WASHINGTON — Army Sgt. Robert Samuel knew that he'd lost much of his leg almost as soon as the improvised explosive device went off beneath his Stryker armored vehicle. Bloodied and dazed, he asked his buddies to grab what was left of him as they yanked him out of the wrecked vehicle.
One just shook his head.
"The medic said he didn't think I'd make it," Samuel, 29, a soft-spoken Miami native, said of the injuries he sustained during the attack in November in the desert outside Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. "He figured I'd lost too much blood."
As the U.S. prepares to send 30,000 to 35,000 more troops to Afghanistan to fight what President Barack Obama calls a war of necessity, Samuel is mending at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and willing to return to duty.
"I have buddies I carried over my shoulder," he said, sitting in a wheelchair after a workout in the rehabilitation center at Walter Reed. He rolled up his sleeve to show two tattooed tributes to fellow soldiers, comrades who died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. "There's so many sacrifices others have given, and I'm going to keep on, for a lot of my friends.
"If me and everyone else were to say, 'OK, this is hard, I'm going to quit,' how many people would they have serving in the military?"
Under a July 2, 2008, Army directive, wounded soldiers may be returned to their units if they're making satisfactory progress and if they and their units can manage their medical needs. The military says that 128 soldiers who were severely wounded have successfully returned to active duty, including those who've lost limbs or suffered traumatic brain injury.
With the help of a physical therapist, Samuel is working to strengthen his upper leg and hip so he can better use a prosthesis. He says he's blessed to have survived the explosion.
"I know it was God all the way on that one," he said.
The blast that severed his left leg at the knee also shattered his right foot and left his left arm dangling at his side, broken in several places. He laughs as he recounts hollering to his buddies for a cigarette after the explosion.
"They gave it to me, but I couldn't hold it," he said, pointing to the stitches that mark the metal plates surgeons have installed in his arm. In all, he took 21 units of blood and several surgeries to survive.
A month later, he's practicing sit-ups with a 14-pound ball tucked into his stomach and mimicking a skydiver as he balances his body on what looks like a medicine ball that's been split in half. His hand is regaining flexibility, and he can put weight on his right foot, though the pain is obvious as he sits back in the chair, winded by the exertion.
His physical therapist, who earned her doctorate in physical therapy at the University of Miami, said that Samuel had worked diligently to recover.
"You really have to hold him back yourself because he's not going to tell you that he needs to stop," Cristin Loeffler said as she put Samuel through his paces. "Right off the bat, he was full charge. He's always asking, 'What's next?' "
Loeffler works with Samuel daily in a state-of-the art rehabilitation center that opened at Walter Reed in 2007 to treat soldiers who'd lost limbs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to treadmills, elliptical trainers and cardiovascular equipment, the center has a climbing wall and a weapons simulator. Military officials say that medical advances and changes in Pentagon policy since the two wars started have allowed some amputees to return to duty.
As Taylor worked with Samuel, strapping a resistance band to his upper thigh to strengthen the muscles in his legs, she said: "He's up to the highest resistance band we've got."
Other wounded soldiers, some who'd lost one or more limbs, tested their protheses, one jumping from a foot-high table to the floor. Raleigh and Deuce, a pair of Labrador retriever service dogs, made the rounds, nuzzling soldiers when it looked as if they could use a gentle touch.
When a reporter and photographer met up with Samuel outside the center, he made quick work of pleasantries, noting that he had only an hour for therapy.
Samuel's route to Afghanistan was quixotic. After he graduated in 2000 from North Miami Senior High, where he played football, he enrolled at Miami Dade College. He was unmotivated by academia, however, and after he walked past a recruiting station in North Miami Beach one afternoon, he joked with his girlfriend that they should enlist in the Army.
"She thought I was still playing until the recruiter came to her house," Samuel said. Both of them enlisted, and Samuel was stationed in Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division, deploying first to Afghanistan and later to Iraq. They later married, but have since divorced.
Samuel was about five months into his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he and his 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Wash., were sent on a raid.
A squad leader, Samuel was in the driver's seat in the eight-wheeled, 19-ton Stryker. He said his unit was short-staffed because so many soldiers had been wounded. There were five men in the vehicle, bumping down a dusty desert path that several other Army vehicles already had traversed, when the homemade bomb went off.
It was about 5:30 a.m. The bomb tore open the vehicle's hatch, and Samuel took the brunt of the explosion.
"I was like, 'Are you guys all right in the back?' " Samuel said. No one else was hurt.
He was rushed out of the vehicle, patched up and helicoptered to base before being flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the treatment center for seriously wounded U.S. service members and civilians serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He panicked only when physicians there told him that his mother was on the phone from Miami. Raspy from a ventilation tube, he told his doctors, "Just make sure my mom doesn't know what happened."
An hour later, when his voice improved, he got on the phone again with his mother, Altide. She already knew everything.
"She said, 'Hey hero, we're proud of you,' " Samuel said, "I heard everyone just screaming in the background. I told her I didn't know how I'd be, and she said, 'God made sure you were alive, and that's all we care about.' "
He arrived at Walter Reed on Nov. 19. His mom was there within two days, tapping her hero on the shoulder. Shortly after surgery on his left leg, he was ready for Loeffler, and ready to get on with his life.
"I don't see a point in being sad, being down," he said. "If you're alive, you're alive. You should be happy with that."
The accident has had its upside, he said. His divorced parents are talking, and almost everyone in the family — two sisters and a brother — has vowed to make sure that he has a constant stream of company.
One recent visitor was Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who often visits wounded soldiers from South Florida at the hospital.
Samuel said the resurgence of family ties was a lot like how the military had affected him: He feels more connected.
"I look at 9/11, and that's what keeps me going, day in and out," Samuel said, stopping to find the right words. "It's not like I'm patriotic; I feel like you gotta protect people. A lot of people's lives were taken in that nonsense; why not continue to keep fighting?"
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY