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Nothing stops Valley soldier

VISALIA -- Bryan Wagner wanted to be a firefighter.

At 18, he began volunteering with the Tulare County Fire Department's Lemon Cove station. But in early 2006, Wagner put his dream on hold to enlist in the U.S. Army.

Wagner returned home this week for the first time since October, when he went to Iraq with the 529th Military Police Company. Now 22, he's a strapping young man with a ready smile, a purposeful manner, an undiminished desire to fight fires -- and just a hint of a limp in his confident stride from his artificial right leg.

The high-tech prosthetic, fashioned from carbon fiber, steel, plastic and rubber, reminds Wagner he's lucky to be alive after at least two roadside bombs planted by Iraqi insurgents ripped through a Humvee carrying him and several other soldiers near Baghdad seven months ago.

For Wagner, who played football and ran track at Exeter High School, the Dec. 17 mission was like many others he'd done as part of a protective detail for a battalion sergeant major moving from post to post around Baghdad.

He was the gunner on a Humvee team, standing in the truck's turret as the soldiers drove a route they'd been on before with no inkling of trouble.

"I don't remember hearing a blast -- I just remember looking to my right and seeing a flash of orange in front of my face," Wagner said.

The bombs that hit Wagner's team were EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles, a deadly insurgent innovation that not only scatters shards of lethal shrapnel, but also launches a plug of molten metal that can penetrate a Humvee's armor.

"I woke up on the floor of the vehicle; my helmet had been ripped off. I looked at my left foot and saw my toes and I looked at my right foot and saw my heel," he said.

"Our team leader was shouting, 'Is everyone OK?' The others were saying, 'I'm good,' but I just said, 'No, I think I lost my leg.' "

Something -- Wagner's not sure whether it was shrapnel or the searing EFP core -- shattered his right leg, demolishing 22 centimeters of his tibia, the main structural bone of the leg below the knee.

He also had burns on his back and shrapnel wounds all over his body, including large chunks in his left leg.

Within minutes, a quick-response team evacuated Wagner and his team to a Baghdad base.

Four days later, a heavily sedated Wagner was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

As he regained a handle on his surroundings, doctors discussed the prospect of limb salvage -- using his fibula, the smaller bone of the lower leg, as a replacement for his tibia.

"They said I'd be in a wheelchair for two years, I'd have to use a cane and I'd be in pain the whole time -- I wouldn't be able to be real active or be able to run. So I told them to cut it off.

"It was a huge decision, but I know I made the right choice."

He credits his parents, Hope and Harry Wagner, and his two older sisters for their support and strength in his recovery.

What some might see as a handicap -- "and I hate that word," he said -- Wagner considers only an interruption. Wagner said he wants to finish the last 21/2 years of his Army commitment with the military police before returning to a civilian career as a firefighter.

"A lot of it is just attitude," he said. "I may not be able to do something just like everybody else, but I'll find a way to do it."

Such determination is common among amputees wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Louis Givens, director of orthotics and prosthetics for the Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Palo Alto.

Givens works closely with many veterans who have lost limbs, and said a soldier's can-do spirit and state-of-the-art prosthetics enable them to overcome most obstacles.

"I think the only limitations they have are the ones they put on themselves," Givens said. "Very few of the kids I work with have any limitations at all. ... Initially they may have problems emotionally, but many of them snap out of it right away."

Once physical therapists begin working with amputees to use prosthetics, soldiers or veterans realize their capabilities -- especially for amputations below the knee.

"A good-fitting appliance will take them a long way," Givens said. "By the time they get into an advanced leg, they're ready to do everything you or I would do -- probably more, actually."

Ryan Kules, director of the Warrior to Work program in Washington, D.C., for the national Wounded Warrior Project, agreed.

"There have been more than a handful of warriors who have returned to duty after losing a limb," said Kules, who lost his left leg and right arm in Iraq. "If a warrior is determined enough to do so, it's certainly possible."

Wagner says he's better off than many wounded soldiers.

"I got lucky -- single leg, below the knee," he said.

"At Walter Reed, they joke that it's a 'paper cut'; it's not a big deal compared to some other guys losing both legs and an arm."

On Wednesday, Wagner proudly showed off his artificial leg and foot -- adorned with a Reef thong sandal matching the one on his left foot. With a spring-loaded shock absorber, the $15,000 limb allows him to walk and run with only a mild hitch. The Army also provided two other legs -- one with a ball joint that provides some foot rotation for sports such as basketball or football, the other with a foot that can be easily hinged into swimming position.

Joe Garcia, a division chief with the Tulare County Fire Department, said a firefighting career will depend on Wagner's ability to meet the physical demands of the job.

"There's a nine-weekend fire academy with certain tasks and training to prove his competency," Garcia said. "Those include the ability to carry hose, raise and climb ladders, effect rescues and manipulate tools -- everything that everyone else would have to do."

But Garcia has few doubts about Wagner.

"You can see he's got a lot of drive and motivation. When you think about what he's gone through, it takes someone special to go through the physical and emotional recovery," Garcia said. "I think he'll be able to come back to the fire service."

Wagner understands the challenge and says he's not looking for special treatment.

"Yeah, it sucks, but you know, I've got buddies who aren't coming home at all," he said. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me; feel sorry for the families of the guys who aren't coming home."