A Soldier's Battle Back: Noberto Lara

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2005 

Norberto Lara left his tattoo behind in Iraq.

A rocket-propelled grenade erased it, along with his entire right arm. It happened before dawn, in one previously unimaginable moment in June. The traumatic shoulder amputation was complete and irrevocable, and so was Lara's surprise.

"I never thought I would lose an arm," Lara said.

Both war and its aftermath can confound expectations. So here the graduate of Visalia's Sequoia High School is: rebuilding his unanticipated new life at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Always lean, the 31-year-old Army staff sergeant is down to about 125 pounds. Five milligrams of methadone daily help keep the pain at bay, but he still feels his phantom arm. One singed lung is still recovering from the intolerable heat of the grenade blast. Among the roughly 11,000 Americans wounded or injured in Iraq, Lara is in relatively small company. As of last week, he was one of 195 amputee patients treated at Walter Reed since the war began two years ago.

Some aspects of Lara's old life are gone forever. He was, after all, right-handed. Some unexpected grace notes have come and gone, like his appearance with first lady Laura Bush at this year's State of the Union speech. Better yet, some sense of normalcy is returning.

He's running, once more, and fully intends to enter the Army 10-Miler in Washington this October. He's learning to use a prosthetic arm. He's training with the Department of Veterans Affairs. By June, he expects to be a working civilian for the first time in 10 years.

And his missing tattoo? Lara is getting that replaced, inked onto the flesh-emulating silicon of his prosthetic arm. "Erminia," it will say, "1939-2003." It will look unnervingly real, much like the prosthetic itself.

"My goal," Lara said, "is for when I'm walking down the street, no one will be able to tell the difference."

Erminia was his mother. Friends knew her as Minnie Pallanes. Lara got his original tattoo two days after she passed away from cancer in mid-August 2003. The last two weeks she was alive, he spent almost every waking minute with her.

"I would look at my tattoo," Lara said, "and remember her. I can't wait to see it on my prosthetic."

A single mother after her husband died, Erminia Pallanes saw her son through Goshen Elementary School and Divisadero Junior High School. She saw him through high school, his first marriage to Dannelle and the birth of his two children, Eibren and Mia.

She was there through his subsequent divorce and his January 1995 Army enlistment, and through his second marriage in 1997 to a fellow soldier named Starlyn.

Pallanes was gone, though, by the time Lara shipped out for Iraq last March with the 293rd Military Police Company. Once she passed away, he volunteered for the next military police unit bound for the war zone. He ended up attached to the 3rd Infantry Division, learning what he could from those who had already been to Iraq.

"They said it was like the Wild West," Lara recalled.

They were right.

Gunfire shattered the nights. Mortar attacks were common.

Explosives peppered the supply convoys.

Lara was based in an Iraqi police station in Baqouba, about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. The military police patrolled supply routes and the local neighborhood. Each day could bring more of the same, or something altogether different.

Sometime around 4 in the morning on June 18, Lara's team was out on the streets. A curfew was in place, and it seemed quiet. Lara was sitting in the right front seat of his armored Humvee.

His lieutenant, a red-haired former member of the West Point women's bas-ketball team named Dawn Halfaker, was behind him. Halfaker had quick hands. Once, as a West Point senior, she snagged seven steals and scored 21 points against Bucknell.

They had no warning. Simply: Before, then After.

"I saw this flash, and I heard this boom, and then everything started moving in slow motion," Lara said.

The rocket-propelled grenade, 4 brute pounds traveling up to 965 feet per second, sliced off Lara's arm at the shoulder even before it exploded. He didn't know that at first. He just knew he wanted to open the Humvee door, but something wasn't working right when he tried.

Then he couldn't breathe.

In the back, Halfaker was screaming to get back to the station.

The grenade had exploded, shredding flesh. She would, in time, awaken in a hospital to learn her own right arm had been amputated.

The driver raced the Humvee back to the police station in about four minutes, while Lara tried to hang on.

"I remember thinking I was never going to get to hug my kids and tell them that I love them again," Lara said. "I was really scared that I was going to die because I thought that not being able to breathe was a sign I wasn't going to make it."

An oxygen mask passed over his face. Fade to black.

At a 1st Infantry Division base near the Iranian border, Staff Sgt. Starlyn Lara -- Norberto Lara's wife -- was settling into her own job several hours later that same day. Starlyn is an administrative specialist.

That morning, she had fired up her computer to examine the latest list of U.S. wounded.

"I was scrolling down the list, and there his name was," Starlyn Lara re-called. "There was a good 45 seconds when I was just in shock."

It was a fluke, not how the Army wanted the notification to happen.

Still, she wouldn't see her husband until July as he was passed up through the chain of medical care. In the meantime, Lara's ex-wife, Dannelle -- since remarried to Visalia firefighter Tommy Jiminez -- had, with the help of Jiminez's fellow firefighters and the community, flown to Germany and sat bedside. Lara himself remained medically sedated, until doctors transferred him to Walter Reed and then slowly brought him around.

"I woke up," Lara said, "in August."

He couldn't talk, because he had a tracheotomy tube in his throat.

He had a bedsore from his weeks of lying motionless. He looked ghastly.

Bo Bergeron, a tall, athletic, gray-haired physical therapist, would visit Lara in the intensive care unit. She would manipulate his limbs through range-of-motion exercises that he wanted no part of. She made him work when he fell breathless after a few steps.

He hated her. Once, not quite coherently, he tried to hit her.

"I thought everybody was against me," Lara said. "They made me do things I didn't want to do."

Now, Bergeron and Lara enjoy an easy rapport, like a coach and player who are starting to turn a losing season around. When the White House called in search of a suitable wounded soldier -- for the State of the Union speech, it turned out -- she recommended Lara.

Before meeting with Bergeron on a recent Friday, Lara had an hourlong session with occupational therapist Oren Ganz. Ganz is a civilian with a frank sense of humor and a technical vocabulary: He describes Lara's injury as a shoulder disarticulation. He works daily with eight or 10 amputees.

"This is probably the ideal population to work with," Ganz said.

"They are highly motivated, they're young, they're basically all athletes."

Rock music is playing in the background in the plain-looking occupational therapy room. Dawn Halfaker, Lara's lieutenant, has already passed through. She has since been promoted to captain, and in her spirited rebound from catastrophe, Lara said he has found inspiration.

Lara is wearing a black Orange County Choppers T-shirt. The right side gets rolled up, exposing the angry slash of Lara's wound. Ganz attaches two sensors: one to the back and one to the chest.

Technicians already have constructed Lara's uncanny prosthetic arms. He has three: one that looks like an arm, one that resembles pincers and one that is a standard hook. Altogether, Ganz said, the prosthetics would cost more than $150,000 if Lara had to pay for them.

Surgeries, however, have slowed Lara's ability to use them.

So now, with the sensors attached front and back, Lara is practicing for the technological marvel called a myoelectric arm. When he manipulates his muscles, tiny electrical signals about one-millionth the strength of an average light bulb are conveyed through the sensor. The amplified signals control a motor, which runs the hand.

Back muscle contracts, prosthetic hand opens. Chest muscle flexes, prosthetic hand closes.

For training purposes, the sensors are attached to a laptop computer. The screen shows a little car moving through an obstacle course. Lara flexes and contracts his back and chest muscles to drive the car through the portals.

There's other learning: how to put on a belt with one hand. Or tie a shoe, or tie a tie, or put on a watch.

"The rule is, I have to do it myself," Lara said. "If I can't do it myself, I won't let anyone do it for me."

After an hour, Lara moves on to the physical therapy room. More men are there, and their manifest trauma slaps the mind. One man maneuvers around the room, his right leg amputated at the knee and his reddened left leg encased in a cage. One man in a black T-shirt sits in a wheelchair, his back to the room. He stares out the window.

Lara and Bergeron greet each other and get to work. They're emphasizing balance and cardiovascular endurance now. Lara will, in the course of this hour, pass through several exercise cycles. He starts warming up.

Next to him, a frail young man in blue pajamas trudges slowly on a treadmill. He looks about 19 years old, and appears to have all his limbs intact. He moves, though, as if he is unutterably shattered somewhere deep inside.

Lara looks straight ahead. The two soldiers do not talk. Each man is on his own treadmill, and Lara's is picking up speed. One foot follows the other. There is a race to be run.

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