Father finds joy helping daughter learn to walk for the second time

WASHINGTON—Jimmy Davis made it up from South Carolina to Walter Reed Army Medical Center half an hour before his daughter, Crystal, arrived from Landstuhl, Germany.

Military doctors there had amputated her right leg below the knee after a roadside bomb blew up her tow truck in Iraq. They'd also set her multiply fractured left leg.

That was in January. Since then, the feisty 22-year-old Army mechanic and her father have grown inseparable in the rehab units at Walter Reed.

"Long as she's here, there's no place I'd rather be," said Jimmy Davis, 60, a retired BellSouth technician from Camden, S.C., with a trim beard and a modest belly over his jeans. A friend back in Camden keeps an eye on his house; his real home these days is a small apartment close to Walter Reed that he shares with his daughter.

"He can't get old till I get better," Crystal Davis said recently, smiling wanly as she and her prosthetic leg went through their umpteenth adjustment. The key was the right thickness of sock for her stump, fitter David Beachler said, so her father pulled a bagful from the rear pouch of his daughter's wheelchair and sorted through them with the eye of an athletic trainer.

He's a rarity in Walter Reed's bustling world of military amputees. Mostly, the parents who show up daily to coach their kids through rehab with their love are mothers. But he's been a de facto single parent since he divorced a year ago. And like a lot of dads in his position, he tries to deliver to his child the inner strength that fathers usually convey along with the emotional support that mothers do.

He pushes her and soothes her. He cooks for her and lets her make mistakes. He grills her surgeons and makes her laugh.

It's a partnership, really, and Crystal Davis could say about her father what he says about her: "She's done so well. I think if she were down all the time about what happened, there's no way I could take it."

Her mother, Caroline, who's decided to stay back home, said: "I couldn't be prouder of her." As for her ex, she added, "He's doing a fantastic job."

For any parent, helping a child through rehab is an intense and tricky business, said Col. William J. Howard III. He runs a therapy unit with a model apartment in back where Walter Reed's amputees practice transferring from wheelchairs to tubs and toilets, as well as cooking, cleaning and the other skills they'll need to return, as Crystal Davis assumes she will, to independence. She's also among those who intend to re-enlist.

"The parents who help the most try to make their kids independent-minded," Howard said. "They figure out what the balance is between supporting their child and hovering, and they let their kids discover what they can do and, sometimes, can't do."

The experience reminds him, Jimmy Davis said, of "watching a baby grow up again: crawling, walking, running."

He and his daughter share a gritty Southern mindset that mixes acceptance, self-deprecation, a pinch of fatalism and a lot of good humor.

"He's here to do what I want him to do, and if he doesn't want to do it, we agree on something else," as she put it.

The results are impressive. She made it out of Walter Reed's amputee ward two months earlier than her doctors had predicted. Using a walker and a prosthetic leg, she took her first steps in March, three months early, just in time for her father's birthday.

"I want to see her run a marathon with her hand bike," her father said recently within her earshot.

"I HATE the hand bike," she protested.

But she continued to grind away on the upper-body cycle, a pair of rotating face-high pedals. She's one of those stubborn people who, when they find something hard to do, do it more.

"Reminds me of me when I was young," her father muttered happily.

She's an outpatient at Walter Reed now, a brunette with a short sporty ponytail and large brown eyes who just happens to have one leg that ends in a stump. Her other leg is still wreathed in pins; an 8-foot transparent plastic wound-drainage tube trails from her heel.

Weekday mornings, her father drives her to Walter Reed in his Silverado pickup, her collapsible wheelchair tossed in back.

There, she exercises, visits the medical clinic to have her wounds and meds checked, exercises some more, consults with her prosthetist and maybe gets in a little recreational flirting with other amputees.

Her father disappears at such moments. Sometimes it's to go outside and smoke. Other times it's to buttonhole doctors, who hope she'll be up on her prosthesis and running by Christmas.

"I'll ask them what her limits are, then try and go one step past them," he explained. "I want her to do more than she thinks she can."

The tactic is no secret to his daughter. Once they've agreed on a goal for her, "he mostly stands back and watches," she said. "It's a lot more supportive than having somebody all over you."

According to her, her father's an upbeat stoic. "He doesn't like to show his good days and his bad days. He stays up for me because I need it," she said.

"Sometimes I cuss the pain in my left leg, and he'll change the subject and make me talk about this guy, Jason, that I'm dating."

The effect of the distraction is clinical, she explained.

"If I get emotional and start crying, the pain is three times as bad," she said. "If I breathe heavy, the pain rises. But if I can keep myself breathing normally, the pain is not that bad."

She confessed: "I'm a very independent person for the most part. But going through something like this, I'm a dependent."

Her father offered a confession, too: He and his daughter, though close while she was a teen, hadn't spoken much or seen each other in the two years before she showed up at Walter Reed.

"The days since then," he said, "have meant a whole lot to us."

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