He was walking through the combat zone when he slipped and fell. Sgt.
1st Class Rorey Nichols landed hard on his lower back. He lay there for
a while. He was alone, which was bad. But it was daytime, and he
thanked God for that. Slipping sounds stupid. Slipping on your way to
the chow hole while carrying 75 to 100 pounds of gear, on a so-called
road in Afghanistan that's nothing but rocks and sand, sounds stupid and
dangerous. He pulled himself up.
Nichols was no stranger to
peril. He'd served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and learned that you could
be sitting on the toilet when a stray bullet whizzes through the wall
and kills you. Or lying in bed -- in which case not even a tattoo of the
Archangel Michael can protect you. (Nichols got his on his right forearm
when he first enlisted.) A decade and a half in the Army inures you to
fear. But when he found out he'd broken his spine, for the first time in
his life he was scared. Really scared.
Two years, three ruptured
spinal discs and one fractured vertebra later, Nichols is standing
barefoot on the dock at Peter Archer Rowing Center in Long Beach. He
watches a group of injured soldiers gingerly pick their way onto a long,
slim boat. They are learning how to row.
"We were all in pain" in Afghanistan, he says. "We sucked it up and drove it on."
sucked it up for two weeks after his fall. Then he got slow. He started
to worry about not being able to carry a soldier in an emergency. "I
was jeopardizing others."
When he finally got checked out, he was told he had a broken back.
I thought they were going to fix me up," he says. It turned out that
they couldn't: The injury is permanent. Nichols shrugs. "At least we
have this. The vets from Vietnam, they didn't have none of this."
"this," he means the whole organized recuperation process. When
soldiers get injured or wounded on duty, the military sends them to a
treatment facility if they need intensive medical care or, if they
don't, back home to join a Community Based Warrior Transition Unit,
where adaptive sports are part of the drill.
"We don't want
soldiers to go back home and plug into an Xbox," says their commander,
1st Lt. Bryan Addington. Rowing, an upper-body sport, is ideal for this
particular bunch of soldiers, 80 percent of whom have lower-extremity
With arms and legs mostly intact, they don't look hurt.
Looks, however, are deceptive. "The media doesn't want to interact with
people unless they're double amputees playing basketball," Addington
continues, sizing up the troops. "But these guys have just as many
Problems like theirs -- orthopedic injuries,
post-traumatic stress disorder, the traumatic brain injuries that have
become the "signature injuries" of the Iraq war -- are invisible to
casual observers. It took Nichols' dad, a former Air Force man, to
recognize the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in his
son: anxiety, exaggerated startle response, aversion to crowds, anger.
the sky is overcast. Of the 40 or so soldiers present, Nichols is the
only man who isn't in the water rowing. He's a 35-year-old with the back
of a 72-year-old. During practice, when his muscles began to seize up,
he had to stop.
Absently, he reaches under his shirt and rubs the
scar on his flank. The skin is taut and discolored. He taps the hard
plastic neural stimulator implanted beneath it. The stimulator confuses
his brain, which keeps the nerves from hurting too much, he says. It's
not a cure, nor are the trigger-point injections, epidurals and pain
meds he takes daily. The pain is always there. He is well acquainted
with its many flavors: sharp, shooting, stabbing, prickling. Like a kick
in the back. Like a current buzzing down his leg that he can never turn
off. Sometimes only in one leg. Sometimes both.
He gets a lot of groin pain, Nichols says, embarrassed. "Every day is a battle. It's frustrating." His legs are tingling now.
lucky. He could have lost a limb. Or he could have been run over by a
Humvee. That's what happened to his friend, Army Spc. Gary Griswold.
Griswold was out minding his own business when a 16,000-pound Humvee
struck him and two other guys. Griswold is a strong, compact tank of a
young man. He could bench 275. But the Humvee rolled over him. He
grabbed the front of it and was dragged 50 feet. It crushed his spine,
face, arms and chest. It broke his jaw in five places, tore the
ligaments in his hip and ripped the nerves off his back. It cut open his
leg, exposing muscle and bone. When the driver was finally alerted to
the situation, he admitted he was distracted. He'd been texting.
Despite that, Griswold says he's not mad -- "except when the pain gets unbearable," he laughs. It's almost always unbearable.
remains on active duty. Asked what kind of work he now does for the
military, he answers quietly, "Currently, I go to medical appointments."
also goes to mandatory conferences -- "musters" in military parlance --
like this, wherein higher-ups extol physical activity as a key component
of the transition back stateside from deployment. You will try. You
will adapt. Think there's nothing you can do? There is. And you will do
So they do adaptive rowing and archery and kayaking and
surfing. Scuba diving was peaceful, Nichols discovered, so different
from the hyper-awareness of going on missions: "Your gear isn't heavy
because of the buoyancy." He's game for hand cycling. But his former
favorites -- softball and full-tackle football -- are no longer on the
"My life is on hold, kind of," he says, though he'd like to be a counselor someday.
has no regrets. He believes in this war. He was military police with
the National Guard in Bagram Airbase, north of Kabul. One hardly
imagines jailers suffering in a prison scenario, but Nichols took daily
abuse from the detainees. They hurled urine and feces. "The things they
tell you. That they're going to kill you and kill your family and rape
you," he says. "It was a constant beating down. It would burn in you."
that, despite the broken spine, despite the omnipresent pain, he would
go back in a heartbeat: "All these guys, even though we're all injured
and damaged, we'd go back."
Nichols' commitment is only partly
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altruism. He likens Afghanistan to free-falling from an airplane -- it's
an adrenaline rush, a thrill. Coming home to America is when you slam
into the pavement.
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