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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 May 2006, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
Laptop lifeline for wounded troops
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington

Captain Chuck Ziegenfuss should never have been on foot crossing a bridge in Iraq on 21 June 2005, he reckons.

Captain Chuck Ziegenfuss
I don't want to say it's like giving sight to the blind, but it's showing them they can do what they did before
Cpt Chuck Ziegenfuss
He was an armour officer, commanding 14 tanks plus armoured Humvees, and, as he put it: "An armour officer doesn't walk."

But he was walking that day, so when a buried 82mm mortar exploded three feet in front of him, it blew open his left arm, shattered his thumbs, peppered his legs and right arm with shrapnel, and ruptured one of his testicles.

"I'm dazed and I have no idea how badly I'm injured," said Cpt Ziegenfuss, now 33, describing the explosion nearly a year later.

"I remember looking at my hands and thinking, 'That's going to hurt later'."

Within four days, Cpt Ziegenfuss had passed through US military hospitals in Balad, Iraq, and Landstuhl, Germany, to arrive at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Power of blogging

Terrible as his injuries were, his story might not have been unusual but for one thing. He had been keeping a weblog, an online diary, for several months before he was wounded.

He had also been in contact with Soldiers' Angels, a charity that provides support and comfort to US troops.

When his wife Carren posted on his blog that he had been wounded, the head of Soldiers' Angels was quick to get in touch.

"I knew he was a blogger, so I knew I had to get him a laptop," said Patti Bader, the founder of Soldiers' Angels.

Captain Chuck Ziegenfuss in hospital (Photo courtesy of Chuck Ziegenfuss)
Cpt Ziegenfuss was in no position to use the laptop he got
With Cpt Ziegenfuss's help, she went on eBay for the first time in her life to buy a computer for him and have it shipped to Walter Reed, where he encountered a significant problem.

"My left hand is completely bandaged, my right arm has blown up like a balloon, my right hand is in a cast. I have the use of four fingers," he said.

He tried for a few days to keep his blog going, but found typing too frustrating.

Then he had an idea. He tracked down voice-activation software and put up a request for it on his wish list at Amazon.com.

He thought readers of his blog might contribute a few dollars to help him defray the costs of buying it himself, but the next day, someone he had never met sent him an e-mail.

"It said, 'Check your Amazon'. He had paid for it."

At a stroke, wounded though he was, Chuck Ziegenfuss was back online, blogging, e-mailing and instant messaging.

Idea born

Across the country in California, Patti Bader says she saw a turnaround in his attitude within 48 hours of his receiving the software.

And another blogger active in supporting the troops - who prefers to be known only as Beth - had an idea.

Originally we wanted to set up laptop libraries, but once we had given a laptop to a soldier it was very hard to ask for it back
Patti Bader,
Soldiers' Angels
"She got a hold of me and said, 'What about setting up a charity to do this?'" said Cpt Ziegenfuss.

He was still largely immobile: "So I said, 'Good luck, go ahead'."

Despite his initial reaction that he could do nothing to participate, Beth and Cpt Ziegenfuss did go on to set up a charity, Valour-IT (Voice-Activated Laptops for Our Injured Troops).

Working under the auspices of Soldiers' Angels, the charity has distributed nearly 500 laptops since August.

"Originally we wanted to set up laptop libraries," said Ms Bader. "But once we had given a laptop to a soldier, it was very hard to ask for it back."

So they have raised tens of thousands of dollars to buy the computers and software - recently clearing a waiting list of 30 wounded soldiers when they received an anonymous $19,500 donation.

"Around $750 provides so much healing to a wounded soldier," she explained. "It gets them involved, it helps them blog, it gets them into online courses."

Vision

Cpt Ziegenfuss, now mostly recovered from his injuries, says he enjoys the look of annoyance on the face of badly wounded troops when he shows up with a Valour-IT laptop.

But their reaction changes when he explains how the voice-activation software works.

"I don't want to say it's like giving sight to the blind, but it's showing them they can do what they did before," said Cpt Ziegenfuss.

In fact, for Sergeant Elijah Allen, 25, getting a Valour-IT laptop was exactly like giving sight to the blind.

A civil affairs reservist involved in building infrastructure, he was injured during combat operations in southern Iraq and nearly lost his vision.

His left retina was torn and his right retina was detached, leaving him with some ability to see light and motion but little else in the way of sight.

He, too, ended up at Walter Reed, where he had operation after operation to restore his sight.

Patti Bader got in touch after his fourth time under the scalpel.

"When she told me about the laptop, all I could say was: 'You're fricking awesome! That's great!' ," he said.

"I couldn't see or read, but I could always log into Yahoo or IM. I was so surprised there was a programme that existed for this."

He used his Valour-IT laptop for everything from keeping in touch with his family to daily Bible readings.

"I went to church and they gave me the big-print scriptures. It wasn't big enough."

But, he says, he was able to instruct his laptop to read out Bible passages to him.

'Accomplish the mission'

And he was able to reconnect with his unit and his mission.

"I remember an Air Force optometrist as I was being medevacked saying 'Your fight here is over'.

"I felt like I hadn't accomplished what I set out to accomplish. When you leave the theatre so quickly, you want to know if somebody has picked up your job."

So he got in touch with the sergeant who replaced him, and quickly became a pain with all the advice he sent.

"I felt like a housewife who had gone out and left instructions for the babysitter."

His sight has now been restored enough that he is able to use a normal laptop, so he keeps his Valour-IT computer under wraps in his hotel room on the grounds of Walter Reed, where he an outpatient.

"It doesn't leave the room," he said. "As my vision gets better, I want to be able to return it to Valour-IT."


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