WASHINGTON (AP) - It was dark and drizzly in Baghdad on Nov. 25, and Army Staff Sgt. Maurice Craft was patrolling Highway 5 with two other soldiers. A bomb on the side of the road went off.
"I felt like I was being sucked out of the vehicle," Craft said. "The Humvee filled up with black smoke, and I just started yelling and screaming because from my waist down went numb."
Dazed, he looked at his mangled left leg, hanging lifelessly.
"I actually felt myself dying. I knew I was dying," said the 26-year-old paratrooper from Asbury Park, N.J. "Then, one of the soldiers grabbed me, and said, 'You need to make it. You've got a wife and kids back home. You can't die here."'
Craft made it to the hospital at Baghdad International Airport. Doctors and nurses donated blood to save his life, but they couldn't save his left leg.
The father of two young girls learned of the amputation the next morning when he awakened to see his lieutenant, company commander and first sergeant standing next to his bed. "Will I ever be able to jump out of an airplane again," he asked them, and the men began to cry.
Now, 31/2 months later, that idea is not so far-fetched.
Craft is among dozens of amputees from the war sent to Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which ranks as a world leader in treating people with lost limbs. Some of the high-tech prostheses Walter Reed offers its patients could enable them to run, play sports - perhaps even jump out of airplanes one day.
"We view these patients as world-class athletes," said Col. Jonathan Jaffin, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System. "Our goal is to restore them to world-class status, and that means that we're going to make sure we get them the very best in terms of prosthetics. We don't want to just settle for an adequate prosthesis."
Walter Reed is the first stop for most of the casualties from Iraq. Nearly 2,800 have been treated there.
Land mines and roadside bombs proliferate in the places American troops now find themselves. Modern body armor protects them from blasts that previously were fatal, but sometimes survival comes at steep cost - loss of limbs.
Walter Reed is spending more money, and placing more of an emphasis, on enhancing amputee care. Officials also are seeking money from Congress to build a separate amputee care center on the 113-acre campus.
Chuck Scoville, program manager for the Army's amputee patient care program, said the new building is needed to help amputees develop the skills required to return to service, such as learning to navigate uneven terrain.
About 70 amputees from the war in Iraq have been treated at Walter Reed.
When they arrive, a team of 15 specialists, from surgeons to psychiatrists, start the rebuilding process. After the physical wound heals, the next stop for the patient is the prosthesis laboratory for the delicate process of fitting the new leg or arm.
Cutting-edge computer imaging is used to make the plastic socket that attaches the new limb to the body. The soldiers then are fitted with top-of-the-line artificial legs and arms.
The legs, made of graphite and titanium, are battery-powered prosthetics with built-in microprocessors to improve control of the swing motion, making it more stable than previous artificial legs, said Joseph Miller, a clinical and research prosthetist at the hospital.
One of the newer products - the "C-leg" - has computerized sensors that can read the strain applied to the leg 50 times a second, then make superfast adjustments to the user's stride to allow the leg to adapt quickly to different walking speeds.
Prosthetic arms have microprocessors, too, with myoelectric hands that can open and close with swifter, sharper movements that help amputees grab and grip as a normal hand would. The high-tech hands also look much more natural.
Each arm or leg can cost up to $100,000.
Paddy Rossbach, head of the Amputee Coalition of America, said the modern artificial limbs make the amputees' difficult transition a little easier.
"The materials used in today's limbs help you walk better, not just give you something to walk on," said Rossbach, whose Knoxville, Tenn.-based organization has counseled recovering soldiers at Walter Reed.
Craft was fitted with the C-leg a few weeks ago. He vividly recalls his first steps. Getting up out of his wheelchair "felt so good," he said.
But Craft realizes his long journey ahead. "It's a real challenge. Every day my body is so sore. I don't know how much I can take. Sometimes I just lay in my bed and cry," he said.
On the Net:
Walter Reed Army Medical Center: http://www.wramc.amedd.army.mil/