To this day, Andy Hatcher doesn’t remember a thing about the events immediately following the explosion that would eventually lead to the loss of his right leg. He does, however, remember everything up to that point in almost vivid detail.
It was Thanksgiving Day 2004. Hatcher, now 23 years old, was serving as a Reconnaissance Marine in Iraq at the time. U.S. forces were in the midst of the second battle of Fallujah, which had begun Nov. 10. Hatcher and his platoon had just finished their final reconnaissance patrol of the day and were headed back to the chow hall for a much-needed Thanksgiving meal. The convoy came to pick up the Marines and Hatcher hopped into the front passenger side seat of one of the Humvees, prepared to put an uneventful day behind him and enjoy the turkey dinner.
The explosion caught everyone off guard.
“I was riding shotgun in I think the fourth truck back. We ended up getting hit by an IED [improvised explosive device]. I remember coming to in the dust cloud and thinking, ‘Oh no, somebody got hit, we need to go help them.’ I tried to get out of the truck and I wasn’t moving,” Hatcher recounted. “The initial shock of the blast ended up wearing off and I realized that I was pretty messed up.”
After the initial explosion, chaos ensued. His platoon sergeant, who was sitting behind Hatcher, was killed. As his fellow soldiers worked to get Hatcher to safety, he went into shock – hence the memory loss. As his platoon worked to get him out, the convoy was hit by two more roadside IEDs. He slipped into a coma for the next 2 weeks and when he finally woke up, he was back in the United States, being treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. His right leg was amputated below the knee on Dec. 15.
Hatcher was moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. shortly after his surgery. It was there that he began the difficult road to recovery. Although Hatcher, whose father was also in the military, inherently understood the risks of being a Marine, it didn’t make the transition any easier. Yet, the rigors he experienced while he trained to become a Recon Marine – dive school and jump school, along with survival and escape training – proved his mettle as an athlete who had the ability to overcome his amputation. So it would come as no surprise that sports played a large role in Hatcher’s rehabilitation.
Rehabbing with sports
“Walter Reed incorporates a lot of sports. It’s part of the process. A lot of the people in the military are athletes and they find this is a way to try to get their mind off the fact that they’re going through something so extreme and try to get them to have fun – to get that competitive spirit up. It creates a better environment for success,” he said.
Hatcher, who had already completed a marathon prior to being deployed to Iraq, found the use of athletics as a part of his rehabilitation to be a great fit. Just 5 months after his amputation, he took part in a 450-mile bike ride from Washington D.C. to New York, put on by Soldier Ride. During the ride he found himself in the company of the able-bodied riders, near the front of the pack everyday. His abilities on the bike led to Hatcher being approached by the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) to participate in some of their events.
CAF asked Hatcher to be a part of their Operation Rebound team. Operation Rebound is a program developed with wounded soldiers in mind. According to CAF, “The purpose of Operation Rebound is to provide post-rehabilitation support and mentorship to the injured American military personnel and veterans who have suffered traumatic injuries which result in permanent disability … in the recent conflicts related to the Global War on Terrorism.”
Becoming a mentor
Through Operation Rebound, Hatcher has been able to take his athletic pursuits to a level he never thought possible. Currently a CAF-sponsored triathlete, Hatcher has completed eight triathlons and will be competing in his first half Ironman Nov. 4 in Clearwater, Fla. His various athletic successes not only send a strong message about the will and capacity of disabled athletes, but also allow Hatcher to serve as a mentor to recently injured soldiers, just beginning their own road back to being rehabilitated.
“What we try to do is to go to these events and perform wonderfully and show these guys that there is something you can strive for. We try to tell them that we were just normal grunts, recon Marines, special forces guys before we started doing these things, and that this is completely possible. We try to get that mindset into the hospital,” Hatcher said. “And I feel like that’s my goal. [Helping] is something that I need to do. There was good mentorship when I was in the hospital and people took care of me. Now it’s my turn to take care of the people in the hospital.”
Hatcher believes that a program like Operation Rebound helps show recovering soldiers that getting back to a normal way of life is possible. But it is important for those people to hear that coming from other soldiers – men and women who have gone through the process themselves, rather than having a physical therapist telling them that they will be able to regain their once-active lifestyle. Showing is more powerful than merely telling, according to Hatcher. Operation Rebound provides that vital interaction.
“They don’t realize that people are made through the challenges and the obstacles that they overcome in life. [Obstacles] build stronger character and show what you’re capable of.”
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Andrew Kelly is the assistant editor for O&P Business News.