Like many Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, U.S. Army Capt. David Rozelle’s story began in Iraq. Unlike many of those same veterans, his is set to continue there as well. Rozelle arrived in Hit, Iraq, with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment from Fort Carson, Colo., in April 2003. Initially, his role in the town was as the “de facto sheriff,” he said.
Aside from the fact that it was hot, he said, what stood out about the mission was that it was a success.
“From the time we hit the ground in Hit, from the first recon day to the point of my injury, it truly was a successful mission,” Rozelle said. “We, within days, got the things back working. We made some good friends quite quickly.”
He also was tapped to become one of the first servicemembers outside of special operations to train Iraqis to defend themselves. However, that never came to be.
On June 21, 2003, Rozelle was traveling the road that led to the police academy to participate in the program to train Iraqis when his Humvee hit an anti-tank mine buried by insurgents. Later he found out that the mine his Humvee hit was the last in a line of nine mines the insurgents had buried.
The Humvee became airborne and landed on Rozelle’s right leg. Of the three soldiers in the vehicle, he was the only one injured.
“At first, I really didn’t realize I was injured,” he said. “The vehicle blew up, and I looked down and had what looked like all my parts and I had some good shrapnel and some bleeding, but I was alive and grateful.”
The incident cost him his right foot, but earned him a Bronze Star with ‘V’ device and a Purple Heart Medal for his service in Iraq.
Following the usual medical route, Rozelle went through Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before ending up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, he bargained with the hospital commander, promising to meet amazing goals in his recovery, if he could make it to Colorado for the birth of his son. He arrived two days before the due date and ended up waiting for a week before his son was born.
“The baby was waiting on me to get home,” Rozelle said.
The baby may have been waiting, but so were the amputee patients at Walter Reed – whether they knew it or not.
Back at Walter Reed, Rozelle was one of the first OIF amputee patients, and he had to find his own way through the healing process. It started when his boss made it clear to Rozelle and his rear detachment commander that his only mission was to get fit for active duty.
He took that mission very seriously, spending three to four hours per day training, likening the experience to basic training.
“The other four to five hours a day I spent staying in touch with other soldiers, calling back to Walter Reed, sending e-mails to other guys that are injured, creating awareness for people with disabilities from the very start. I wanted to help take care of soldiers, give them what I didn’t have, which was knowledge of what’s next,” he said. “I found a leadership role for myself within the Army for amputees.”
The training got him in shape and gave him a way to connect with and encourage other amputees to get back to their lives. He is snow skiing again and runs everything from Turkey Trots to marathons. He even organized a Walter Reed team for the Army 10-miler.
A group of doctors at the hospital had put a team together for the race when Rozelle approached them with the idea to let some of the patients take some of the slots. And so the “Missing Parts in Action Team: Some Assembly Required” was born.
“I beat most of the Navy and Air Force and kept up with the Marines,” he said. “We just need to make people aware.”
When Rozelle returns from Iraq, he has been asked to return to a position at Walter Reed before going on to Command and General Staff College. It will be doing one of the things he does best: Encouraging amputee patients to not give up and helping them realize that they can do the things they used to do.
“I am amazed … by the spirit of the American soldier,” he said. “That’s what I say to America: ‘Celebrate the spirit of the American soldier.’
“These guys need to understand that, both the amputees and the able-bodied soldiers, … that the soldiers that are shown at Walter Reed are not ready to quit. They want to come back and join (their units) in combat, in a combat role. With modern science, that’s a possibility.”
Rozelle said the celebration of that spirit is readily evident.
“All you have to do is go over to Walter Reed sometime,” he said, recounting stories of Walter Reed patients needing items and receiving an overwhelming response, and of a pillow company catching wind of plans to send pillows to troops in Iraq.
“They sent … 6,000 pillows for our soldiers,” he said. “That is incredible.”
Beyond these acts of support and generosity, Rozelle told of an individual who was supporting troops in a very big way.
“There’s a guy over at Walter Reed who has now started an organization to continue it, but he, out of his own pocket, (is) giving every injured soldier that separated from service $30,000 to get his life started again,” he said. “America supports our soldiers.”
The captain, who claims to be an excellent hop-scotcher, also has found time during his recovery to write a book. “Back in Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith, and Fortitude” is Rozelle’s story of his injury, recovery and return to a command on the same battlefield.
He said the book, which he dedicated to his wife and son, came about at the suggestion of his friends and family. They are also the reason, he said, why he is going back to Iraq.
“There’s a job to be done,” he said.