Tyler Burdick walked into the lodge just like anyone else who was about to go heliskiing for the first time. He was nervous and excited. And, for a moment, inconspicuous.
Then he took off his legs.
It had been less than a year since the former Navy corpsman chose to have his legs amputated below the knees. And while his story is still quite unusual, it’s not unique. Increasingly, as it turns out, veterans who have been able to save their natural limbs following a major wartime injury are choosing amputation, even in cases in which they’ve seen significant improvement in their salvaged limbs.
These choices are being driven by significant improvements in artificial limb technology but prosthetics are not a panacea, and the path from surviving to thriving doesn’t always move in one direction. That’s what veterans like Burdick, Bryant Jacobs, and David Rozelle have all found. The journey to healing after an elective amputation can be complicated, especially by the prospect of infections.
For many, though, it’s a risk worth taking. Burdick is now working toward a goal of returning to the Winter Paralympics. Jacobs is an active outdoorsman. Rozelle even returned to combat in Iraq — twice.
And all are outspoken advocates for the needs of veterans whose injuries aren’t so obvious — and who often have even fewer choices for how to treat their war wounds.
“Seeing someone who is missing a leg — that’s not people’s usual experience,” Jacobs says. So when people stop and stare at his computerized prosthetic leg, he notes, “maybe for a minute they remember that there are veterans all around them. And then maybe they’ll think about the fact that our obligations as a country don’t end when a war ends.”