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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 14:03 GMT
US veterans' state-of-the-art care

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC has been rocked by a scandal over the poor conditions wounded US troops have faced when they return home. But 1,600 miles (2,575km) away in Texas, some veterans are getting very different treatment, the BBC's Andy Gallacher finds.

Staff Sergeant Alejandro Del Rio looks like the epitome of a US marine.

His fatigues are perfectly pressed and at well over six feet (182cm) tall he is an imposing figure.

Staff Sergeant Alejandro Del Rio
Staff Sgt Del Rio's aim was to get back up on his feet after injury
But the uniform hides a series of horrendous injuries he received 18 months ago when his unit was hit by an improvised explosive device while he was serving in Iraq.

He goes through the list of his injuries in military fashion, reeling them off like a roll call.

"Sustained damage to my right arm. Left hand was blown up, two fingers were re-attached.

"Lost both legs below the knees and took shrapnel to the head and gut."

In the hours that followed the attack on Alejandro's patrol, doctors warned his parents to expect the worst.

But the staff sergeant was not willing to accept that fate.

"It was my ambition to get back up on my feet and continue on with my life," he says, cradling a rifle for the first time in months.

"I always wanted to be a marine since I was little," he says, and he was inspired to fight on by his daughter.

State of the art

Now the marine - who is still serving - is himself an inspiration for the hundreds of badly injured troops serving at the Center for the Intrepid.

It is a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility based at the US Army's Brooke Medical Center near San Antonio, Texas.

A wounded veteran on the Wave Rider at the Center for the Intrepid
The Wave Rider helps get mind and body to work together
The centre cost $50m to build - money that came from more than half a million private donations given by the American public.

Inside, the predominantly young soldiers get access to equipment like the Wave Rider.

It is a machine that simulates a wave powerful enough to surf constantly and something that marine Gunnery Sergeant William "Spanky" Gibson has managed to master.

The device - which might seem only for fun - serves a serious purpose, helping build core strength and balance.

"If the mind's up and running and it's running fluidly, the body will follow," Spanky says.

Spanky's prosthetic leg sits by the side of the pool emblazoned with a marine slogan: "When quitting is no longer an option you're halfway there."

The 35-year-old lost his left leg after he was shot by a sniper in east Ramadi.

Never say die

He says it took some time to adjust to his new reality.

Gunnery Sergeant William "Spanky" Gibson
"Spanky" Gibson says he never held a "pity party" for himself

"The first few weeks there was a lot of recognition, a lot of having to come to grips with the end of my career, not having a leg anymore, not to be with my marines," he says.

But, he adds: "I never got myself into some kind of pity party where I thought: 'This is the end.' Never thought like that and I don't think any marine thinks like that, honestly."

With a team of almost 50 therapists and some of the most expensive rehabilitation equipment anywhere in the world, the "warriors", as the staff refer to them, are well taken care of.

But the Center for the Intrepid is still a military facility, with a defined rank structure and orders to be followed.

For most of the soldiers that means a tough regime of painful physical exercise.

Major Stewart Campbell, who runs the gymnasium, said: "Most of the guys will be in here between two and four hours a day."

When they do have time away from the rehabilitation programmes, the soldiers and their families can often be found relaxing at the family assistance centre.

Wounded veteran working out at the gym at the Center for the Intrepid
Veterans are not excused from exercise because of their wounds
It is run by Judith Markelz, a dominant figure who everyone calls "Mom".

She helps the families with issues like housing and finance.

She recognises what the wounded veterans have been through, but says they do not need her pity.

"If I cried every time I saw these young men in the condition they're in, this would be futile," Judith says.

"They don't need me crying, doesn't do 'em any good. What does 'em good is to be treated like they were normal and in my world they are normal.

"But if I pity them - and I don't - then what have we accomplished?"

Public care

What they have accomplished at the Center for the Intrepid is a place that few believe will ever attract the kind of headlines being created by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.

First Lt Jabari White, who is 24 and received 60% burns to his body, believes the facility in Texas is a sign of how much the American public cares about Iraq veterans.

"This is nothing the government has built," he says, still finding it difficult to speak because of his injuries.

"I think that says a lot about the potential of American citizens to contribute to more facilities like this. Everybody wants to support the troops. They should come together and build more facilities around the country."




SEE ALSO
Panel blames US army over scandal
05 Mar 07 |  Americas
Bush 'troubled' by army scandal
03 Mar 07 |  Americas
US army secretary quits over row
03 Mar 07 |  Americas
US military hospital boss removed
01 Mar 07 |  Americas
US probes troops' neglect claims
21 Feb 07 |  Americas

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