FAIRBANKS - When Staff Sgt. Brian Beem left Baghdad in 2006, it was on a stretcher with the lower part of his right leg so severely damaged, doctors said there was only a 10 percent chance they could save it.
When he returns to Iraq this month, Beem, 32, and now an amputee, is determined to walk out of the country on his own terms.
Though Beem has remained on active duty with the 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Division of Fort Wainwright’s Stryker brigade since losing his leg, he was not required to deploy with the brigade for its mission to Iraq in 2008 and 2009. He will not be part of a deployment either when he returns to Iraq.
Beem is one of about 10 other soldiers in the Army who are going back to Iraq as part of Operation Proper Exit. Sponsored by the Troops First Foundation, Operation Proper Exit takes soldiers back to places where they were injured to help them find closure.
“I’d like to see (if) the efforts put forth actually did something and be able to hear from other soldiers, whether or not things are better or things are worse,” said Beem, who was part of the initial 2003 invading force. “I’d like to be able to see some kind of end product for what we did.”
The son of a career sailor, Beem enlisted in the Army in 1998. Despite his father’s background in the Navy and moving all over the East Coast while growing up, Beem said that had little influence on his decision.
At 21 he was already married and had two children but was working a “dead-end job” as an aide at a nursing home in New York state. The Army seemed like a good career option, and he knew from the start that he wanted to be on the front lines.
And there was certainly a lot of action in March 2003 when he was deployed out of Fort Hood, Texas, and headed for his first tour in Iraq.
“There were always rounds going off,” he said. “It was a matter of are they pointing at us or just shooting?”
Though there was plenty of direct contact with the enemy in the first few months of the war, it wasn’t until about October 2003 that Beem even heard the term “improvised explosive device,” the Army’s preferred term for the homemade roadside bombs used by insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was a run-in with an IED that ultimately cost Beem his right leg.
Things in Iraq had calmed down somewhat by 2005 and there were fewer firefights with insurgents, but getting hit by IEDs was a common occurrence during Beem’s second deployment to Iraq with Fort Wainwight’s 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.
Still, Beem made it through most of the deployment unscathed. It wasn’t until the brigade’s four-month extension and a trip into Baghdad that Beem sustained his life-changing injury.
It was about 1 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2006, when Beem was on patrol in southern Baghdad. His Stryker was hit by an explosively formed projectile, a particularly nasty type of roadside bomb that heats copper discs until they’re molten. They’re particularly effective at blasting through armor, even that of Stryker vehicles.
Beem was in the left rear hatch of the vehicle. The IED went off on the right side, but the force was enough to knock him down and take the wind out of him.
The blast killed 25-year-old Sgt. Nicholas Sowinski almost instantly.
Beem pulled himself back up to a sitting position and called to the other soldiers to make sure they were all right.
He began feeling his legs to check his own injuries. He felt his right knee, and then a little lower he felt what he called a “second knee” that bent backward at a 90 degree angle.
“I could kind of tell something was wrong then,” he said.
‘It just is what it is’
Beem was airlifted out of Iraq and taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Doctors never gave Beem’s leg good odds. His first few days there, he remembers being on a lot of pain medication and having to clean his wounds constantly.
“Those doctors, I can’t say enough good things about them,” he said. “They tried their hardest to save it. ... They didn’t care so long as there was a chance, and I was willing to go through with it.”
On Oct. 29, he was in a physical therapy session when things took a turn for the worse. Blood was flowing back up away from his foot, but it wouldn’t go back down. After the session, his toes were black.
Missing two major veins in his right leg, Beem underwent emergency surgery to graft veins from his left leg into his right.
The surgery initially seemed successful, but when Beem awoke, his entire foot had turned black and he was quickly put under for a second surgery that same day.
Doctors removed several clots in the newly grafted veins, but it was no use. When he woke up, his right leg just below the knee was gone.
Beem said his wife, Elizabeth, three daughters and other family members helped him get through the ordeal, but the self-described stoic doesn’t mourn the loss of his leg.
“It was gone. There was nothing I could do about it,” he said. “It just is what it is.”
Four legs are better than one
While the loss of a limb is a career-ending injury for most soldiers, the amputation was like a new lease on life for Beem.
Tired of just sitting around and recovering at Walter Reed, he decided to try kayaking, scuba diving and even skiing, all activities he meant to try with two legs but never got around to doing.
“I wanted to go back to as much a normal lifestyle as I possibly could,” he said.
While he didn’t much care for kayaking or scuba diving, he stuck with the skiing, and he still continues to hit the slopes every chance he gets.
Beem now has a special leg that he can click directly into a ski, one of four he uses to get around. One is for when he’s in uniform, the second is for when he’s with the family, and the third is a hook-style leg with extra spring in it for when he’s running.
“There’s no reason something like this should hold you back from anything you want to do,” he said.
That includes staying in the Army. When Beem returned to Fort Wainwright, he began asking about the Army’s Continuing on Active Duty program, which is designed specifically for veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
At the time, Beem was one of only 16 amputees allowed to continue serving in the Army.
Neither Beem or his wife say the injury has drastically changed their lives.
“He’s still a great husband, a great father and a great soldier,” Elizabeth said. “I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Beem isn’t on the front lines anymore. During the Stryker brigade’s 2008-09 deployment to Iraq, he stayed in Alaska to assist the 5-1 Cavalry. His main responsibility is to ensure other soldiers receive the proper military education for their jobs.
When he returns to Iraq this month, he doesn’t know if he’ll see exactly where he was injured. He’s been told he might be able to fly over the area, just south of Sadr City, but safety is the main concern for the injured soldiers.
He’ll spend most of his time “behind the wire” in a well-established U.S. base, and that’s just fine with Beem. While he hopes the trip brings him some closure, he’s also hoping it could lead to another trip to Iraq.
“I get a heat rash during summertime on the back of my leg,” he said. “I want to see if it’s that much worse in Baghdad in May when it’s 100 degrees, to find out how well that holds up to see the possibility of me doing some kind of deployment in the future.”
If just being in the heat of the Mideast is too much for Beem, he said he won’t force another deployment, but if he’s up to it after this trip, he said he’ll seek to have his medical profile changed so he can deploy again.
“He really does want to deploy again as a scout, and this is a great opportunity for him to test the leg out,” Elizabeth said.