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Originally published January 5, 2013 at 2:18 PM | Page modified January 5, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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At JBLM, double amputee waits to move on

Cheryl Leonard's husband was drugged and delirious the first time she saw him after he lost a leg in Afghanistan.

The News Tribune

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TACOMA, Wash. —

Cheryl Leonard's husband was drugged and delirious the first time she saw him after he lost a leg in Afghanistan.

First Sgt. William "Mike" Leonard had injuries to his head and back and a wound to his left heel that ultimately would cost him his other leg. In those confusing early days, the soldier reasoned he was at the Army hospital in the nation's capital because he was the president.

A long journey lay ahead. Cheryl planned to be there till the end.

"I told him that first day, `I go home when you go home,'" she said.

It took a year and a half, but the Leonards are home in Lacey.

They returned to the two-story house they bought just before his 2010 deployment with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, enjoying their dogs and seeing Cheryl's son regularly. They had planned to retire there. But there's nothing easy about coming home less than whole.

"There's nothing that can prepare you mentally for being a wounded soldier," says Mike Leonard, 41, who graduated from Kentridge High School in Kent, had a 22-year career in the Army and ended it with a local Stryker brigade.

He misses the camaraderie of being with many other wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Fewer than 10 amputees receive care at Lewis-McChord's Warrior Transition Battalion.

To keep his spirits up, he relaxes as best he can with his wife and builds Lego sets to exercise his mind as part of his head-injury recovery.

But his life is on hold while he awaits more surgeries on the East Coast, a medical discharge from the Army and another new start - this time, at a home tailored to his physical needs in Arizona.

His path is one that dozens of Lewis-McChord soldiers back from the latest cycle of deployments to Afghanistan are just beginning. It's one that he and his wife know all too well can feel like "two steps forward and three steps back," said Cheryl Leonard, 49.

"Things are going well, and then you'll be right back in that wheelchair," she said.

Reports from the Army surgeon general show that combat amputations from the past decade of war peaked in 2011, when 244 service members lost limbs. That's about 40 more than the height of the Iraq War, when 205 service members lost limbs in 2007.

A final tally has not been released for 2012, but updates from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center showed 141 combat-related amputations through November.

Updates on the Facebook pages of recently wounded Lewis-McChord soldiers show young men exploring sports and gaining agility on prosthetic limbs. Other local soldiers have posted raw descriptions of their challenges in the hospital, from weaning themselves off painkillers to stumbling with their new limbs.

Cheryl Leonard calls severely wounded soldiers courageous in facing personal battles they did not foresee before they deployed. She thinks they're too often forgotten when the public focuses only on service members who die in combat.

When civilians hear of nonfatal attacks, Cheryl thinks they assume "Phew, only five people were injured."

"But that blast has turned that soldier's life and his family's upside down," she said.

The Leonards have managed his rehabilitation by leaning on each other and strengthening their relationship. They know they have more work to do to rebuild Mike's independence.

"We did survive for a year and a half as a married couple in a little hotel room, so we proved we can survive anything," Mike jokes.

The couple laughs, and the smiles show they mean it.

"I can't say it enough: Your spouse is what keeps you going," he said.

Mike Leonard remembers the moments just after his 25-ton Stryker vehicle hit "an ungodly amount of high explosives" laid in the ground in the form of a pressure plate mine in southern Afghanistan.

Barely conscious, he told another soldier: "Make sure everybody gets out. Make sure everybody gets right."

"Everybody's out, 1st Sergeant," the soldier replied.

Leonard joined the 5th Brigade in Afghanistan in January 2010, about halfway through its deployment. The brigade faced a tough year in Kandahar province as the first Stryker unit to fight in Afghanistan. It lost 37 soldiers as it patrolled hostile territory that NATO had ignored for years.

Leonard took the reins as the senior noncommissioned officer in a company of about 160 soldiers, a position he long coveted as he moved up the ranks through his two previous deployments to Iraq. He wanted to get out with the troops and demonstrate that he could lead from the front instead of hanging back in a headquarters.

"I wanted them to see I was just as much in the fight as they were," he said.

When the bomb hit March 23, he said soldiers got him off the ground in a medical evacuation helicopter within 15 minutes.

He was with his wife at Walter Reed two days later.

His catalogue of injuries included losing his right leg below the knee, suffering a serious fracture to his left heel, a broken femur, a collapsed lung, a broken back and a traumatic brain injury.

She became his advocate at the hospital, paying close attention to tell doctors when his behavior seemed off. Balancing pain medications triggered harsh mood swings.

"I was calling Cheryl every name under the sun," he said. "I was mean."

She didn't let it get to her. She'd tell the doctors to try something different.

"Luckily she was right there next to me," he said. "She'd lay me down, I'd wake up and say, `What's going on?' and she'd say `Nothing, everything's fine.'?"

The Leonards prepared for his Afghanistan deployment differently than they did his for his Iraq tours. Before Afghanistan, they talked through what Mike wanted to happen in case he suffered a serious injury.

"It was as if he knew something was going to happen," Cheryl said.

He was clear about one thing: "I didn't want to be a double amputee."

He maintained that wish for months at Walter Reed even though doctors began suggesting to him that the fracture on his left heel would cause him too much pain to walk on it. Their assessment proved true.

Leonard compared himself to other amputees and saw them learning to walk and taking up stunts like skydiving. He could not keep up with them.

He told Cheryl he was thinking of having doctors amputate the second leg. She reminded him of what he said before he deployed. But this was different than he had imagined.

"I'm already a double amputee," he told her. "I'll never be able to run."

They opted for the surgery in January 2011. He was walking a month later.

USA Today later featured him in a story about soldiers who lost limbs in combat choosing to have another amputation once they returned home.

Looking back, Leonard said he should have taken his doctor's recommendation even earlier.

"I wish I would have understood what they were saying," he says now.

Last summer, Mike felt his recovery moving at full speed. He felt confident using his prosthetic limbs and looked forward to new challenges, such as taking up hand-cycling.

He and Cheryl had moved back to Lacey to finish up his medical retirement through the Warrior Transition Battalion at Lewis-McChord, a branch that serves ill and injured soldiers until they can rejoin the ranks or separate from the military.

In that moment when life seemed to be going as well as he could hope, he fell and broke a hip during a trip to San Diego. He survived a touch-and-go surgery and had limited mobility through October.

Today he continues to feel severe pain in his right side. He's scheduled to return to Walter Reed early this year for more surgeries and up to six months of rehabilitation.

To him, returning to the national Army medical center can't come soon enough.

He and Cheryl moved back to the South Sound in August 2011, after just 18 months at Walter Reed. Doctors had told them to expect a stay of three to five years at the Maryland hospital.

That sounded too long for them at the time. They were a relatively older couple at Walter Reed, and they wanted to get out of the hotel room they were sharing.

They missed their pets and their home. And they figured Mike could get the same kind of care at Lewis-McChord and from private specialists in the area.

But they found less support than they anticipated. Amputees make up a very small minority of patients at Lewis-McChord's hospital for sick and wounded service members. Just nine of the more than 400 soldiers in the facility are amputees.

Most military amputees are treated at Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio or Navy Medical Center San Diego.

At Lewis-McChord, the care often comes from specialists who work off base. As a result, the Leonards rarely visit the base except for doctors' appointments at Madigan Army Medical Center.

Most of his care is administered by a Puyallup prosthetics specialist. He also gets physical and speech therapy at home.

It's a big change from his life at Walter Reed, where younger soldiers looked up to Mike as a company sergeant and he felt the brotherhood of his service. He took the opportunity to build friendships and pass on lessons from his long Army career.

"Soldiers are the best therapy for other soldiers," he said.

These days, Mike wakes at 5 a.m. when he checks in by phone with his supervisor at the Warrior Transition Battalion. He waits about an hour in his bedroom until the swelling in his legs diminishes enough to attach his prosthetic limbs.

He heads downstairs and shapes his days around medical appointments.

He says it doesn't seem like a lot, but it usually sends him back to bed before 8 p.m.

Coming home didn't meet the Leonards' expectations, but they're as close as ever. Their next plans likely will take them away from the South Sound for a retirement in an unexpected place.

After Mike's next round of surgeries at Walter Reed, the couple plans to move to Peoria, Ariz., with the help of a nonprofit organization that builds dream homes for wounded service members.

The designs from Homes for Our Troops call for a house totally accessible for Mike's needs, such as double ovens that he can use to cook from a wheelchair. He smiles thinking of an afternoon in a pool.

"They've thought of everything," Cheryl said.

"That's our light at the end of the tunnel," Mike said.

He says he wouldn't change a thing about his time in the Army. He'd even go on that last mission.

"I've loved it all," he said, "even through this."

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Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

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