WASHINGTON — The fog stands out for him now. It was the densest he'd seen, not just in Iraq, but ever, a foreboding murk that repelled even the spotlights on his Humvee. The dampness had turned the ground at supply base into muddy slop. For some reason, he had felt compelled to snap a lot of photos that night. Otherwise, the night of December 19, 2006, was shaping up to be routine for J.R. Salzman: an all-night drive leading 20 empty fuel tankers south through Baghdad to Tallil Air Base, watching for bombs all the way.
He crammed himself into the passenger seat, swaddled in the gear of war: two radios, a GPS and a computer on the console, an M4 carbine rifle, night vision goggles, body armor on his person, a cooler full of drinks. He carried more ammo than anyone else in his unit — always saying that if he died in Iraq, it wouldn't be for lack of bullets — and fully outfitted, he was heavy enough that he had to sit on a cushion he called his "ass pillow." Salzman had been running these sorts of escorts for most of a year, and if there was one thing he had learned, it was to bring a cushion. The two times he forgot it, he was sore for weeks.
The convoy passed the usual sights along the way: sheep, nomads, concrete pillars for freeway overpasses that may or may not ever be built, Iraqis driving SUVs with giant plastic containers lashed to the roofs. If he hadn't been wedged in the truck wearing 50 pounds of armor, it might have been a pleasant ride. On a hot day, the insides of these steel monsters reminded Salzman of the blast from the oven when his grandmother baked cookies. The winter tamed the heat, even if the fog unnerved him.
In Baghdad's northwest suburbs, the three highway lanes pocked with holes from past blasts, he told his driver to slow down to about 35 mph. Salzman changed safety glasses, and reached up with his right hand to hang the old pair on a cord strung up along the windshield.
"All of a sudden," Salzman recalled later, "everything got really loud."
Courtesy of Salzman family - J.R. Salzman asked a fellow solider to snap this and other photos of him because his wife, Josie, complained that he wasn't sending her enough pictures.
The spotlights went blind as detritus cascaded against the vehicle. All four tires went flat. At the bottom of Salzman's window, an impact mark like a lunar crater appeared on ballistic glass that had turned the color of a spent match head.
He was unconscious for a moment after the explosion. He came to inside a charred nightmare splattered in blood and Red Bull and glass confetti. His helmet and logbook took on a fried copper smell that to this day reminds him of death. The 9 mm on his chest was melted into its holster.
He tried to open his door, but couldn't grab the handle. He soon realized why: his right hand was gone. And the left had been blitzed with shrapnel.
As he sat waiting for the medic, he took inventory of the rest of his body. He slid his feet — and they responded. Knees, too. His manhood was intact. He moved his shoulders. His insides felt good.
The medic arrived, and as he wrapped a tourniquet around Salzman's arm, he just kept telling Salzman how sorry he was that this had happened to him.
Salzman, in shock, dehydrated, bleeding, with one arm halved and the other hand mangled, reassured him. It's OK, he said. If I've still got my legs, I can still logroll.
'How do I do it?'
When he was wounded nine months ago, Darrell "J.R." Salzman, now 28-years-old, was among the preeminent outdoors athletes of the previous decade. In the six-year run of ESPN's Great Outdoors Games, he won a record 14 medals, in logrolling (a.k.a. "birling") and the boom run, in which competitors sprint along chains of logs. In 2005 he took home an ESPY as the Best Outdoor Sportsman, and between 1998 and 2005 he captured five logrolling titles at the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wis., his hometown.
Timbersports comprises a small realm, but Salzman was among its brightest stars, and aside from former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan in April of 2004, Salzman may be the most prominent athlete casualty in America's wars since Sept. 11, 2001.
Logrolling demands stamina and power — but it is balance, primarily, Salzman will forfeit without the lower half of his right arm. The old axiom holds that every athlete dies two deaths: one at the end of his career, and one at the end of his life. Having cheated the latter, Salzman hopes to logroll again, that he wouldn't have died even a single death in the desert.
It's a hell of a long road. Phantom pains, nightmares, memory loss, weight loss, physical therapy, menial bureaucracy, insomnia and a constant, low-grade narcotic coma are to be expected once a man gets one hand exploded and the other maimed.
In some ways, the little things make a competitive comeback feel even more like a pipe dream. Gold medals? Salzman can barely close his wallet on his own. Cashiers try to put change in his left hand, only to have the coins slide off his damaged palm, and so he tells them, keep it, just keep it. He accidentally rips the zippers off backpacks because he can't feel tension in the titanium pincers that have replaced his right hand. He has had to relearn how to tie his shoes, to sign his name, to pull up his pants.
These days, in fact, despite all the headaches both figurative and literal, it's possible that socks now most vex J.R. Salzman.
"Believe it or not," he says. "If I don't have this on" — indicating his prosthetic right forearm — "and they're inside-out? I'm screwed. Because you figure, how do you take a sock that's inside-out and pull it back the other way. How do I do it?"
J.R. Salzman works at his fly-tying station, a hospital table that he salvaged, Photo by Allison Money.
It's a midsummer morning, and he's in his room at the Fisher House III, on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he lives with his wife, Josie. The walls are chockablock with fly fishing books, and the floor dominated by boxes and bins. He's only a matter of weeks away from moving back home, and it shows. Salzman once put himself through the first of his two and a half years at the University of Minnesota by loading UPS trucks overnight, and now he has begun to stockpile containers.
An inordinate number of them are filled with fur and feathers of all varieties, the trappings of a fly tying habit that has spanned the past 15 years, pheasant and turkey tails, squirrel pelts, dyed deer hair, rabbit masks. The smell of their gradual decay wafts from the trunks when he opens them. His shelves are stacked with books — at least two dozen on fly fishing alone — and his carpet is booby-trapped with the tiny brass hooks that fall from his workstation, an adjustable hospital table he rescued from the trash.
Simply having the room to contain his obsession has made this house an upgrade from the hospital and Ward 57, the Walter Reed trauma ward where Salzman recouped after his injuries. But a married couple needs more privacy than that afforded by a 10-family home that could pass as a bizarro MTV show: "The Real World: Walter Reed." Someone has been filching laundry soap. Food disappears from the communal fridge. Then there are encounters like the one Salzman had recently with a housemate who needed help tweezing out a piece of shrapnel that had begun to poke out of his palm when he flexed his thumb. "It was like a tiny rod shoved into his hand," Salzman recalls. "It had speared in that way." Together they extracted an inch-long metal splinter from the GI's hand.
These men, of course, are fortunate even to be here. As the war in Iraq marked the middle of its fourth year this September, nearly 4,000 U.S. troops had been killed. Salzman is among the nearly 30,000 enlisted Americans who have been wounded there.
At a certain point, normalcy demands they stop counting their blessings. On one hand, the Salzmans have to be thankful he survived. But on the other hand — well, the other hand is gone. It was obliterated so completely and so violently, doctors later found fragments of Salzman's bones speared into his gunner's leg, as skeletal shrapnel.
What remains is pain and anger that the mere miracle of life and a daily barrage of methadone and Lyrica and Pamelore and Percoset don't quite quell.
So Salzman tries to rebuild his old life. A big part of that is staying busy. For Salzman, that means fishing.
On this day, as he has done a hundred times since he was boy, Salzman is going to scout a new river. This one, Gunpowder Falls State Park in Maryland, is about an hour's drive away, mostly along Interstate 83.
Before you climb into the car with him and Josie, it'll help to brush up on the acronym soup that passes for communication among military folks. Hereforth, a quick glossary:
MSR. Main supply route. Refers to Iraq Highway 10, along which Salzman used to escort convoys.
RPG. Rocket-propelled grenade. These were a common threat on his runs.
IED. Improvised explosive device. The roadside bombs chewing up limbs and psyches in Iraq.
EFP. Explosively formed penetrator. A special type of IED that typically fires a copper slug so fast and so hot, it can pierce a Humvee's armor. In all likelihood, this is what struck Salzman.
TBI. Traumatic brain injury. They're still waiting to see whether J.R. has one, but he has been so numbed on painkillers and other prescriptions it's hard to separate his short-term memory loss from the meds' side effects.
Josie drives while her husband rides shotgun and navigates the curlicue highways of eastern Maryland, just as he used to in Iraq. She's tall — with a broad smile and wide eyes, striking in appearance — a casting director might choose Jessica Biel to play her in a biopic.
She makes a point of reminding him of a few crucial turns, to compensate, perhaps, for his apparent nonchalance, and to keep them from winding up somewhere in darkest West Virginia. She tells him to watch for a turn five miles ahead, and he scoffs.
"I'm just telling you ahead of time," she says.
"So I have five miles to prepare?" her husband confirms.
"All right. I'm preparing," he says to her. Josie's younger than J.R. by more than seven years, though, at times, she acts older, and he, younger, to the point that they could share a birthday. They nip at each other in the way that bear cubs tussle.
He adds: "She makes mountains out of molehills."
"Do not," she says.
"There you go."
"Shut up," she chides. "You'd be just as bad if you were driving."
"No, I'm a lot more patient now."
"No, you're not," she replies.
"Than I was," he says. "Before Iraq. You do a lot of hurry up and wait in Iraq. Sitting around in your Humvee, not doing anything, waiting for the routes to clear of IEDs so you can go with your convoy. I sat on the MSR for six hours straight, and I've gone two miles. That's the way it is sometimes. You learn to be patient and not get worked up. You can sit and freak out, and rant and rave all you want — it's not going to help anything. It's just going to make your life shorter."
This Salzman — tempered, if a touch antagonistic — contrasts with the image he struck as a professional birler. At a lithe 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, with sharp features, long limbs and abs like marimba bars, he could have passed for a beach volleyball player. His success depended as much on his preternatural balance as his strength, certainly, yet social grace came less easily. Often he came off as too clever and cocky in dockside interviews, even when he cracked wise on himself. Audiences just didn't seem to believe that he held anything but a very high opinion of himself.
His looks did not help this perception — handsome people appear self-centered almost by default — nor did the fact that among the tight clans of the timber sports world, his was among the most successful. His mother, Bonnie, ran the World Championships for years; his sister, Tina, was a 10-time logrolling world champion; and her husband, Carson Bosworth, was an accomplished axman in his own right.
(He also had a hotheaded streak. After he lost an event in 2003, I watched Salzman slip away from the bedlam at the venue, walk to the far side of a small building, and vent his aggression on a fence until his sister found him and talked him back to the medal podium. Before my visit with the Salzmans this summer, Josie knew me only as the author of a dispatch in which I mentioned that incident. Apparently her mother showed it to Josie as a warning that her husband-to-be had a short fuse.)
Television viewers wouldn't have known it at the time, but Salzman was wrestling inwardly with the anxieties that 9/11 pushed to the national fore. He felt naïve at not having known that people would attack the United States for, in his view, supporting freedom of speech and religion. Three days before the second anniversary of the attacks, when he finally did walk into recruiting station to get pitched, he already had made up his mind.
When Salzman returned to the Great Outdoor Games the following year, he seemed more serious, and harder, when he announced that he had enlisted. It was the summer of 2004, close behind the revelations of Abu Gharib and the desecration of four contractors' bodies in Fallujah and new beheading videos. A 25-year-old offering himself in service to his country was a powerful gesture. The death toll in Iraq at that time stood at fewer than 900 American Soldiers, and the wounded, fewer than 6,000. When he won his final world championship the next year, he did so knowing that if he shipped out, he might never compete again. He didn't fall once.
That autumn, he and the rest of the 34th Infantry Division reported to Camp Shelby for training. With a deployment looming, Josie convinced him that, after a year and a half of dating, they should marry — largely because, if something were to happen to him, a wife would have stronger rights to care for him. She feared that he would get his legs blown off.
So in March of 2006, Salzman got three days' leave from the base. The couple rented a car in Jackson, Miss., and sped to New Orleans, getting repeatedly lost along the way because Hurricane Katrina had stolen many of the road signs. They arrived at the courthouse just before it closed, realized they had no cash, dashed to a bank, got their marriage license in five minutes ("We didn't even see the people who signed as witnesses," Josie says) and immediately were married at a judge's home. After that 10-minute ceremony, they found some dinner, got nice and liquored up, and called home to inform the folks.
He shipped out the following month. They saw each other again when he returned home for two weeks in late November. Two weeks after that, someone blew him up.
Josie turns off the interstate and Salzman guides her down a series of side roads, into the forest, where they come at last to a small parking area beside a broad, shallow creek. She dons an old fishing vest that fit J.R. when he was 12-years-old. With a deliberateness that borders on excruciating, Salzman sets about wriggling into his waders and fastening his rod to his artificial arm using a strapping mechanism that his father, Darrell, built for him.
He has been on about a half-dozen group trips that Operation Healing Waters and Wounded Warriors Project have organized for wounded veterans — to Montana, with Josie to Chesapeake Bay, to the Potomac, to Vail, Colo. He mentions another that he's eyeing. "But the thing is, the registration date's like four months prior," he says. "A lot of us haven't even been blown up yet."
They wade into the chilly water together — too far downstream, they soon realize, and they trudge through the current. She climbs out on a bank while he forges ahead, casting his homemade woolly bugger under little overhangs where a trout might hide. His motion is cockeyed by necessity. Among the patients at Walter Reed who practice casting on the hospital's front lawn each week, Salzman's is far from the prettiest. He politely declines the unsolicited coaching he receives from experts who seem not to notice that he's working with only half a right arm.
"You can't let your injuries rule you," he says. "It's OK to have a bad day. I have a lot of bad days."
Just as it is becoming apparent that nothing resembling a trout had ever so much as heard of this creek, Salzman flicks the woolly bugger near the bank and — bust! A little trout, not much longer than Salzman's hand, takes the bait, to Salzman's sudden joy.
"Well, what do you know?" he says. "Just because I have one arm doesn't mean I can't catch fish."
The same nightmare
The walk from the Fisher House to the main hospital can be nasty, at times brutish, and, mercifully, short. There surely are few hospitals like Walter Reed in the world. Here, the halls teem with men and women who are not only generally healthy, but supremely so. They are young, they are fit, they are swathed in muscle built of MREs and push-ups at Fort Benning.
And yet they are visibly and terribly amiss. A man walks through the corridors with a shirt sleeve hanging empty and tucked into a pants pocket. Hollow plastic legs clatter on the floor when they're dropped. The light click-hiss of hydraulic knees sounds futuristic, in an eerie way. One man in the halls appears to have suffered ghastly burns only on one side of his head, giving him a face like both halves of a comedy-tragedy mask. No one appears sick; no one appears quite well.
"This place is like a real-life Mad Magazine," Salzman says on the way to his physical therapy appointment. He makes his way through the hallways to the third floor, where his occupational therapist, Kristi Say, warms his damaged left hand with hot wax and a mitt. The explosion drove his wedding band down through his ring finger — it later had to be surgically removed — and left him with serious nerve damage.
"No matter how you were injured," Salzman says as Say works on his hand, "a lot of us were injured right around the same spot: one of the main thoroughfares through Iraq or around the Baghdad area. Some of us were hit within five clicks of each other, and at four-month intervals.
"They've done so many missions in those areas. They've put out sniper teams and they've killed unbelievable amounts of people who were putting out IEDs, and they just keep coming, they just keep coming — more people, more people, putting out IEDs. You kill one, and there's somebody standing right behind him. It's just going to take time. It's getting better, but it just takes time."
Say, meanwhile, is cranking on the pinky tendons that have shortened and won't straighten. This prompts Salzman to recall the various nerve tests he has endured on that hand. One, an EMG, measures nerve health by how much the muscle responds to an electric shock. If it doesn't jump, the technician cranks up the voltage. "They keep going up and up and up until they're as high as they can go," Salzman says.
"It's not pleasant," Say says.
"That's not the worst part," he continues. "They have this machine that listens for nerve activity." To do that, though, technicians have to jangle the nerve with a needle. "They'll start cranking it around, in your hand, in your arm," he says. "You pop a lot of pills before you go. That's what everybody told me. So I popped a bunch of Percoset, and it still hurt like hell. I was bleeding all over my hand. My guy was new, too, so he was being trained. Which always happens to me, no matter where I go."
Salzman says this to be funny — dry, dark, self-deprecating humor is a staple of his — and of course, having been blown up, he feels to an extent like life has aligned against him in tiny ways.
His morphine allergy is a perfect example. On the battlefield, the medics carry only morphine, he says — and he's allergic. So medics transported him to a forward surgical tent without any sort of painkiller.
From there, he was flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southwest Germany, and then 16 hours to Walter Reed with his arm sewn shut but yet to be properly cleaned, ringing with pain.
Two months in bed followed, and for that, there was dope, two dozen pills a day. His parents came to visit. On New Year's Day, Condolezza Rice stopped by. His stitches looked like woolly buggers in his skin. Wisconsin congressman Ron Kind invited J.R. and Josie to sit in the balcony during the State of the Union address. "Mythbusters" played constantly on the Discovery Channel. The Green Bay Packers sent a care package. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty visited, though Salzman has no memory of this. (He does remember Robert Gates coming by, though in trying to recall the Secretary of Defense's name, Salzman offers a clue of what it's like to be in his head these days: "It's not that I can't remember. I can't clear my head up enough to remember.")
Time flickered. "Man vs. Wild" was on. Therapists shuttled in and out. His IV holes in his arm looked like insect bites. Justin Timberlake visited ("He had more security than Condolezza Rice," Josie says) and so did actors Gary Sinise and Joe Pantoliano. "Doonesbury" author Gary Trudeau read Salzman's blunt, moving entries in his blog, "Lumberjack in a Desert," and tracked him down to ask permission to reprint them in a book. Dick Cheney, ol' Angler himself, stopped in to say hello.
When he was deemed well enough to live outside the main ward, Salzman moved to the Fischer House. But his hospital room had become a safe shelter. And moving brought on nightmares. "I was having them every night," he says as Say rubs cocoa butter on his gnarled hand. "It was pretty much the same nightmare every time. Whatever room I would be sleeping in, I'd have a dream that an IED went off outside the window. I'd see the flash. I'd roll over and wake her up: 'Get up! An IED just went off!' Just scaring her. I'd sit there and gasp for air. It just sucked."
There's not much to do for the psychological trauma except talk about it, and Salzman does, a lot. It's his therapy. Since moving out of the main hospital ward, he has returned to counsel new patients on their recovery. They talk about navigating the military hospital red tape, the side effects of various pills. He repeats the message he was offered: "It gets better."
And there are more, always more, patients to see.
Say adds this: "The IEDs, the RPGs, the EFPs, all the stuff they're using, instead of going to one area and hitting just one thing, it's blasting everything, and pelting entire bodies.
"Now it's very rare to see someone with just one single amputation," she continues. "Now we have either two amputations, or they're missing an eye, or they're open from here to here. Everything is much more complicated now."
A jovial Army captain named Eivind Forseth, a coordinator with Project Healing Waters, stops at the table, and talks fishing with Salzman. Before long, R.J. Meade from the Wounded Warrior Project does the same.
All the talk of fly-tying turns to feathers. Feathers turn to dead animals. Dead animals remind Josie of visiting Salzman's parents last year.
"Last Thanksgiving," Josie says, "they put me in J.R.'s bedroom. His dad decided that he was going to put a turkey in the bedroom, an old, stuffed turkey. I wake up and this face is staring at me. Freakin' dead turkey, cobwebs all over it, in the middle of the night. It was creepy."
"Now you know how I feel when I wake up next to you," Salzman deadpans.
Josie slugs him on the shoulder.
"I can see the front page of the paper now —" Meade says.
"'Abuse at Walter Reed,'" Salzman finishes.
This is who I am
Salzman can still feel his missing hand through the gulf where his forearm used to be. He can turn it in circles, he can give you the finger and he swears he can almost make a fist, if only the fingers would close all the way.
In its place are two curved pieces of titanium, held tense by the thickest rubber band Salzman could find. To make them his hand, he begins by smearing his arm with hand sanitizer, and rolling a rubber cap onto the rounded, scarred skin on his elbow. Poking from the cap is a ratchet that he slides into the female end of his fiberglass arm, garishly emblazoned with blue flames, like a dragster. He sets the claw end-first on the floor and leans on it until the ratchet clicks home in the arm. To open and close his pincers, he flexes against a shoulder harness that attaches to a supposedly unbreakable cable that, by this time, he has broken three times already.
"I don't care that people know I have a dis —" he stumbles on the word "— a disability, really. This is who I am. I don't want to hide it."
When he and Josie go to eat at an outdoor mall in nearby Silver Springs, Md., surprisingly few people notice the arm. Men seem to look at it more often than women, though one mother carrying an infant stares at the arm as she walks past. A little girl gazes at it until her father reaches down and gently steers her head forward.
At lunch, talk turns to Salzman's upcoming birthday, his 28th. It will be the first birthday of his the couple has spent together since the last Great Outdoor Games in Orlando.
"Last year I sent you a birthday card and probably an e-mail," Josie says. "We may have even gotten to talk online that day."
"We did," he confirms. That, he remembers. In a battle zone, the best memories are those which are weightless. Josie's still irked at the revelation, of two days earlier, that her husband would burn the letters she sent, rather than lug piles of them or risk leaving them behind somewhere.
"You probably burned my birthday card," she says.
"I did what I could to get through the day, hon," he replies.
Along the same stretch of shops is a Borders bookstore, manna for Salzman, a bore for Josie. He always buys books, she says, too many books. They're about to move, and he's going to buy more books.
The inside is well-lighted, and bland guitar music plays overhead, giving the store the feeling of a giant elevator. Salzman winds his way to a nook at the back that holds travel guides. There he finds a road map of Iraq, spreads it on the floor, and kneels, holding his balance with his left hand and tracing his last journey in Iraq with his hook.
"It was dark," he recalls. "You only run convoys at night when the curfew's on. It was the first convoy I had to do that night. Usually you don't want to be first, you want to be second. The convoy ahead of you will hit all that. But we were the first convoy and I was the first vehicle out of the gate. We rolled out I think at 21:00.
"I remember the road being really bad, all blown up. From here down" — he points at the map, north of Baghdad — "it was really bad. I remember there being big craters in the road, pieces of shells being in the ground from the IEDs that had gone off that day or the day before, and the road was all blown up in a few places where they just filled it in with dirt to try and keep the traffic rolling.
"It's just … yeah. It was getting bad. One second I was talking to my driver, and the next second I was waking up and my arm was gone."
And, as he so often says, that really sucks. As he walks to the register, he passes through the discounted books near the front. He stops next to a stack of books about playing piano, and pauses for a moment to consider it. "That's something I always wanted to do," he says. "Not just plunk it." He doesn't bother to speak the obvious, that even so simple a dream is out of reach for a man with only four fingers.
Instead, his hook settles on a different title nearby. And Salzman walks to the register with a how-to book on calligraphy.
On Sept. 1, he was discharged from the Army, just shy of the sixth anniversary of 9/11, and thus, a few days short of his fourth anniversary in the service. When he dropped his medications, he found that many of his problems with sleep and memory loss persisted. The explanation was among some medical records. He found that he was diagnosed with TBI — a traumatic brain injury — and never received treatment for it.
The symptoms are too familiar: difficulty concentrating, constant fatigue, feeling overwhelmed. "It's not like losing an arm," he says by phone from his home in Menomonie, Wis. "Granted, losing an arm is rough. But you can learn to do things differently. If your mind's a little scrambled, there's not a lot you can do."
On his bad days, he says, "I feel like I'm in a fog all the time."
At least his self-diagnosis immediately after the attack turned out to be spot-on; Salzman has found that he can logroll. Getting back on a log, it turned out, was as easy as falling off of one. "There's always that thought in the back of your head: What if I can't do it?" he says. "It felt good." With the prosthetic arm, he felt only as rusty as he normally feels after an off-season. Without the arm, he couldn't balance — the weight just wasn't there.
He and Josie moved back to Wisconsin in August. "We're moving forward in life and definitely getting back to normal," Josie says. "But it's much harder to get there than we anticipated. It's a really slow process." They enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she's studying business administration and he, tech ed.
One day he hopes to be a teacher, and to devise a new tale each semester on how he lost his arm. "One semester it'll be the table saw," he says. "The next it'll be a wood lathe. Or I'll say that I was framing a house alone, nailed my arm to the roof and had to gnaw my own arm off. I'm going to screw with those kids.
"Might as well have fun with it. You can only be so serious."
By Sam Eifling, ESPNOutdoors.com
Source: Minnesota National Guard