March 26, 2013

Amputee finds purpose in re-enactments

A wounded veteran adds realism to training exercises that use special effects to prepare troops.

By JULIE WATSON/The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - The sailor had been back from war for just over a year when friends invited him to watch an unusually emotional training exercise for troops preparing to deploy.

Joel Booth
click image to enlarge

Former Navy corpsman Joel Booth, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, prepares with the help of a makeup artist to play his role as a downed helicopter pilot in a military training exercise at San Diego-based Strategic Operations.

The Associated Press

The drill happened not on a military base but at a film studio, where Marine and Navy medics role-played wartime rescue missions with actors who had, in real-life, lost limbs in motorcycle or car accidents or to ailments such as cancer.

Those on hand weren't sure how Joel Booth would react. The 24-year-old had been attached to a Marine battalion in Afghanistan as a naval combat medic -- until he stepped on an explosive device, and doctors, two years ago, amputated his right leg below the knee. Since returning home he'd had to learn to adapt while also coping with post-traumatic stress.

But Booth was transfixed as fake bombs exploded and medics practiced the type of rescue missions he'd once been on, saving the amputee actors -- as he, in the end, had to be saved.

HE DOES THE UNEXPECTED

Then the young veteran did something unexpected: He asked for an audition.

Perhaps, he thought, this injury that had forever altered his life could help save someone else's. What he didn't know was how much reliving the horrors of war would help him, too.

"In society, amputees are seen by people on a large scale as having a disability, being weaker. But ... even someone who doesn't have a hand can still operate a weapon to be able to defend themselves," he said.

"It's the same thing for me. I'm not afraid of it just because something bad happened. For people who haven't been in combat, it's hard to understand."

Producer Stu Segall, best known for the TV show "Silk Stalkings," started Strategic Operations more than a decade ago to offer the military what it calls "hyper-realistic" training by using movie-making special effects and actors.

The group has since trained hundreds of thousands of troops in recreated scenes from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other hotspots. The creators strive to make the re-enactments as jarring as possible so troops experience war first in a controlled environment, and learn not to be rattled by it.

Marine 2nd Lt. Duane Blank, a commander who has gone through similar training, said amputee actors add a degree of realism that no one else can.

"The visual effect is invaluable because it's something you don't encounter every day," said Blank, an Iraq war veteran. "There is no way to recreate that aspect of real combat, seeing a brother hurt in that sort of way."

GROUP HADN'T USED VETERANS

Since the inception of Strategic Operations, the group's founders had made a concerted effort not to use veterans who lost limbs in combat.

"We felt it was one of those things: Why would you ask somebody who has gone through this experience to relive it? And we had plenty of amputee actors," said executive vice president Kit Lavell.

Lavell flew 243 missions in Vietnam as a naval aviator. He knows how hearing screams and explosions -- even on a studio lot in San Diego -- can quickly bring back the stress of battle for even the most hardened soldiers.

But Booth convinced Lavell to let him join the group.

"He was so well-prepared as a corpsman," Lavell said. "We felt: He's the perfect one to do this."

(Continued on page 2)

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