By Elaine Sanchez
Brooke Army Medical Center
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Jan. 22, 2014 – It took a devastating loss in Afghanistan for an Army officer to find his new calling.
Maj. Will Lyles, a bilateral amputee, is preparing night and day so he can ace the entry exams for medical school and become a doctor. It’s a path this athlete and Special Forces soldier never would have dreamed of just a few years earlier.
“I feel like being a doctor would allow me to continue to serve in the best possible way,” said Lyles, who had just stepped off a treadmill at the Center for the Intrepid here. “It’s my way of paying it forward after countless nurses, doctors and case managers [from Brooke Army Medical Center] worked so tirelessly to help me.”
From an early age, Lyles said, he aspired to be a professional baseball player. He secured a baseball scholarship to Virginia Military Institute, but a shoulder injury put a swift end to that dream. After college, Lyles decided a military career would put him on the right track. He joined the Army in 2003, and deployed twice to Iraq as an infantry officer.
Always striving for excellence, Lyles was accepted into the Special Forces Qualification Course in March 2009. “I wanted to work with the best of the best -- the 1 percent of the 1 percent,” he said.
After graduation in April 2010, Lyles was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., and soon deployed to Afghanistan. That summer, Lyles and his unit were en route to a key leader engagement in an Afghan village when they came under heavy insurgent fire on the outskirts of town. Lyles headed up a hill to assess the situation. It wasn’t until he was moving back down that he stepped on an improvised explosive device.
The moment, he said, was strangely surreal. He looked down at his mangled legs and shouted for a medic while fighting to stay calm.
“I kept thinking, ‘Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out,’” Lyles recalled. “But at the same time, I’m also thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”
Fearing the worst, the father of four said, he thought of his children and his family and felt a “desperate calm” wash over him. Moments later, the medevac helicopter arrived, and he blacked out. He had lost his left leg above the knee and his right leg just below, had suffered burns on his lower body, and broke his femur and hand.
After being flown to Germany for medical care, Lyles became critically ill from an infection in his right leg. He then was flown to Brooke Army Medical Center, where it took the removal of his knee and the bottom of his femur before the infection finally broke.
“I felt very fortunate to be alive,” he said.
Finally stable, this avid athlete and elite soldier now had to come to terms with his future as a bilateral above-the-knee amputee.
“It was a big adjustment at first,” he said. “I remember lying in bed thinking, ‘I’m going to have to be dependent on others for the rest of my life.’ That was huge for someone as independent as me.”
As he recovered in the hospital, Lyles said, he began to receive a steady stream of visits from other wounded service members. He watched them stride in on prosthetic legs, and felt a glimmer of hope for his future.
“These guys were driving, running, living their lives independently,” he said. “Their visits helped me reach a turning point. I could either feel sorry for myself or move on. I decided to move on.”
As an outpatient, Lyles’ persistence was tested daily as he underwent treatment at the Center for the Intrepid, the medical center’s state-of-the-art rehabilitation center. It was there, surrounded by his comrades, that he strengthened his body and learned to walk on prosthetic legs. Today, he walks briskly on a treadmill without a misstep while discussing his military career.
With his physical recovery on track, Lyles began to consider his future and how he could make the biggest difference. He thought back on the four years of care he’d received here and how much it meant to him.
“From the medics in the battlefield to doctors and nurses in every level [of care] along the way, they all had a profound effect on me,” he said. “I decided I could do great things as a doctor.”
He said he pictures himself walking into a fellow amputee’s room as a physician, his presence serving as a silent affirmation that anything is possible. “I can let them know that they have a lot to offer,” he added. “They can be productive citizens and achieve great things.”
In preparation, Lyles has been gaining real-world experience by shadowing orthopedic surgeons at BAMC. Next, he said, he plans to medically retire and work with retired Army Col. John Holcomb, former commander of the Institute of Surgical Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where he’ll continue to strengthen his application for medical school.
“I’m determined to chase down this dream,” Lyles said. “[After] the phenomenal help I received medically and personally after my injury, … I’m so grateful and now want to pass on that care to others.”