Sgt. 1st Class Patrick King lies on his back, staring up at the fluorescent ceiling lights, left leg clicking. It is a late afternoon in the summer of 2008, and he is doing leg presses, plastic and carbon fiber moving down and in, pushing cast iron out and up.
“It’s too easy,” he says. “Too easy.”
Sgt. 1st Class Patrick King lies on his back, staring up at pigeons fluttering in the cloudless October sky. It is early afternoon in the fall of 2007. Chaos surrounds him, but his eyes remain fixed on the serenity above. He can feel it closing in around him on the narrow street - the small buildings that hid the remote-controlled explosive that ripped his Humvee apart, the smoke billowing from the mangled vehicle, the commanding officer screaming “We’ve been hit! We’ve been hit!” into the radio over and over.
Something has gone terribly wrong with this routine patrol mission through the mulhallas, or neighborhoods. He has known that for a few minutes now, ever since he watched the Iraqis release the pigeons to warn of the approaching Americans.
Then he heard the big bang, saw the floorboard beneath his feet cascade past his face like a waterfall in reverse, smelled the putrid black smoke that blotted out the bright afternoon sun, felt the blood …
The blood. It’s running down his leg, but it’s streaming, thank God, not pulsing. Were it an arterial wound, he would feel it pulsing out.
Out … where is it going? Is his left foot gone? No, maybe it’s just fractured or it’s dangling, and they can save it, so he can run.
Nope. It’s gone. The medic’s flat tone has just given it away.
“Patrick, you are going to be all right …,” he says, delivering the signature Hollywood medic line.
“I know,” Patrick says, still staring at the sky. “I’m just going to run a little slower.”
He always had loved to run. When he was a little boy growing up in the hamlet of Highland Falls, N.Y., a friend of his older brother’s spotted him sprinting down the street and gave him the nickname he carries to this day.
“Duke,” the older boy told Patrick, “you are going to play football someday.”
Yes, he loved to run. As a teenager, when he would skip school, run to a nearby lake and fish for trout, crappie and bass for hours on end. As a high school senior, when his friends finally persuaded him to stop ignoring his talent, put down his rod and come out for football and track.
No one was surprised when he ended up flying past defensive backs as a receiver for the James I. O’Neill High School Raiders and charging past the field in the 200-meter dash. After all, he always had been faster than the kids in the schoolyard and on the sandlot. He had been a force on the community-league basketball team, when he and his three brothers made up four-fifths of the starting lineup.
“Uh-oh! Here come the King boys!” the people in the stands would say to George, the boys’ father, causing him to beam with pride.
Patrick always had been one to push himself to greater heights, like the spring day the track coach caught him “messing around” on the high jump.
“You are coming out for track,” the coach sternly told him, shocked that this broad-shouldered kid was leaping higher than any of his high jumpers.
Before he knew it, Patrick was soaring. He always had known he was fast, but not this fast. He wished he had started earlier, taken the time to learn the proper technique of how to leap the hurdles and navigate the turns. There would, however, be plenty of time to run later - he had always run; nothing would be able to take that from him.
He had known since his sophomore year of high school that he would join the Army upon graduating. Maybe it had something to do with his father’s service in the Korean War or that his older brother Tyrone already was enlisted. Maybe it had something to do with the way the United States Military Academy loomed over Highland Falls on the banks of the Hudson River. Or maybe it was that he had never left the state of New York and was itching to see the world.
Whatever it was, he had made his plans - he would serve two years, save money for college, then move on. However, two years led to four, four to eight, and before he knew it, it was 1991, and he was on his way to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey as part of Operation Desert Storm.
At first he didn’t know what to expect. Would Saddam Hussein come creeping over the mountains in the night? Would scud missiles scream in and destroy his air-defense unit?
After a few days of staring at a blue radar screen, waiting for nothing to happen, his fear dissipated to boredom. For the first time in his military career, he was without football.
He always had played. Flag football had seen him through desert heat at Fort Bliss, Texas, and through chills at Dexheim in Germany. It had helped him through homesickness in Korea, where he and his comrades would run like Barry Sanders and Walter Payton, then boast and brag at postgame barbecues and over card games back in the barracks.
There was no time for football with his squad pulling 12-hour shifts, so he started rising early to run laps around the base and bench-press 5-gallon jugs of water - anything to remove his mind from the “Groundhog Day” monotony.
There, in the south of Turkey, he found a routine that would sustain him until his time at Incirlik was done, through a tour in Bosnia-Herzegovina three years later and through a return trip to Iraq in 2003. It was either burn it off or burn out.
Bleeding in the street in Baghdad that fall afternoon, he made a decision: It wasn’t going to beat him. Yes, it was a cruel twist of fate that he had been selected a year earlier for a third tour in Iraq, for the “special assignment” of training the Iraqi National Police.
Sure, it had been a frustrating eight months, watching training team after training team give way to apathy when the Iraqis didn’t respond to Americans’ instruction. No, it wasn’t fair that of the nine vehicles in his convoy, his Humvee was the only one hit or that of the men in the Humvee, he was the only one lying wounded - but he wasn’t going to scream in pain. He wasn’t going to wail with frustration. He wasn’t going to let himself glance down and look at what was left of his cauterized limb. He was going to grit his teeth, bear it and move on.
He was going to run.
When George King first saw his boy lying in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he broke down and sobbed. He cried for the little kid he had taught to fish at Bear Mountain State Park, for the son he had cheered from the basketball stands, for the proud sergeant in the crisp Army uniform whom the folks at Andy’s Diner would ask about each morning at breakfast. He cried for the son who had always hidden his ultracompetitive streak beneath his undying optimism, ebullient personality and boundless energy.
What would Patrick do? How would he be able to balance in a fishing boat by himself? How would he be able to run? How would he ever be the same?
“Don’t you start crying,” Patrick told him. “I’m the one that lost the foot. It’s just my left foot - I use the right one more. I’m fine.” Every weekend, George would make the five-hour drive down from Highland Falls to see his son. He watched as his boy refused to ride the Segway the physical therapists offered.
“No,” Patrick told them. “Let me walk.”
He shook his head in disbelief as Patrick scoffed at the three-wheeled bike with a hand crank, mounted a two-wheeler and took off. Soon, it was Patrick making the five-hour drive every weekend, so George thought about installing an accessible bathroom in their house in Highland Falls before Patrick’s visit at Thanksgiving.
“You don’t need that,” Patrick told him. Then he proved it - he stepped outside into the November chill - and ran.
Nearly a year has passed since the day Sgt. 1st Class Patrick King lay in the street in Baghdad bleeding beneath the pigeons.
In the time since, he has undergone two surgeries - one in Germany immediately following his injury and another upon his arrival at Walter Reed, where doctors further whittled down his leg to a nub that now ends two inches below his knee. He has felt pain - days when his leg swells and cannot fit inside the socket of his prosthesis and he has to pass the hours sitting idle in his room.
There are days when his leg shrinks as afternoon wears on to evening, forcing him to stuff his socket with specially made socks he carries with him at all times in a backpack. There are days when he wishes he could run - really run, like Adrian Peterson and the NFL running backs he watches on TV - instead of jogging slowly for a mile, then stopping when his leg begins to burn from the pounding.
However, he also has skied down mountains and kayaked up rivers, scuba-dived in deep water and rock-climbed high walls - all things he had never tried before coming to Walter Reed. He lifts weights daily and takes pride in pulling the young men through the gantlet he has weathered in the past 10 months.
“Once you have this,” Patrick says, pointing at the prosthesis planted in a Nike running shoe, “there is no easy way out.”
He turns, picks up a barbell and begins to lift once more.
“It’s too easy,” he says again. “Too easy.”