Maj. David Rozelle was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Almost 3 months into this mission, on the way to teach the first police academy in the region of Hit, Iraq, the convoy Rozelle was leading turned off the main highway to cross a dirt field.
The dirt field turned out to be a minefield.
Rozelle explained that the blast blew off the right front end of the humvee, destroying his right foot along with it. He was the only one injured in the incident.
A military life
Rozelle’s military involvement began in 1992 when he enlisted with the North Carolina National Guard as a way of following family tradition, Rozelle explained. In 1995, Rozelle was commissioned by the Davidson College ROTC where he began 13 years in active duty, spending different tours as an armored platoon leader, a mortar platoon leader, and as a company executive officer. In 1999, Rozelle deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Spring and then spent one year in Korea as a brigade planning officer. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and in May 2002 he took command of K Troop before deploying to Iraq in April of 2003.
On June 17, 2004, a few days shy of the one year anniversary of the incident that resulted in his amputation, Rozelle redeployed and became the first amputee in recent history to return to active duty.
Rozelle did not hastily decide to go back to Iraq for his second tour of duty, which spanned 4 months. But after some thought, he realized the military is where his aspirations thrive.
“This is my career. This is what I do. From the point of injury I set goals for myself,” Rozelle said. “One of which was to recover and return to duty. It was already a part of my plan.”
Rozelle’s initial plan did not take into consideration all of the changes that he would endure over the next several months or the fact that returning to Iraq would bring an entirely new set of challenges, adding to those he faced on his first tour of duty.
“Reality struck at about the 8-month mark when I realized I am a different person. Things are going to be different for me and I am always going to have to deal with this prosthetic leg. I am always going to have to adjust myself for the situation based on being an amputee,” Rozelle said.
He did not want to be a liability to his fellow soldiers. “How am I going to overcome this? Especially being a military officer, am I going to be a combat multiplier by being on the battlefield with my men? Will I be as able as I used to be? Those are the kinds of questions that were running through my mind and I had to take command and prove to myself during the next year that I could do it.”
Taking command meant meeting the same physical standards he met before his amputation, the same physical standards met by every member of the Army, including foot marches and passing the general physical fitness test.
Luckily, Rozelle did not waste any time getting back to the sports he loved, which readied him for new physical challenges. First he tackled skiing, hoping to clinch a spot on the U.S. Paralympics ski team in the event that he would be unable to return to active duty.
“I helped develop the first world-class athlete program for Paralympic athletes,” he said. “I wanted our guys to have the opportunity to train for the Paralympics while on active duty.”
In the off-season, Rozelle entered triathlons as a way to stay in shape and as his enjoyment grew so did his level of achievements. In just 2 years he competed in the Ironman World Championship in Kona. Additionally he said he participates in two or three marathons and about 15 triathlons each year.
“People with disabilities want to be on a level playing field,” Rozelle said. “I definitely got that in the Army. The Army doesn’t care if you have two legs or one. They’ll treat you the same so you’ve got to be ready for them just like any other soldier.”
Being physically ready was only half the battle. Rozelle had to cope with the emotional issues of returning to the same battlefield that could have claimed his life, safeguarding himself and those he would be leading.
“This is the place where I was almost killed … and here I am back again. I wouldn’t say that I was more careful. I followed the same procedures as before but I was definitely more challenged physically,” Rozelle said of his second tour of duty. “I had to plan ahead before a mission. I had to carry an extra foot in my backpack. I had to carry extra parts in my backpack. I had to be my own one-stop shop for self-repair.”
Being the first
“I didn’t really realize what it meant until I got back,” Rozelle said about the impact of his redeployment. “When I got back and saw the faces of the newly injured and they saw a guy who had been injured in the last 2 years and had already gone back to Iraq, it gave new hope to our soldiers who live to do their job in the Army. This is why we signed up. These are warriors and they love what they do and they care about their unit and they are proud of being in the Army.”
Rozelle, who now works on policy at the national level for injured service members, set the precedent as the first and was certainly not the last. In the last 2 years, 15 additional soldiers have returned to active duty following amputation.
Seeing how his actions inspired the lives he touched, Rozelle followed the advice of some close friends and decided to share his story with the rest of the world, which he had mapped out in journals over time. In 2005, Rozelle published his story, Back in Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude.
“I wanted to find a way through the mass media to get my own message out, which was the story of the American soldier and the great things that we’re doing over there and the great spirit of these volunteers,” Rozelle told O&P Business News. “I think [the story] is less about me and more about the American soldier. Our American warriors that are out there in the battlefield right now are a great example of the generations that are now and are to come. We continue to create heroes for this country and I am very proud to be a part of it.”
Jennifer Hoydicz is a staff writer for O&P Business News.