Two Wounded Vets Transcend Their Disabilities

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

STERLING, Va., Feb. 8, 2007 - Marissa Strock and Jake Kessler sat in adjacent wheelchairs while prosthetic specialists attached carbon-fiber feet to their titanium legs.

Strock, a 21-year-old Army private first class, and Kessler, a 36-year-old Army staff sergeant, are double-leg-amputee Iraq war veterans who forged a friendship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here during painful rehabilitation sessions.

Strock accompanied Kessler and his wife, Vanessa, to Sport Rock Indoor Climbing Center here Feb. 2. Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project brought six wounded veterans here for an afternoon of indoor rock climbing. Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project are partners in the Defense Department's America Supports You program. The program highlights activities, grassroots groups, corporations and private citizens are doing to support the men and women in uniform.

"A week ago in physical therapy, I heard them say, 'rock climbing' and I said, "Oooh Oooh, pick me! Pick me! I wanna go!" Strock said.

A prostheticist untied Strock's pink shoelaces and removed her sneakers, revealing two rubber feet, which he unscrewed and replaced with a pair of carbon-fiber counterparts covered by rock-climbing shoes.

Strock had climbed several times before, but this was her first attempt since losing her legs.

On Nov. 24, 2005, Thanksgiving Day, Strock was patrolling a southern Baghdad area known as the "Triangle of Death" when her armored vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device.

"Two insurgents were apparently in the brush, and they had buried an IED in the middle of the road weeks before," Strock said. "There was no way to see it and no way to know it was there. When we drove over it, they blew it.

"My team leader died instantly, I'm told. He got thrown through the door and out into some brush that was too tall for them to find him in," Strock said. "It took about two hours to find him."

The vehicle's driver also died in the explosion; the .50-caliber gunner and Strock survived.

Strock's left femur was broken in multiple places and her right tibia, ankle and heel were severely damaged in the blast. Cranial swelling left her comatose. When she regained consciousness about a month later, Strock consented to below-knee amputation surgery.

Life with two metal legs began.

Six months later in Iraq, Kessler's vehicle was patrolling a Ramallah street when an improvised explosive device detonated under his gunner's hatch.

Kessler suffered two pelvic fractures, five fractures in his back and multiple broken ribs from the blast.

"Every move was painful for him," Kessler's wife, Vanessa, recalled.

"It also shattered my legs pretty bad," Kessler said, pointing to his titanium replacements.

After the explosion, doctors amputated Kessler's right leg below the knee and his left leg above the knee. A prosthetic knee joint and two titanium legs now stand in their places.

But Kessler and Strock refuse to let their situations keep them down.

"Climbing is one of the passions I've wanted to get back to," Kessler said. "Being able to get back here and climb is the first step of many."

In the summer of 2000, Kessler had 45 days free while he prepared to re-station in Alaska. He and his future wife spent nearly every one of those days rock climbing. "It cemented our friendship and created the beginnings of our relationship," Vanessa said.

"Rock climbing takes perseverance and strength and patience," she said. "It is kind of like puzzle solving."

That summer, Vanessa and Jake discovered their lives were meant to fit together.

This would be the first time the two climbed together since Kessler's double amputation.

Sitting next to Kessler in a wheelchair here, Strock's brunette hair sat in a bun above her grey, hooded sweatshirt. Her blue basketball shorts hung around the suction device that connects her real knees to her prosthetic legs.

"My goal for the day is to make it up the wall," Strock said. "Once, at least. I'm either going to end up leaving here really angry with myself or really happy."

Strock touched the new foot fixtures to confirm their stability, then she stepped onto the climbing gym's blue, matted floor and walked with a stuttered gait, like a woman on stilts, toward a 15-foot rock.

As she reached the wall, Strock showed her painted fingernails to Timmy O'Neill, an internationally renowned speed-climber on hand to assist the vets with their climbs.

"What am I going to do about these?" she asked.

"Don't worry," O'Neill joked. "Those won't be there by the end of the day."

"On belay," O'Neill said to Strock, indicating he was ready to assist.

Strock's playful smile vanished as she replied, "Climbing."

Surveying the wall briefly, she wrapped her fingers around two jutting rocks, or holds, then hoisted a titanium leg off the blue mat.

"Get the meat of your foot on there," O'Neill said as Strock fought her way upward. "Yeah! Nice! Commit to it. I've got you."

Strock climbed within one step of the rock's apex when the suction device keeping her knee and prosthetic leg together loosened.

As she lifted her knee toward the next-highest hold, the titanium leg detached and fell to the matted floor in a crash.

"Watch out for falling limbs!" she chided. Strock's laughter masked her disappointment at failing to reach the top.

"Nice job," O'Neill told Strock once she had returned to the bottom. "You've set your next project."

On an adjacent wall, Kessler, halfway up a 15-foot rock, struggled toward the top when his progress suddenly halted.

"He's using so much more of the bicep," Jeremy Hardin, Sport Rock Center's "route setting" director, explained. "Climbing is supposed to be all about your legs.

"(Kessler) can't bend at the knee," Hardin said, "So he is going to have to learn to adapt."

Kessler rappelled to the rock base and lay flat on the blue mats. Beads of sweat dripped from his shaved head down the sides of his face; he breathed heavily. He was clearly exhausted.

"I can't get a good grip with these feet," Kessler told Zach Harvey, Walter Reed's chief prostheticist, who volunteered at the event.

Harvey led Kessler and Strock back to their wheelchairs, where he modified their prostheses.

"It kind of sucks when you get up there and one of your limbs falls off," Strock said as Harvey adjusted the suction device between her knee and leg. "I didn't even know it fell until I heard it hit the ground and saw it laying there."

Harvey secured Strock's prostheses. For Kessler, the prostheticist tried something revolutionary; he turned Kessler's feet around 180 degrees.

On her next climb, Strock reached the rock's apex and slapped her hand defiantly on its top.

"It's definitely a cool feeling to know that I'm still able to do some of the stuff that I had fun with before," Strock said after descending.

A fellow vet told Strock she was the first female double-amputee vet to reach the top of the wall

"Oh that was nothing," she replied. "I can do that in my sleep."

"This was exactly what Marissa needed to boost her confidence," Vanessa Kessler said about Strock.

"Climbing, in general, empowers you as a human being. Climbing now, for them, empowers them on a completely different level," Vanessa said. "It shows them that they can do whatever they want.

"When they woke up and their legs were gone, every single thing that they ever knew was gone," she continued. "And all of these things, all the rehab and the climbing and the fishing and the skiing help them take steps to get a visualization of who they're going to be now."

Vanessa looked on as her husband, climbing with the heels of his prosthetic legs, scraped his way up the 50-foot wall. She fell silent for a moment.

"I knew from the beginning that something amazing would come out of this. I didn't know how; I still don't know what that looks like," she said. "But every time that we do one of these events, it helps me get a little bit more clarity on what that means."

As Kessler fought to nearly halfway up the rock, Vanessa brushed a tear from her eye.

"Some say that things like this happen only to people that can handle them. Jake is one of those people," she said.

"He just has this light about him that you can see," she explained. "I don't really know where it comes from; it's just part of him."

If Vanessa had been told before Kessler's accident that he would be here climbing a rock with the heels of prosthetic feet, "It wouldn't have surprised me at all," she said. "My husband is one of the strongest, most persevering human beings I've ever met. If somebody said he would be climbing Everest in 10 years, it wouldn't surprise me in the least."

Kessler, visibly exhausted, climbed just above the halfway point when he asked to be lowered down.

"It's amazing knowing that you can get out and still do the same things you did before," Kessler said after his climb. "It helps a lot that there are positive people around me, encouraging me whether I make it to the top or halfway up.

"There's no such thing as a bad climb," he said.

Vanessa pushed Kessler's wheelchair to him and offered a seat to the worn-out soldier.

"Every step in this is just another piece of what our lives are going to look like now," Vanessa said. "And every new thing that he accomplishes reinforces the fact that we're going to be OK.

"It's the old spark," she said. "This is beautiful to watch."

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