- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Disabled Vietnam War veteran Charlie Thompson, of Reston, has a word of advice for the dozens of U.S. soldiers who lost limbs while fighting in Iraq: “Let go of it and move on with your life.”

Mr. Thompson, 59, knows all too well the challenges the wounded servicemen and women will face as they return home to begin rehabilitation and learn how to live life without a leg or an arm. Thirty-seven years ago, the corporal lost his right leg above the knee during his second tour of duty with the Marines in Vietnam.

“They’ll be not quite sure what’s going to happen,” he said. “I wondered, ‘Am I going to have to have somebody take care of me?’ Most of them will get on all right. Some things won’t go like they want them to.”

When he returned home in 1967 and began college, Mr. Thompson said, he stopped wearing shorts in public because he didn’t want anyone to see his prosthetic leg.

“When you do [wear shorts], you’re inviting all the questions,” said Mr. Thompson, who was injured when a mortar landed next to him and five fellow Marines at Con Thien, two miles south of the demilitarized zone. Mr. Thompson was the only survivor.

“I knew I was in a lot of trouble, but I was resigned to it. I said, ‘Let’s see what happens in rehab,’ ” he said.

For four months after coming home from the war and undergoing rehab, he played 18 holes of golf every day, walking every hole. Golf was a form of rehabilitation for his leg, and for his mind, he said.

Through the hardship, he said he heeded some advice his mother had given him when he was a child: “Life is good, but there’s going to be bad times. Learn to get through the bad times and enjoy the good times.”

Today, Mr. Thompson still lives a healthy and active life. He retired in the late 1990s after working nearly 30 years at the Disabled American Veterans, where he helped wounded U.S. soldiers receive the benefits they were entitled to. He has two adult children.

Mr. Thompson’s story is one that can inspire many wounded young servicemen and women.

There are an estimated 2.3 million disabled U.S. military men and women. Efforts are underway to build a memorial to honor disabled veterans such as Mr. Thompson. President Clinton in 2000 authorized the memorial, which is scheduled to be completed next spring.

“These are the unsung heroes who protected freedom in American and ensured democracy for the world,” said Lois Pope, widow of National Enquirer founder Generoso Pope Jr. and a philanthropist who spearheaded plans for the memorial. “My passion is that these heroes be unsung no more.”

The number of wounded servicemen and women today is on the rise compared with those killed in combat.

The ratio of the number of soldiers wounded to those killed in Iraq is 5-to-1, higher than in any other U.S. war. That ratio was 2-to-1 from the Revolutionary War through World War II, and 3-to-1 during the Korean and Vietnam wars, according to U.S. Army records.

Improved medical care on the battlefield and better equipment such as body armor and Kevlar helmets have lowered the number of fatalities. But the latest weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents — roadside bombs detonated by remote control — has contributed to the increase in amputees.

As of Monday, 73 U.S. soldiers have been treated either at Walter Reed Hospital Center in the District or the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda for amputations, according to estimates provided by hospital spokespersons.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Metzdorf, 27, of Fayetteville, N.C., is one of them.

The staff sergeant with the 82nd Airborne had been in Iraq for 10 days when, on Jan. 27, he lost his right leg above the knee to a roadside bomb in Baghdad. Three of his fellow soldiers were killed in the blast.

He is in outpatient care at Walter Reed and he got a prosthetic leg this week.

When he has doubts about the future, Sgt. Metzdorf said, he thinks “about how much positive stuff has come out of this, and how great life is now.”

Yes, Mr. Thompson and Sgt. Metzdorf acknowledge that living without a leg or an arm is not easy. Even though they don’t know each other, their reaction to hardship is similar.

“You just have to get past it,” said Sgt. Metzdorf, who is married to Theresa, 40. “I’m sure guys still think about it, but you have to be a bigger man than it. You have to be bigger than it. It’s something that happened, and we’ve got to get past it.”

Mr. Thompson echoed the sergeant’s sentiments.

“It will pass. You’ll start having fun again, seeing friends and going to school or work, doing things you like to do. It will pass,” he said. “Some guys hold on to it and never let go. And they have a difficult time in life. But I think most guys let go of it and get on with life.”

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