Minus A Leg, Still On A Mission In Afghanistan
Capt. Dan Luckett of the Army's 101st Airborne Division is assigned to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, the Zhari district just north of Kandahar city, where Taliban attacks are common.
He goes on patrols, lifts weights in his spare time and is second in command of his company.
That may not sound unusual.
What is unusual is that Luckett is a double amputee, after injuries he received in combat in Iraq in 2008.
Recovered and fit, he's now in Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led military effort to take control of Kandahar province and drive out the Taliban.
Collection Of Legs
"This one's 'combat-action ankle Luckett,'" says Luckett, as he shows off his collection of prosthetic legs.
"This is my running leg here. It's real light and gives you a lot of energy return," Luckett says.
He has a half dozen spares. Some sit on his foot locker, others lean against his cot, waiting to be picked.
"Then all these legs are held on through suction, so you have little air valve in the bottom -- there you can see the hole," Luckett explains.
He talks about each one like a carpenter brags about a new set of tools. One leg wears a sneaker. Another has a plastic foot complete with toenails, he says letting out a laugh.
Luckett seems to joke about everything. The 26-year-old Georgia native is one of the Army's few -- or maybe the only -- double amputee serving on the front lines.
Heard my radios and one of my squad leaders said, 'Hey is everybody all right in 1-6 vehicle?' And I keyed the mike and went, 'Negative, negative my feet are gone.'
Not only did Luckett lose his left leg below the knee, but the front half of his right foot is gone, too. For that, he has a special sleeve -- almost like a mitten -- that slips over the stump and completes the foot.
Luckett was seriously wounded while serving in Iraq. "It's an easy day to remember, it was Mother's Day 2008," he recalls.
He was returning from a patrol, sitting in the passenger seat of his Humvee, when a roadside bomb exploded, and sliced through his door.
"Instantly felt kind of an intense pain in my feet. So when I looked down and saw that they were gone. Heard my radios and one of my squad leaders said, 'Hey is everybody all right in 1-6 vehicle?' And I keyed the mike and went, 'Negative, negative my feet are gone,'" he recalls.
He was glad to be alive, but then a thought suddenly gripped him.
"In my mind I was like, all right that's it. You're done being a platoon leader. You're going back to the States. You're done with your Army time," Luckett says.
He had a different thought when he arrived back in Washington, D.C., for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"By the time that I hit wheels down at Andrews Air Force Base, I had already made up my mind I was going to try to make it back to the unit before they redeployed back to the States," Luckett says.
So Luckett began his physical therapy with determination -- and the craftiness of a pickpocket.
Stealing His First Leg
"I got my first leg on the third of July. I actually stole it," he says.
After the experience of walking on a leg again, he says, he wouldn't give it up.
"Once I was able to stand again and walk with the crutches. It was like, OK I'm not going back to that freakin' wheelchair anymore," he says.
He was supposed to give the leg back to the therapists.
But when his chance came, Luckett took off, with his mother Melanie in tow.
"'C'mon, mom, we're out of here.' And she was like, 'What are you talking about, you have to give the leg back.' And I was like, 'Bull---- I do, they can't take my leg from me,'" Luckett recalls.
"And I started crutching out of there and they went running after me. An argument ensued, and finally they were like, 'All right fine, if you're going to be that stubborn with it take it,'" he says.
Getting Back To Combat
He was that stubborn. For eight months, Luckett learned how to walk again, and passed an Army fitness test.
But to get back to combat duty, Army rules required that Luckett pass an even more grueling set of physical tests, including a 12-mile march with a 35-pound pack.
Even for a guy who likes to joke, it was no laughing matter.
" I was very nervous… this was really in my mind where I was going to make or break it as far as being able to return to duty successfully. Because if you're an officer in the infantry you should be able to do these expert infantryman tasks because you require your guys to," he says.
He's an amazing person. He gets over better than some people with two legs.
Luckett earned his Expert Infantryman Badge. Instead of giving him the standard-issue badge, his battalion commander gave Luckett the tarnished badge the commander had earned years earlier as a young officer.
"And he pinned it on me and he said, 'You've done great things today, Dan, and one day I expect you when you're a lieutenant colonel, I expect you to give this to a lieutenant who's done great things.' And it meant a lot," Luckett says.
So Luckett deployed with his old unit, the 101st Airborne, to Afghanistan, and found himself this summer at Combat Outpost Ashaque in Kandahar province.
The Afghan soldiers here quickly gave him a nickname: "The One-Legged Warlord of Ashaque."
In this part of Afghanistan, Luckett faces one of the toughest landscapes for an Army patrol.
To avoid roadside bombs, soldiers trudge through jungle-like grape vineyards and climb over mud walls in 115-degree heat.
"He's done a decent amount of patrols with us," says Capt. Jason McKay. "He's an amazing person. He gets over better than some people with two legs."
Spc. Daniel Riggs says it is easy to forget that Luckett was seriously wounded.
"You never notice it about him though, with the leg. I think he's in the gym right now, and he's just in there sucking, pushing himself really hard. He's not like a broken-down guy," Riggs says.
Many young soldiers, Luckett says, are more interested in his life outside the war zone.
" It's stuff like, 'How does it work when you're picking up chicks? If you're at the bar do you tell them about it?'" Luckett says.
One story he can tell is how Taliban fighters opened fire on his outpost a few days ago.
Luckett was sitting inside a concrete building at the time, talking on the radio. Windows were stacked high with sandbags and covered with plywood.
Suddenly, a single bullet punched through the wood and zipped over his head.
"They were gunning for me. They were gunning for the One-legged Warlord of Ashaque.
He picks up the spent round, takes it back to his room, and puts it near his collection of legs.
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