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Female Soldier Reflects on Injuries, Military Service

Prosthetist David Beachler adjusts Downes' prosthetic legs.

To date, more than 80 women have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds have come home with combat injuries.

Among them is Army Spc. Sue Downes from Tazewell, Tenn., who sustained serious injuries — including the loss of both of her legs — in Afghanistan. She is currently being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

In the last of a series of conversations, Downes shares her thoughts on her injury, her service in the military and her recovery.

Part 1: Women's Roles in U.S. Military Expands

Part 2: Three Female Soldiers on Their Experiences in Iraq

Part 3: Opposing View on Pentagon Policy Governing Women in Combat

Part 4: Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Sexual Harassment in the Military

Part 5: A Female Soldier on Life After Amputation

'They Said They Didn't Know How I Made It'

Last year, the 27-year-old mother of two was serving with a military police unit in Logar province, Afghanistan. On Nov. 28, she volunteered to be gunner on a humanitarian mission, delivering rice and beans to a remote village. Downes normally served as a driver.

"It was a peaceful, nice day," Downes recalls. "I was just looking at the mountains, because Afghanistan has really pretty scenery in some places. ... I remember seeing the snowflakes falling down, because it started snowing."

Her last memory of that day is of the driver of her truck shifting into gear to go up a steep mountain. When she woke up, she was in Landstuhl Hospital in Germany.

"They said they don't know how I made it. They said I was the sickest patient that had ever [come] through Afghanistan," she says.

Downes' truck had hit two anti-tank mines, killing two people. The impact twisted the truck like a washcloth, Downes was later told. She ended up under the turret shield.

Because it was snowing heavily, she couldn't be flown out of the region. Instead, she was taken by truck to a nearby Greek-run NATO hospital. There, doctors performed surgery on her lacerated liver and intestines. They also amputated both of her legs.

Five days later — after traveling from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to Germany — she was sent back to the United States, where she faced multiple surgeries and treatment at Walter Reed.

Recovery Helps Others

Downes got her current prosthetic legs in March and undergoes daily physical therapy. She walks slowly, with a bit of a wobble. But her gait also reveals confidence — and pride.

Tall and striking, with long, blonde hair and large, blue eyes, Downes is easy to spot at Walter Reed — where most of the patients are men.

Her presence there, no matter how painful, ultimately will serve a greater good: Women's bodies are built differently than men's, and what doctors are learning through Downes' treatment will help other women down the road.

Injuries Take Toll on Family

In the meantime, Downes faces many challenges.

Take her appearance, for instance. At first, she says, she swore she'd never wear shorts again. It was hard at first, but she eventually changed her mind.

"I'll show my legs off. I don't care anymore," Downes says.

Life is hard for her family, too. Downes says that sometimes she feels as if she's not a good parent because she can't be with her children as much as she would like.

But she will spend Halloween with them this year, the first time in two years.

'You Have to Step It Up Over There'

Downes thinks most Americans don't fully understand the roles that female troops are playing in deployments to such places as Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We were out there every day, patrolling, doing checkpoints, raiding villages, searching villages, searching females. That's what I was used for primarily," she says with a laugh. "We were out there doing everything."

Her unit helped open the first girls' school in the area, and Downes recalls meeting the students.

"They asked us ... 'How's it feel to be in the military?' and 'How's it feel to be a woman in America?' They were just so curious about little bitty things that they didn't know, and that they couldn't do," Downes says.

And because of the attitudes of many men in Afghanistan, Downes says, "You have to step it up over there and show the men that you mean business."

"I had no problem at all showing any kind of authority," Downes says. "My whole heart was into what I was doing. I love my people. I love my unit. I just love my job, and I'd go back and do it in a heartbeat."

Downes was awarded a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Army Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Badge for her service. She hopes to move home to Tennessee by spring.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And now, we turn to our final installment in our series on women and war. To date, more than 80 women have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds have come home with combat injuries. Among them, Army Specialist Sue Downes from Tazewell, Tennessee.

Last year, the 27-year-old mother of two was serving with a military police unit in Lowgar Province, Afghanistan. Here's what she remembers about November 28th. It was a Tuesday. She woke up, got organized, and headed out with her team on a humanitarian mission delivering rice and beans to a remote village.

SUE DOWNES: I actually volunteered to be the gunner for that mission that day. I'm normally a driver. It was a peaceful, nice day. I was just, you know, on my turret, you know, you're up higher. I was just looking at the mountains, because Afghanistan has really pretty sceneries, you know, in some places. I was just enjoying the scenery actually, you know, looking around.

I remember seeing the snowflakes falling down, because it started snowing. My driver was actually putting in gear to get ready to go up the steep mountain. And I remember him shifting into gear, and that's all I remember. Until I woke up in Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. They said they don't know how I made it. They said I was the sickest patient that had ever came through Afghanistan.

NORRIS: Sue Downes' truck had hit two anti-tank mines. The blast killed the driver and the team leader. Both of them were her close friends. The impact twisted the truck like a washcloth, Downes was later told. She ended up under the turret shield.

Because it was snowing heavily, she couldn't be medevaced out of the region. So she was taken by truck to a Greek-run NATO hospital. The doctors performed surgery on her lacerated liver and intestines. They also amputated both of her legs. Five days later, she was sent back to the U.S., where she faced multiple surgeries and treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

That's where I visited Sue Downes.

DAVID BEACHLER: Just stand there, straight up, if you would.

DOWNES: As straight as I can.

BEACHLER: Okay. Good. Have a seat; I'm going to turn your right foot in just a little bit.

BUNNIE WYCKJOFF: It's weird watching your foot being moved around like that, isn't it?

NORRIS: Today, she's working with prosthetist David Beachler on adjustments to her two prosthetic legs while her husband, Gabe, looks on. The legs are a high-tech combination of metal and plastic, on this day fitted into sleek Nike tennis shoes.

Downes first got these legs back in March, and she's been doing daily physical therapy. She walks slowly, with a bit of a wobble. But her gait also reveals confidence and pride.

Beachler has promised that when her stumps stop shrinking, probably in a few months, she'll be able to get cosmetic prosthetics painted to look like real skin.

DOWNES: I have a question. In November, I'm going to the Veterans Day thing and they want me to go to a ball. They want me dressed up, you know, in a gown and everything. Would I be able to have those legs by then?

BEACHLER: The guys who do the cosmetic work, it usually takes a number of months. But I can have something...

DOWNES: Just something that looks kind of real.

BEACHLER: Yeah, I can make something cosmetic for you.

DOWNES: Okay.

BEACHLER: Yeah, where we get the shape of your leg and certainly...

DOWNES: Because I'd be - I want to, you know, wear my gown, and I want to be able to wear my heels, you know?

BEACHLER: Certainly. Yup.

NORRIS: Sue Downes loves the military, but she still likes to flaunt her femininity. She's tall and striking, with long, blond hair and large, blue eyes. And she's easy to spot at Walter Reed, where most of the patients are men.

DOWNES: You don't see many females here at all. There's only three of us here right now. It's funny because I went to a doctor's appointment a while back and the way my hips are made are different from the males. And the doctor was like, explaining to me everything that he's, like, you know what, you're a female so you're, you know, you're different. We have to - we can't apply the same techniques to you. So he had to go get somebody else to help him understand how to deal with a female.

NORRIS: So you're actually helping...

DOWNES: Other females that are - hopefully, will not come here, but...

NORRIS: But if they do.

DOWNES: ...if they do, yeah.

NORRIS: Are there certain challenges to going out in the world and sort of moving on that are unique to women because of - and I can hear myself getting into trouble even asking this question - but...

DOWNES: No, go ahead.

NORRIS: ...the way that women sometimes adorn themselves?

DOWNES: They do. Like me, I said I would never wear shorts again just because, you know, the way it looks. But I did. I wore shorts anyway. I'll show my legs off. I don't care anymore. At first, it was hard.

NORRIS: What about family?

DOWNES: I hate the fact that I can't be with my kids all the time. That really hurts. Because sometimes I feel like I'm not a good parent because I can't be with my kids. But it's hard having them up here and doing my everyday appointments and getting them to school, you know? I can't do it. Right now, they're more consistent with my mother.

NORRIS: How often are you able to see them?

DOWNES: I see them regularly. I see them, like, we have four-day weekends, I go home and I see them. Every holiday, I'm there with them. This Halloween, I'm going to go trick-or-treating with them, because I haven't been with them in two years for that.

NORRIS: Being away from your children must be very difficult. But is it also part of your motivation as you go through therapy?

DOWNES: It is. It's my motivation because I want to hurry up and get better to go home and be with them. I'm tired of putting them through this. I want them to have a good, stable environment with their mother, you know? I just want to go home and be a mother, you know?

NORRIS: You know, we, as a nation, spend a lot of time talking about the war, thinking about the war, sometimes debating the war. Do you think the general public has a full understanding of the role that women are playing in this conflict?

DOWNES: I don't think so. I don't think they have a full - fully, you know, understand it. We were out there every day patrolling, doing checkpoints, raiding villages, searching villages, searching females. That's what I was used for primarily, searching all the females. And we were out there doing everything. I don't think people understand that, but MPs do play a big role in...

NORRIS: Military police?

DOWNES: ...in the military, yeah. You know, we did do some good things over there. We've done a lot of good things in Afghanistan. We opened up the first girls' school in that area, which was great, because we got to go in and mingle, you know, with the little girls. And they got to ask us questions, you know. There they asked us questions. How does it feel being in the military, you know? How does it feel being a - you know, a woman in America? And they were just so curious about little bitty things, you know, that they didn't know and that they couldn't do.

Sometimes, you know, you would go down and do some security patrols. And cars would try to pass you and seeing that it was female, they thought, oh, you know, whatever, you know? They would try to pass me anyway, but I wouldn't allow it. So, you had to step it up. You have to step it up over there and show the men that you mean business.

NORRIS: And you had no problem doing that?

DOWNES: Oh, no. I had no problem at all showing any kind of authority. My whole heart was into what I was doing. I love my people. I love my unit. I just love my job and I'd go back and do it in a heartbeat.

NORRIS: Sue Downes was awarded a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Army Achievement Medal and the Combat Action Badge for her service. She hopes to move home to Tennessee by spring. There are photos of Sue Downes during a physical therapy session at Walter Reed at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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