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Amputee plans to remain in the Army

Posted: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Quitting has never been an option for U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Luis Elias.

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"Going back has been my goal since I've been here, from day one," said Elias, who was released from the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center on Friday to return to active duty as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga.

On June 30, Elias was training new recruits when a grenade simulator exploded in his right hand, leaving just his thumb. Doctors at Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon amputated his hand and two inches of forearm above his wrist on July 7. He started therapy at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center on July 9.

"Adapt and overcome is the name of the game. It's just something that happened," said Elias, who credits a tough mental attitude, a supportive family and faith in God for his recovery.

Elias, who grew up in the Miami projects, is no stranger to adversity. Surrounded by gangs and drugs as a child, he knew that was not what he wanted for his life. The military offered an opportunity he didn't think he'd have if he stayed where he was.

"I wanted a better way of life. I wanted to travel. I didn't want to be stuck in the same thing," said Elias, who enlisted after he finished high school.

In his six years in the Army, he's had two tours in Iraq. He met his wife, Claudia, after basic training when they were in Advanced Individual Training together at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. They were reunited in Germany, the first duty station for both of them.

"She's my backbone," he said.

Mrs. Elias spent five months at the Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center Fisher House at Fort Gordon to be near her husband during his treatment. She returned to Columbus, Ga., on Dec. 14 to start decorating for Christmas.

The couple has a 4-year-old son, Noah.

Elias plans to make the Army his career, and doesn't see losing his right hand as an obstacle.

In his five months at the hospital, he's learned to do everything he once did as a right-handed person with his left hand, including beating Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Foley, Fort Gordon's commanding general, in a game of ping-pong.

Just before he was released from the hospital, he received a new prosthetic device called the iLIMB, a robotic hand. He operates it by using the muscles near his elbow.

"He's learning to adapt," said occupational therapist Lisa Dowling. "He's perfectly independent with a hook as well. Cosmetically, this is more appealing."

The iLIMB has a hand and robotic fingers. Elias can do multiple tasks with the prosthesis, including lifting a glass to his mouth and drinking, picking up marbles, writing and shaking someone's hand.

"It will take time and practice," Dowling said.

After a two-week holiday break with his family back in Columbus, Elias plans to be at work bright and early on Jan. 4.

"It's fun being able to put a footprint on the new soldier (by) being a good role model, and training them, and teaching them into being a high-speed soldier," he said.



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