WASHINGTON — Marine Sgt. David "D.J." Emery Jr.'s life snapped into focus on the morning of April 23, two days after his baby girl was born. He studied the lower half of his hospital bed, then turned to his mother and, still unable to speak, mouthed this question: "What the f--- happened to my legs?"
For weeks, the young warrior's mother, his young wife and the doctors in the intensive care unit of the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center outside Washington had kept him clinging to this side of death.
But when Emery discovered that morning that his legs were gone, the fight became his.
He hates it.
It hurts when the physical therapist pushes hard on his stumps. He seals his eyes shut and blows a long, slow curse through his lips, like air seeping from a punctured tire. He’s humiliated when he tries to lift his body into a sitting position, loses his balance and nearly tumbles onto the ground.
He utters more curses and throws whatever is lying nearby with his only good limb - the left-handed Emery's right arm.
"I hate having to depend on people," Emery said last week, his voice quiet and raspy. He was lying on his stomach and being attended to by a physical therapist, his mother, Connie, and his wife, Leslie Shivery.
He glanced over at little Carlee Ann, 2 months old now and testing a new smile from the bed of her stroller. He has to learn the same motor skills that she does: rolling over, sitting up, propelling himself from one point to another.
He's vowed to walk before she does.
Emery, of Bellefonte, Pa., is one of a growing number of double amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he was moved this month. They’re victims of the improvised explosive devices that are becoming more powerful as the Iraq war continues. One afternoon last week, four other double amputees, all of them further along in their recoveries, exercised their stumps or tested their new mechanical legs in the physical therapy room as Emery went through his exercises.
He remembers little about what happened to him on Feb. 7 in al Anbar province, the hotbed of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim insurgency and its al Qaida-linked terrorists.
He was at a checkpoint. He stopped to chat with other Marines while Iraqi soldiers searched anyone who didn’t seem right.
He never saw the suspicious-looking man whose torso was wrapped in explosives. The man spread his arms wide, like a bird taking flight, and triggered the blast.
Emery doesn’t recall the flight home, the countless surgeries, the amputations of first one leg, then the other.
But on April 23, when he discovered that his legs were gone, he took up his fight. He began to heal. Through good days and bad, he moved from the intensive care unit at Bethesda to a regular hospital room, then two weeks ago to Ward 57, the amputees' home at Walter Reed.
He's been visited by the Washington Redskins football team, by his congressman, Rep. John Peterson, and by President Bush, who gave Emery his Purple Heart.
"I dunno - he’s just another person, you know?" Emery recalled from his bed. "He invited me to the White House. Hopefully, I can get some running legs and go running with him and smoke his ass."
The encounters that really matter to Emery are the ones with other veterans, such as the old man in the hallway who gets around better on two artificial legs than most senior citizens do on real ones.
"When a doctor tells you that you’ll walk one day and he has two real legs, you're like, 'Whatever,' " Emery said. "But when a guy comes in on two prosthetic legs, and they're standing there, it makes everything possible."
Emery wants to be that guy someday, standing in the hallway and talking to a kid fresh from Iraq.
He used to be 6-foot-3. He thinks he'd be happy at an even 6.
He has so far to go.
"If you look at him on paper, he's a complete train wreck," said Dr. Jay Pyo, an Army captain and Emery's osteopathic doctor.
Emery is skinny, weak and recovering from multiple organ failure. His left arm remains in a brace, all but useless. His left leg was amputated at the hip, his right leg just below. Those are especially difficult spots for someone who must learn to walk again with prosthetic limbs.
On his first day in physical therapy two weeks ago, therapist Adele Levine felt Emery's tight muscles and wondered about his prognosis.
He has almost no abdominal muscles because of a stomach wound, no core to control sitting up, swiveling and, someday, taking steps.
But last week she felt the growing bicep of his right arm. She watched, hand poised at his back, as Emery grimaced and tried to sit up, swinging a hip, pushing off with the one arm, cursing at the effort.
"I can't swing it; it's impossible," he said. "I can't get up!"
Levine patted his shoulder. "It's OK. Let's try again."
She counted to three. He grunted. Twisted. Grimaced.
Levine stretched his hip muscles, a pain that feels good, Emery said, because he knows his body's working.
"I do think he’s doing really incredible, considering how he did when he first came in," Levine said.
Emery's getting used to the idea of fatherhood. He fed little Carlee for the first time a week ago. He hasn't changed dirty diapers yet, figuring that the whole daddy thing will hit home when he does.
He was scheduled to be fitted for prosthetics at the end of the week. Maybe, in a few days, he'll be ready to move to a nearby military apartment, giving him outpatient status.
It's a big step.
"I look at it this way," he said in a quiet voice. "I pretty much, like, have been aware of things since April 23, when I realized I didn’t have legs. From lying in that bed in the ICU to here is pretty good."
He cradled Carlee in his bad arm.
"It seems like it's been forever."
He tipped his daughter's baby bottle with his good arm and watched her tiny feet pummel the air.