Wounded Iraq veteran adjusts to life with one arm

McClatchy NewspapersMay 1, 2009 

US NEWS WOUNDEDSOLDIERS MCT

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have produced about 830 amputees among U.S. troops, including Norberto Lara, shown here outside Walter Reed Medical Center.

MICHAEL DOYLE — Michael Doyle / MCT

WASHINGTON — Norberto Lara showed off his new arm, a terrible beauty.

The wounded Iraq veteran can do wonders with his latest prosthetic. His nerves fire, the elbow rotates and pincers open and close. He demonstrated his golf swing and mimicked pedaling a recumbent bike.

It will look really cool once it's covered with black carbon fiber, Lara said.

Nearly five years after platoon sergeant Lara and his lieutenant, Dawn Halfaker, lost their arms to the same rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, however, both veterans remain works in progress. Lara's last surgery hurt like hell, for a long time. Nightmares still dog him. He's returned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center four times in the past six months.

"We're doing some further adjustments, some fine tuning," Lara said Thursday.

On his prosthetic arm, he meant. He's had the new model for only about a month, following the surgery to relocate the nerves that power it. It's called targeted muscle re-enervation, and he's still learning the ins and outs of it. This week, amid vigorous practice, he managed to break a clear plastic housing.

Life, too, requires some fine-tuning for both Lara and Halfaker as they approach their Alive Day, June 18, 2004 — the day they didn't die.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have left about 830 U.S. troops without arms or legs. Among them, Lara and Halfaker share a ghastly distinction: A man and a woman lost their right arms at almost the same instant to the same rocket-propelled grenade.

It happened early in the morning. Lara was in the right front seat of an armored Humvee. Halfaker sat behind him. The members of the 3rd Infantry Division's 293rd Military Police Company were patrolling the town of Baqubah, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Halfaker and Lara had a good history together. Some weeks before, he'd thrown himself over her when another rocket-propelled grenade had skidded into their presence.

"He was going to save his lieutenant," Halfaker said, affectionately.

Lara could have handled the June 18 patrol on his own, but the local U.S. commander had ordered that an officer should accompany patrols. So there was Halfaker, riding in the back seat.

It was calm in Baqubah.

Then, it wasn't.

A rocket-propelled grenade punched through the Humvee. Hurtling at roughly 965 feet per second, it sliced Lara's arm off at the shoulder, flew on and then exploded near Halfaker.

Noise, fire, fade to black.

That moment will forever bind two Californians with very different backgrounds.

Halfaker was one of the top 10 graduates in her West Point class and a varsity basketball player. Now Capt. Halfaker (ret.), she's about to receive a master's degree in security studies from Georgetown University, and she runs Halfaker and Associates, her own, 110-person, $10 million-a-year consulting firm.

"She is a busy woman," Lara said. "Very busy."

Lara is a tattooed high school graduate. Now 36, he's been taking classes at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. and hopes to become a social worker.

They've stood by each other from the start of their long rehabilitation, though Halfaker got better faster.

"He was worried he would never make it out of the hospital," Halfaker said. "I said, 'Listen man, we're walking out of this hospital together.' "

Both abound in physical will. Halfaker was a quick-handed guard on the West Point women's basketball team. At Ft. Stewart in Georgia, she bonded with Lara over their mutual love of grueling PT — physical training.

"He was, across the board, just good at everything; very competent," Halfaker said. "Norbie is the guy you look to when you want to get it done."

Both are now active in the Wounded Warriors Project, which helps severely injured soldiers adjust. Halfaker is vice chair of the organization's board of directors, and Lara works part time as the West Coast coordinator. He's identified 362 wounded veterans so far in his region, and he's still looking.

"I go out and find them and let them know what we can offer, so they don't think they're the only ones out there," Lara said.

On May 16, Lara and other Wounded Warrior Project members will be at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles for a $1,000-a-head fundraising event. The invitations identify the dress code: "lingerie or pin-up girl for the ladies, upscale and patriotic for the men." Lara smiled thinking about it.

Both Lara and Halfaker, now, are equipped with the best prosthesis the Army can buy. Both often go without, unashamedly one-armed. Both endure a singular pain.

Lara was once on methadone. Now he takes a drug called Neurontin. It helps, he said, with the recurring feeling that his missing hand is being electrically shocked or crushed by a steamroller. Halfaker said that she shuns pain medication because of the side effects.

"Some days are worse than others," Halfaker said.

Asked if he suffers from post-traumatic stress, Lara unhesitatingly said yes. Dreams can be bad; often, he relives the attack.

"They just started again," Lara said of his nightmares. "I don't know why."

Lara spoke while he was sitting on a bench outside the Walter Reed grounds, which combine the martial and the medical. Two guard stations, truck barriers and boulders placed on sidewalks impede potential ground assaults. A small artillery piece stands in front, once deadly, now decorative.

Lara touched his prosthetic arm.

"They're still tweaking it," he said.

The Wounded Warrior Project

Alive Day Memories, an HBO documentary on America's new generation of veterans, including Halfaker

Halfaker and Associates

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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