowed the soldiers to see the progress that had been made since they left. Bases that were once just tents were now 25 square miles of development, with many modern-American conveniences and amenities. Deaton speaks of how meaningful it was to both the soldiers and the hospital personnel when they visited the Casualty Support Hospital (CSH), the junction point where all wounded soldiers are stabilized before being flown to Germany. "We were able to talk to some of the people who work in the CSH and thank them for what they do. And it was good for them because once they send people out, they don't get to see how the patients recover." A group of Iraqis in Ramadi prepared a feast, and the American soldiers were able to talk with the sheik of the province about how life for the locals had changed. The Americans were also given a demonstration by the Iraqi Army and allowed to do some practice shooting with a Special Forces Unit. "I know [the trip] helped me," Deaton says.

Life Now

"Really, one of the only things that bothers me now is Christmas," Deaton confesses when asked if he had found closure with his time in Iraq and his injuries. Deaton continues to make strides in his recovery process. He is still an active-duty soldier and is expected to train with his company and keep normal work hours. His medical profile states that he is to wear his leg for 4-6 hour periods with frequent rest periods; however, this is not realistic on those days when he is required to be on his feet for up to 18 hours. "I don't like walking with my crutches or using a wheelchair," he says, but those decisions leave him with painful bruising. Phantom pains are still frequent, with the sensations ranging from an inconvenient itch to episodes when it feels as if his leg has been blown off again. "It hurts so badly I can't even move," Deaton says. Athletically, Deaton is still making progress. He is able to run one and a half miles, and his weight regimen is focused on strengthening his core and quadriceps muscles in order to alleviate lower-back pain.

Deaton admits that he is still bothered by the public's reaction to his prosthesis. "I wish people would just come over and ask about it [instead of staring]," he says, sighing. If they took the time to listen to his story, they would hear of a young man who, like thousands of other wounded soldiers, left Iraq on a stretcher, and who is one of the few who has had the opportunity to return to the site of his injuries. This time, however, he was able to make a proper exit and walk away.

Chelan M. Keeter, BSE, CNA, is an engineer for the New York Department of Transportation. She is currently pursuing a nursing degree.