Covering Louisiana

Oct 14, 2011 11:26 AM by AP

19-year-old lost arm, both legs in Afghanistan

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - When Kevin Trimble enlisted in the Army last year while still in high school, he dreamed of joining the elite Ranger forces, parachuting into enemy territory to seize an airfield or slogging through a swamp to unleash a surprise attack. But now the 19-year-old New Orleans resident faces a lengthy battle just to walk again after losing both legs and an arm in an explosion in Afghanistan.

It's a struggle that Trimble's family is confident he will win, saying he is already approaching his recovery with the same toughness and determination he brought to his military training.

Shocked by the sight of the injuries to his youngest child, Dan Trimble said he was awed by his son's upbeat attitude when he first visited him two weeks ago at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

"The very first words he said to us were, `I'm just so grateful to be alive,"' he said. "He obviously faces a lot of hurdles, both mentally and physically. But he's in good spirits and knows he's going to have a lot of support every step of the way."

Kevin Trimble, a 2010 graduate of New Orleans Science and Math High School, said he draws hope from five other triple-amputee soldiers at the hospital's rehabilitation unit, a couple of whom have started walking.

"You really have to look forward because there's obviously nothing to be all that happy about right now," he said in a phone interview Thursday.

Trimble, a private who deployed to Afghanistan in March, said he was standing guard on the side of a road Sept. 17 as his unit cleared a southern village of suspected insurgents. He saw a vehicle approaching in the distance and moved forward to get a pair of binoculars, stepping on a buried pressure plate that triggered a roadside bomb.

"There was like that second when I thought, `Oh, my God! What just happened?'?" Trimble said. "Then I started checking my body and realized how bad it was."

Trimble lost his left arm above the elbow and both legs above the knee. Another soldier standing nearby was killed instantly.

Trimble was evacuated to Germany and arrived two weeks ago at the Army's sprawling San Antonio medical center, where at least one family member is typically at his bedside.

"We want to make sure he knows we're there for him," Dan Trimble said. "That's so important right now."

Trimble has undergone several operations to clean and close his wounds and has battled infections, running fevers every day until they finally subsided Wednesday, said his mother, Saralee Trimble.

She said that's the same day he got into a wheelchair for the first time for a brief trip around the hospital floor.

"It's excruciating for him to get in and out of the wheelchair. Every single thing is so much harder. Just to have a sponge bath is a major undertaking," she said. "But he's been a real trooper, and we just celebrate the small things and count our blessings."

Like the day he was able to sit up in bed or the first time he exercised his arm by pulling on a band attached to the side of his bed.

Doctors have told him he likely faces two years of rehabilitation at the San Antonio facility.

Dan Trimble said his son feels OK most of the time but has bouts of sometimes severe pain.

"He was telling my wife that his toes hurt," he said. "They call that phantom pain, but it's still pain."

Along with the physical trauma, Trimble is dealing with the psychological wounds caused by his lost limbs and memories of the explosion.

"He never blacked out. He was awake for the whole gruesome experience," Dan Trimble said. "For years to come, he's going to be replaying it in his mind."

With four of their five children serving in the military, Dan and Saralee Trimble knew the odds might catch up with them eventually. But they said nothing could prepare them for the severity of Kevin's injuries.

"It's heartbreaking," Dan Trimble said. "It's terrible to see any 19-year-old boy in that condition. But your own son? It's impossible to explain."

Anthony Trimble, 20, one of Kevin's two brothers and a Marine, said he isn't surprised by his brother's positive outlook, saying he was "always such a happy-go-lucky kid growing up."

"I'm very proud to be his brother. He's been so brave and courageous through this whole thing," Anthony Trimble said. "It motivates me to train even harder to be a better soldier."

Military officials asked Kevin Trimble if he wanted a visit from his congressman, but he declined, saying he would rather see his Army buddies.

"He's a soldier," Anthony Trimble said. "He just wants to be with them."

Although that's not possible right now, Trimble uses a laptop computer provided by Wounded Warriors and an iPad from his high school to stay in touch with friends and his unit back in Afghanistan.

"He's keeping his mind occupied," Dan Trimble said. "I think that's the best medicine right now."

At "SciHigh," an Uptown charter school, Trimble was a whiz with computers and robots. He was so sure he wanted to be a soldier that he enlisted before graduation.

"I think our older children were interested in the educational opportunities the military offered, but for Kevin it was all about the adventure," Dan Trimble said. "He's a rough-and-tumble guy who wanted to go out and blow things up."

Trimble spent six months in Afghanistan, a veritable lifetime for a young soldier in a unit in which half the soldiers have been wounded or killed.

The war's impact on Trimble is evident in two photos of him taken just a few months apart.

One depicts a fresh-faced teenager smiling in his dress uniform at a basic training graduation ceremony. The other shows a steely-eyed young man wearing camouflage fatigues while patrolling a bombed-out village in Afghanistan, his finger on the trigger of a machine gun.

Counterinsurgency tactics that have placed more soldiers on foot patrols in Afghanistan, rather than riding in armored vehicles, have been linked to an increase in blast injuries resulting in amputations.

The number of U.S. troops who lost limbs more than doubled from 86 in 2009 to 187 last year. Through August of this year, 147 soldiers have had amputations, a pace that would reach 220 for a full year.

The injuries have also become more severe as the number of troops who lost two or three limbs has climbed from 23 in 2009 to 72 last year to 77 so far this year.

Overall, more than 1,000 troops have lost limbs in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the vast majority of the injuries coming in Afghanistan where insurgents have relied heavily on roadside bombs.

The surge in amputations has fueled research and led to advances in prosthetics, said John Fergason, chief prosthetist at Brooke Army Medical Center's rehabilitation facility, the Center for the Intrepid.

He said the innovations include battery powered knees and ankles and hands with dexterity in all five fingers that can be programmed for various grips.

There have also been significant advances in cutting-edge research on robotic limbs controlled by the brain and prosthetic fingers with a sense of touch, Fergason said.

He said Trimble faces a particularly arduous recovery because both his legs were amputated above the knee, which makes it difficult to control prosthetic legs.

His rehabilitation will begin with very short prosthetics that are essentially shoes attached to the ends of his severed legs. The idea is to work on balance and weight tolerance until he is ready for full-length prosthetic legs with articulating knees.

"The soldiers tell me it feels like they are walking on stilts that bend," Fergason said. "It takes a tremendous amount of perseverance to master it."

Some soldiers who have lost limbs have returned to active duty, and a handful have even been redeployed.

"The Army has done a good job at not rushing people out the door," Fergason said. "They are stationed here on active duty and their job is rehab. It really helps to be among people who look like you and are going through the same challenges."

Kevin Trimble said he was inspired by a recent visit from a captain who has started walking again after losing both legs and an arm 10 months ago.

"It really helped me because I was kind of depressed that I was never going to get out of this stupid bed," he said. "It made me realize that I might be able to get up and do something some day."

The Trimbles lived in New Hampshire and New Brunswick, Canada, before moving to New Orleans in 2006 after Dan Trimble, an electrician, completed a six-month post-Hurricane Katrina volunteer stint with a church group.

"When they moved here it was like a family member coming home. They fit right in," said Heather Prosser, a pastor at Victory Fellowship, the family's Metairie church. "Everyone here is rallying around them, sending cards and care packages."

The family's eastern New Orleans home is adorned with Bible verses on virtually every wall, and Dan Trimble said faith will help drive his son's recovery.

"We put Kevin in God's hands when he left for Afghanistan, and we know that God has a purpose in this," he said. "Kevin has a testimony that can help a lot of young people who are struggling. He's living proof that there is still hope, even though you have lost so much."

Donations to help the family with travel costs for San Antonio hospital visits and other expenses can be sent to the Kevin Trimble Donation Account at any Capital One Bank branch.

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