War-wounded Florida soldier Justin Burdette fights to walk again

10:18 AM, Feb 17, 2014   |    comments
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Video: Palm Bay soldier recovering at Walter Reed after rocket attack

U.S. Army Sgt. Justin Burdette was on patrol in Afghanistan when an explosion ripped through his legs, taking both below the knees. Here, he works out the first of two prosthetic legs at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Physical therapist Kerry Quinn guides his exercises. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today)



By R. Norman Moody, Florida Today

BETHESDA, MD (Florida Today) -- Justin Burdette swings his limb up onto a table.

"See my new leg?" Burdette asks his occupational therapist as he uses his hand to lift the prosthesis.

That prosthetic leg, connected just below Burdette's right knee, is just the first of a pair the 27-year-old Army sergeant will need.

On June 9, a rocket explosion ripped through Burdette's legs while his unit was on patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan, protecting a convoy from enemy fighters.

He lost both legs below the knee.

"It's part of the game," said the 2005 Palm Bay High graduate. "It's war. It happens."

Though there is still some fine-tuning to make the prosthesis fit perfectly, it immediately began making it easier for Burdette to move from bed to wheelchair and to stand, at least momentarily, as he undergoes months of treatment and therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

"He can't reach a lot of stuff in the cabinets," his 5-foot-3-inch wife, Beth Burdette said.

"He's no longer 6-4."

No military plans

Burdette spent one year in Marine Corps JROTC in high school.

He did not particularly like the program and had no plans for the military after graduating.

After high school, Burdette tried different jobs and had been working in the warehouse of a Health First distribution center before enlisting in the Army in 2006.

"It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing," he said. "I got bored with what I was doing."

He found his niche, his career and what he loved.

An infantryman with 3rd Division, Burdette had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Last February, he volunteered for a second tour in Afghanistan with a different unit.

Burdette was on patrol in June with his squad of seven soldiers, headed up a mountain on foot while protecting a convoy passing through the area. The idea was to draw the attention of insurgents to the soldiers and away from the convoy to allow the vehicles to safely pass. It worked, drawing a firefight, maybe more intense than expected, with the enemy.

"We were there for about 15 minutes when it started," said Burdette, who was wearing a helmet camera. "After it stopped, I got hit."

A rocket hit the ground just feet away from him.

He said that though he did not immediately feel the pain, he knew he was injured.

"I felt like my legs were buzzing," he said. "Crap, they got me."

Burdette said he landed face down. Lying there, he saw the helmet camera he had turned on during the firefight in front of him.

"I looked over my shoulder at my legs and they were all messed up," he said, showing no emotion. "I didn't get knocked out at all."

One other soldier in his squad suffered a concussion from the explosion, but none of the others were seriously hurt in the attack.

Other soldiers got Burdette down from the mountain and onto a helicopter. Within 38 minutes, he was in surgery in the field hospital.

Given morphine for the pain, Burdette questioned the medic when the morphine didn't take effect immediately.

"I said, 'Every movie I've seen, it kicks in right away,' " he says now, laughing.

'Bad news'

Beth Burdette remembers the day vividly.

It was Sunday morning and she was preparing their son, Corey, for church.

"He called me, then he called his parents," Beth Burdette said. "He called me the same day, about six hours after he was injured. He said, 'Honey, I have some bad news.' "

Not immediately grasping the gravity of the situation, she thought the bad news was that he was switching jobs or being transferred to some undesirable base somewhere.

"He said, 'My legs got blown off.' "

Burdette, in pain in a field hospital, then passed the phone to the nurse to explain to his wife the extent of his injuries.

"My husband's still alive," she said she thought to herself.

Burdette said that despite the pain and the effects of the morphine, he wanted to be the one to make the calls to his family.

"I didn't want the Army to notify my family," he said. "I wanted to do it."

New home

Burdette's home before deploying was Fort Stewart, Ga.

Now it is Walter Reed's sprawling 243-acre campus, reportedly the world's largest military medical center. Many of the war wounded are brought here for treatment.

More than 19,630 troops have been wounded in the war in Afghanistan; 2,306 have died. In the war in Iraq, 4,423 died and 31,942 were wounded.

Burdette, his wife, Beth, and 4-year-old Corey live in an apartment complex for those receiving outpatient treatment.

Almost daily, he arrives at the outpatient facility by 9 a.m. where medical personnel check to make sure his wounds are healing properly, free of infections. After that comes physical therapy. He starts with a step on one prosthetic leg, then holding up his weight with his arms between therapy parallel bars, he swings forward and takes the next step. His routine also includes workouts on exercise equipment and weights to build upper-body strength.

After just a few days of using the prosthetic, Burdette incorporated leg presses into his exercise regimen. He worked through the leg press exercise with ease, at least once doing more presses than his therapist asked for without realizing the count.

"How is that weight?" the therapist asked. "A little light," came the response as Burdette continued pushing.

Occupational therapy usually follows lunch and frequently includes hand exercises and tying fishing flies. Volunteer experts help him with the fly tying.

The fly tying is consistent with Burdette's hobbies, fishing and hunting.

Perfect fit

In between appointments, he stops in to the Orthotics and Prosthetic Fabrication Room for adjustments, remolding and tuning of the prosthetic right leg. Technicians use heat to periodically remold a plastic part on the prosthetic as they seek a perfect fit.

"One thing you have to be good at in the next three days, you have to check your leg," said Kerry Quinn, the physical therapist.

She warned him that red spots or bruises indicate what part of the prosthesis needs to be adjusted.

Quinn said the prosthesis must be removed periodically throughout the day to make sure it is not causing any harm to the muscles and skin.

"Some other patients tell me the first 30 days are the hardest," she said.

Burdette will receive a second prosthesis for his left leg once it is completely healed. But that has not kept Burdette from going out or even driving with hand controls. He has gone on fishing and hunting trips with veterans support organizations.

Burdette expects to be walking on his prosthetic legs in the next few months. He likely will be at Walter Reed for several more months.

"He's talked about getting springy legs for a long time," Beth Burdette said. "Now he's going to get them."

Infection and recent surgeries have slowed the process. But it has not reduced his desire to stay in the Army. That is, if he is not assigned to a desk job.

"I don't want to sit behind a desk," Burdette said as he wheeled himself recently inside a Bass Pro Shop to pick up some items for an upcoming hunting trip in Texas.

"I'm not that kind of personality. I'm an infantryman."

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