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Nov. 30, 2022

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Soldier returns to Iraq with a prosthetic leg

In modern military, amputees have proved they can handle fire

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published:

About 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq after President Obama declared an end to U.S. combat operations less than a month ago.

When a Vancouver soldier returns to Iraq for his second deployment, he will have a couple of extra legs strapped to his rucksack.

Sgt. Matthew Braddock, 29, lost his left leg to a roadside bomb five years ago. Now he’s preparing to become one of the few combat-ready amputees in Iraq.

Braddock is in Mississippi, where his Oregon Army National Guard unit is training at Camp Shelby. In November, they’ll head for Iraq.

Braddock’s redeployment might be a surprise to some people, but not to his mother.

About 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq after President Obama declared an end to U.S. combat operations less than a month ago.

“I don’t think there was ever a question,” Rhetta Drennan said.

The reaction for any of these wounded soldiers, she said, is “Put a Band-Aid on it and send me back.”

Losing a limb used to mean a quick return to civilian life. An Associated Press story three years ago examined the changing role of military amputees. It noted that, “Previously, a soldier who lost a limb almost automatically received a quick discharge, a disability check and an appointment with the Veterans Administration.

“But since the start of the Iraq War, the military has begun holding on to amputees, treating them in rehab programs and promising to help them return to active duty if that is what they want.”

And that’s what Braddock wanted, his mother said. It was the start of quite a challenge.

“Then they go through a period of, ‘Can I do that?’ That’s hard,” Drennan said. “For a good portion of the recovery, he’s immobile, depending on a wheelchair to get around. Another thing that happens, they all hate that wheelchair. It’s their own personal demon they have to escape.”

The soldier went through a rehabilitation program at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. It took him about three months to start walking; he was able to walk for long stretches after about eight months.

In an interview for an Oregon National Guard story, Braddock said, “I pushed a little farther than the physical therapist wanted me to do.”

Before being approved for potentially hazardous duty, soldiers who have lost limbs must prove they can do the job without putting themselves or others at risk.

Having passed muster, Braddock will deploy to Iraq with an Oregon-based unit that’s attached to the Idaho Army National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team.

The 2000 graduate of Vancouver’s Lewis and Clark High School will be a truck commander during his unit’s 10-month deployment.

Just a hair off

That was Braddock’s job in 2005. He’d been in Iraq for about three months, when his truck was part of a convoy through Kirkuk.

“I got blown up by an anti-tank mine,” said Braddock. “I was in the second truck in the convoy, and thought I was in the same tire tread as the truck in front of me, but I was a hair off.

“When I first got blown up, it was like someone had taken a flash and I just saw dirt and rocks and was like, ‘(Deleted!) What happened?!’ I somehow ended up in my steering wheel, and my gunner came down and did first aid on me,” Braddock told Pfc. Philip Steiner of the Oregon National Guard.

“After the gunner did first aid, I was transported back to the (forward operating base) in 13 minutes.”

While the Fruit Valley resident has a distinctive story, “he wouldn’t want a big deal made of an amputee going back to war,” Drennan said. “He would certainly want to make sure all the other people in this deployment are recognized.

“And there are two other people in his truck at all times, including a brand-new daddy,” she said.

There is a twist to the new mission, by the way. This trip to Iraq isn’t considered combat duty. President Obama declared an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq less than a month ago.

Soldiers doing the same jobs in Afghanistan are considered combat troops, she said.

After his last tour, Braddock indicated that he isn’t worried about the upcoming 10-month deployment.

“I think I’ll react fine to whatever happens,” Braddock told Steiner. “I’ve already been blown up once, so I think I have all my bad luck out of the way.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558 or tom.vogt@columbian.com.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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