Iraq War vet decides to have second leg amputated

Sunday, February 15, 2009 | 7:22 p.m. CST; updated 9:02 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 15, 2009

GREENFIELD — When Iraq war veteran Derick Hurt lost his right leg in a grenade attack five years ago, he fought with doctors to save his left leg and mangled foot.

Now, he wants to lose that leg, too.

Hurt believes he's used the pain in his remaining leg as an excuse for not moving on with his life. He avoided finding a full-time job, lacked goals and spent too many days at his rural home, depressed.

"I used it as a crutch not to do things," he said.

Hurt, 31, met last week with officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to discuss amputating the second leg. If he goes forward with the procedure, Hurt will have gone the longest between injury and amputation of any Iraq or Afghanistan veteran treated at Walter Reed.

He believes two prosthetic legs will give him a better life.

"I'm excited," he said just days before his trip, while sitting in the kitchen of his home about 50 miles northwest of Springfield. "I'm ready to jump over that last little hang-up that's been bugging me for so long. I think I'll be OK afterward."

The decision to delay an amputation is not unusual, Army officials say.

Of the 862 service members who have had a limb amputated since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 57 delayed the procedure for months, including 35 who waited a year or more.

A Walter Reed official cited a number of factors that led to postponed amputations.

In some cases, the patient may not have been cognizant enough to make an immediate decision.

"If you can salvage the limb ... you do that," said Charles Scoville, Walter Reed's chief of amputee services.

As patients recover, they consult with their surgeons. Many delay the procedure to give their bodies every chance to heal. Doctors don't pressure the patients one way or another and give them every opportunity to make their own decisions, Scoville said.

Those considering the procedure meet with amputees and undergo a psychological evaluation to make sure they understand the ramifications and are comfortable with their decisions.

Most who undergo delayed amputation later say they made the right decision, Scoville said. The limb may not respond to treatment, may not function as well as hoped or may cause pain.

"They get to the point where they say it's not worth it," he said.

For Hurt, that realization started to take hold within the last year.

Hurt grew up in Greenfield, a town of 1,350. After high school, he worked in a factory, but joined the Army for adventure. He fought in the Iraq war from the outset as an infantry sniper. He went through some harrowing incidents, including seeing suicide drivers race their cars at his truck, only to be stopped when Hurt and other Americans filled the oncoming vehicles with bullet holes.

Hurt, then a sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division, was severely injured Sept. 13, 2003, when his infantry unit came under attack while on patrol in Mosul. His right leg was blown off below the knee. The left leg suffered significant tissue loss, the heel bone was exposed and more than a dozen pieces of shrapnel were embedded in the bottom of his foot.

"The one thing I still remember to this day is that doctor telling me, 'You ought to cut it off,'" Hurt said.

Hurt had always been active, and he loved to run, hunt and fish.

"Five years is what I told myself I would give it to see if Mother Nature could do her thing," he said.

He spent 13 months recovering at Walter Reed. He arrived home to a parade, near-overwhelming appreciation from his neighbors and extensive media coverage. Nine months later, a woman he'd first met while recuperating in the hospital moved from Maryland to live with him. They talked about marriage.

Hurt, who receives disability payments, tried to resume his active lifestyle but found his "good leg" held him back.

Once or twice a year, he joined other injured veterans on ski trips. At the end of the day, friends with prosthetics would head to bars, while Hurt headed back to his room for pills to kill the throbbing pain in his damaged limb.

He renovated his house, exercised and worked part time but often spent his days alone and in pain.

"When your foot hurts to where you can't walk, what are you going to do but sit in your wheelchair?" he said. "It was hard to go outside and play with the dogs or go to town. It's depressing."

Hurt avoided antidepressants but did attend counseling with other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He struggled to sleep and had memory problems. He was also easily frustrated and grew angry quickly. He argued with his girlfriend about insignificant things.

"I felt sort of needy," he said. "I wanted more attention all the time. It seems ridiculous as I look back on it."

His girlfriend wanted them to move back east. Hurt was reluctant to leave a hometown that has embraced him.

He has family nearby. Strangers ask about his health. Others pick up his meal checks. Last year, he carried the American flag at the front of the town's Christmas parade wearing his Army dress uniform.

"That wouldn't happen in Baltimore," he said.

Two months ago, his girlfriend, Vanessa Jacoby, moved out. She said it would be unfair to make Hurt move but doesn't think she can be happy if she stays.

She's glad Hurt has chosen to have surgery and plans to visit him at Walter Reed. Jacoby agreed with Hurt that his injured leg held him back and may have affected their relationship, but hopes he's not choosing surgery because of her.

"That shouldn't be what this is all about," she said.

Hurt's sister said that she was surprised and saddened to learn of her brother's emotional struggles and that she thought he was being too hard on himself.

"Nobody is pushing Derick to do anything," his sister, Mindy Lollar, said. "That's his own pressure. He's entitled to do whatever he feels like doing when he gets out of bed each morning."

Hurt is scheduled to return to Walter Reed next month for the surgery. He looks forward to not being in pain and thinks he'll have a more positive outlook. He wants to get a full-time job, maybe with Veterans Affairs. And he hopes to win back the woman he loves.

"She's an awesome girl," he said. "I want to make a life with her."

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