What I learned from amputees: it wasn't what I expected

LAJES FIELD, Azores -- A number of years ago, I had the privilege to serve as a chaplain in a training program at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, formerly known as Brooke General Hospital. The program included rotations through a number of different sections on the medical campus. I served two rotations at the Center for the Intrepid, a world-class rehabilitation center. Due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I met a number of amputees and burn survivors who were adjusting to life after their injuries.

I was new to the hospital ministry and had a lot to learn. As their chaplain, I assumed that my role with these men and women would be to help them through the grief experienced from their loss. My first week there, I felt like I was a visitor at a funeral parlor--you know the awkward feeling you get there? You realize it's important to be there but you don't really know what to say. I was uncomfortable. But, I soon learned my preconceptions were actually misconceptions.

These men and women at the Center for the Intrepid were determined to go on with life and had similar concerns to others I have met and counseled. Their concerns included navigating the military medical system, planning for life after the military, waiting for medical evaluation board determinations and relationship issues that began growing even before the deployment that was cut short.

Some were celebrating life events; one had recently become engaged, and one man was home to see his child who was born while he was deployed. These servicemembers all faced the normal challenges that are common in our military communities.

At the Center for the Intrepid, adjusting to life's newest challenges was a shared experience.

I remember a particular conversation with a group of amputees who were sharing what it was like getting used to the new normal. One mentioned that he had gotten out of bed at night and forgotten he was missing a leg and fell down. As others chuckled, many confessed they had done the same. It seems it's a rite of passage for those who lose a leg. I wouldn't have expected to hear them laughing together, but the conversations flowed very naturally between these wounded warriors. The conversation illustrated for me the attitude they shared--these men and women were facing a challenge, not dealing with defeat.

I read a text on positive psychology that year and it referenced a study to understand how cancer patients dealt with grief. Interestingly, the researchers encountered a problem: in their cancer treatment center, they were unable to find a large enough sample of patients struggling with grief. Just the opposite was true of their population: these patients became stronger as they focused their energies and rearranged their lives to battle cancer. Extraneous activities that may amuse but ultimately distract from meaningful life were abandoned. Significant relationships too often neglected when life is smooth quickly become a high priority and these relationships become closer and more meaningful.

Just like the cancer patient study, my experience with wounded warriors at the Center for the Intrepid proved uniquely instructive.

I learned that, oddly enough, life's challenges can actually make life richer and more fulfilling.