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Female Soldier Reflects on Injuries, Military Service

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Prosthetist David Beachler adjusts Downes' prosthetic legs.closemore
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.

 (Coburn Dukehart, NPR)
(Coburn Dukehart, NPR)

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

'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.

Army Spc. Sue Downes lost both of her legs when the truck she was traveling in was hit by anti-tank mines in Afghanistan. During a recent physical therapy session at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Downes works with therapist Bunnie Wyckjoff.
Army Spc. Sue Downes lost both of her legs when the truck she was traveling in was hit by anti-tank mines in Afghanistan. During a recent physical therapy session at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Downes works with therapist Bunnie Wyckjoff.

"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, with Wyckjoff in the background, says that despite everything that has happened, she would go back to Afghanistan "in a heartbeat."
Downes, with Wyckjoff in the background, says that despite everything that has happened, she would go back to Afghanistan "in a heartbeat."

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.

Lyla, Sue Downes' assistance dog, waits patiently.
Lyla, Sue Downes' assistance dog, waits patiently.

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'

Sue Downes' husband, Gabe, looks on as prosthetist Beachler makes adjustments during an earlier session.
Sue Downes' husband, Gabe, looks on as prosthetist Beachler makes adjustments during an earlier session.

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 NPR 2016.

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