ASHOQEH, Afghanistan — When a bomb exploded under Dan Luckett's Army Humvee in Iraq two years ago — blowing off one of his legs and part of his foot — the first thing he thought was: "That's it. You're done. No more Army for you."
But two years later, the 27-year-old Norcross, Ga., native is back on duty — a double amputee fighting on the front lines of America's Afghan surge in one of the most dangerous parts of this volatile country.
Luckett's remarkable recovery can be attributed in part to dogged self-determination. But technological advances have been crucial: Artificial limbs today are so effective, some war-wounded like Luckett not only are able to do intensive sports like snow skiing, but also can return to active duty. The Pentagon says 41 American amputee veterans are now serving in combat zones worldwide.
For the first month at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center after his injury, Luckett was in a wheelchair. He hated the dependence that came with it. He hated the way people changed their voice when they spoke to him — soft and sympathetic.
He wondered: how long is THIS going to last? Will I be dependent on others for the rest of my life?
At night, he dreamed of walking on two legs.
When he woke, only the stump of his left leg was there, painfully tender and swollen.
His family wanted to know, is this going to be the same Dan?
He assured them he was.
Luckett was fortunate in one sense. His wounds had been caused not by shrapnel, but the projectile itself, which made a relatively clean cut. That meant no complications — no joint or nerve damage or bone fractures.
His right foot was sheered across his metatarsals, the five long bones before the toes. Doctors fitted it with a removable carbon-fiber plate that runs under the foot and fills the space where toes should be with hardened foam.
In early July 2008, Luckett strapped into a harness, leaned on a set of parallel bars, and tried out his first prosthetic leg.
It felt awkward, but he was able to balance and walk.
By February 2009, he had progressed so far, he could run a mile in eight minutes.
He rejoined his unit at Fort Campbell, Ky., and told his battalion commander he wanted to return to duty "only if I could be an asset, not a liability," he recalled.
Months later, he passed a physical fitness test to attain the Expert Infantryman's Badge. It required running 12 miles in under three hours with a 35-pound backpack. It was a crucial moment, Luckett said, "because I knew if I can get this badge, then there's nothing they can say that I'm not capable of doing."
The Army agreed, and promoted him to captain.
In May, he deployed to Afghanistan.