Our Returning Troops: Inspiring Veteran Won't Give Up

This veteran may have lost two legs and one hand while serving in Iraq, but he refuses to be limited or defined by his injuries.

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- Posted on Jun 27, 2016

Iraq war veteran Bryan Anderson

Ask my friends to describe me and the first thing they’ll tell you is: Bryan loves to go fast. Yep, I’m a speed junkie. I love snowboarding. Downhill skateboarding—sitting on my board and rocketing down steep hills at 60 miles per hour. I drive a sports car. I own a motorcycle.

I even make friends fast. I travel a lot and love meeting people and hearing their stories. Basically, whatever I do, I make it fun and I do it at top speed.

Iraq veteran Bryan Anderson on the cover of the July 2016 edition of GuidepostsHere’s one description you won’t hear from my friends: triple-amputee veteran of the Iraq War. That description is accurate—up to a point. Yes, I fought in Iraq. I was wounded in an IED blast. And I lost both of my legs and my left hand.

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But none of that defines me. It has been 11 years since my injury. And it has been 11 years since I last thought being wounded in war would ruin my life.

People who don’t know me often say, “Aren’t you glad God saved your life?”

I always reply, “God didn’t save my life. God gave me exactly the life I was supposed to have.”

What do I mean by that? Well, let me tell you my story and you’ll understand.

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I grew up in Chicago in a great family. My mom and dad loved me and my siblings and instilled faith, good manners and a strong work ethic in us. My twin brother, Bob, and my sister, Briana, are two of my best friends.

I was a standout gymnast in high school and enlisted in the Army when I was 20. I shipped out on September 11, 2001, and served two tours of duty in Iraq. Near the end of my second tour, I was behind the wheel of a Humvee at the back of a convoy in Baghdad when a roadside bomb went off.

Lying on the ground, I tried to wipe my face with my left hand. No hand. I looked down. No legs. I passed out in the medevac chopper.

I woke up seven days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, stunned to see my mom at my bedside. At first I thought I was still in Baghdad and I was angry that they’d let her fly into a war zone. But then she said the words that determined the course of the rest of my life: “You know you have basically two options here, right?”

I nodded. “Yup. Move on—or roll over and die.”

“And you’re going to...”

“Move on,” I said.

I’ve always been an optimistic, can-do kind of person. Looking around the physical-therapy room at Walter Reed, I saw that the patients making progress were the ones who accepted their injuries and threw themselves into recovery. Patients who got angry or who were in denial advanced much more slowly.

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I got fitted for prostheses and began the arduous process of learning how to use them. I fell all the time. I got better at falling than I was at walking. But every day I walked a little farther. My muscles got stronger. I learned how to move differently.

Three months after my injury, my unit was scheduled to return to Fort Hood, in Texas. I decided that I would be there to greet them. My mother and father accompanied me to Texas and we were met there by Kenny, one of the other soldiers who had been injured in the blast that took my legs.

Dressed in my desert camouflage uniform, I sat in my wheelchair with the other friends and family members waiting for the unit to file into the Fort Hood gymnasium. When they entered, I stood up with everyone else and saluted.

The guys were shocked that I was there. And overjoyed. The last time they’d seen me, I’d been sprawled on a Baghdad street, close to death. It was a sweet moment.

That’s how I approached the rest of my recovery. I set goals. I reached out to buddies. I leaned hard on my mom, who was an amazing and unfailing source of support. She took a leave of absence from work so she could live with me full-time at Walter Reed.

Only once did I break down. It was about a month after I got back to Walter Reed from Fort Hood. I was taking a shower when all of a sudden I looked at my body and thought, I’m half a person. I’ll be that way for the rest of my life. The idea was unbearable. I got hugely depressed. I knew something was wrong because I stopped caring about rehab.

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Enter Mom. She whisked me away with my best friend, Sarah, first to Las Vegas, then to Aspen, Colorado. That was all it took. I realized that it was a big world, and there was no reason I couldn’t be part of it. My spirits revived. And I vowed I would do whatever it took to recover fully.

Today I live an independent life in Los Angeles, where I moved two years ago because I love the weather and I can do all the sports I love here. I have a two-bedroom apartment, which I share with a cat and a miniature bulldog named Mya.

I wake up each morning with sun pouring in the windows. I walk Mya, make coffee, check my e-mail and then head out.

Every day is different. Maybe I’ll be consulting with the wheelchair company I work for, helping them to design better chairs. Recently I helped to design a cutting-edge motorized chair called the iLevel, which elevates the person using it to eye-level, so he’s no longer gazing at the rest of the world from below.

Or maybe I’ll travel to give an inspirational talk to a group of wounded vets. Or attend an expo to demonstrate a new wheelchair product. Or make an appearance as a spokesperson for USA Cares, a national support organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Maybe I’ll even go to a casting call for a movie or a TV show. Part of the reason I moved to L.A. was to explore the possibility of working as an actor. Starting with an appearance in a 2007 HBO documentary about Iraq War amputees, I’ve been featured in a few TV shows and films, including CSI: NY and American Sniper.

If it’s a day off, I might get in my sports car and meet some friends for some downhill skateboarding. Or I’ll hit the slopes and snowboard using prostheses.

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I used to be a comical sight when I fell, since the prostheses stayed clipped into the board and it’s almost impossible to get up when you can’t bend your knees.

Then I devised a trick. I turned myself so the snowboard was facing uphill. Using my abs, I heaved my legs up and over my head, basically doing a backflip down the slope to an upright position. It works every time. And almost always I catch someone looking slack-jawed in amazement. And you know what? It’s more fun than standing up normally!

That’s what I mean when I say God gave me the life I’m supposed to have. It’s not like he wanted me to be injured and every day is paradise. All kinds of things everyone else takes for granted—making the bed, swimming, cooking a grilled-cheese sandwich, zipping a jacket, opening a package— require time, ingenuity and extra steps for me.

I’m not married. And although I make friends with women everywhere I go, I’m just not ready for a deeper relationship right now.

Still, I know this is the life God intended for me, because I am able to live at my full capacity, using all the talents and abilities I’ve been blessed with. I live every day with everything I’ve got.

The great thing about having to vault around your room to make the bed is that making the bed is never boring. The great thing about struggling to get back onto your snowboard is that it makes you smarter and more creative. And people are amazed.

The great thing about having to relearn how to use your entire body—and how to steel your soul to fill that body with energy—is that you gain a wisdom about life that you couldn’t have gained any other way.

I take nothing for granted. No part of my body, mind or soul goes unused. I’m a unique fit for the life God has given me. And that’s what I tell wounded vets when I meet them. Their injuries, I say, are not catastrophes. They are challenges to be overcome. And there is massive fulfillment in overcoming.

We don’t get to dictate to God what kind of life we get. We do get to decide how to live that life.

I still remember that moment in the hospital when Mom asked me what I planned to do—roll over and die, or move on. In a way, it’s a question everyone faces at some point in their lives. Sometimes people have to ask themselves that question every day.

Now you know why my answer is move on, move up, keep going. What happens to you is not an accident, not a cruel twist of fate. It’s the life God intended for you to live. Live it. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll live it at top speed. 

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Bryan Anderson is a spokesman for Quantum Rehab, a company that manufactures the iLevel Power Chair, which can rise 10 inches in 16 seconds while at walking speed. Learn more about the iLevel and Bryan’s story.

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