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

(Continued from page 1)

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

Booth first joined the Navy, at the age of 21, because he wanted to see combat and help save lives. The job of corpsman was perfect for him; as field medics in charge of providing emergency care to battleground troops, corpsmen often are caught in the thick of the action.

DEPLOYED TO TALIBAN STRONGHOLD

Almost a year after enlisting, he was deployed with the Marines to the Taliban stronghold of Sangin, Afghanistan. On July 21, 2011, while out on patrol, he and a Marine volunteered to return to base to get supplies. As they were walking, an explosion catapulted Booth onto his back.

He calmly told the Marine to check behind them for more IEDs. Then he looked down at his leg. There was no blood but the pain was excruciating and Booth couldn't stand up. His ankle bones had been crushed.

Two days later he was back in the U.S., where he underwent surgery after surgery. But Booth didn't want to be a patient. Frustrated with each failed operation and a growing infection, he pushed his doctors to amputate.

As a medic, Booth knew what his life would be like without a limb, and he wasn't afraid. He had seen fellow service members adapt relatively quickly to using a prosthetic. He figured he could return quickly to an active lifestyle, doing the things he enjoyed, like riding motorcycles.

Booth learned his tenacity from his dad, a Black Hawk pilot in the Gulf War who taught his son to remember when faced with a challenge: "It could be worse. Just get through it and get on with it."

LEG IS AMPUTATED

On Nov. 29, 2011, doctors amputated Booth's lower right leg. He was fitted with his prosthesis, and began therapy three times a week to learn how to walk again.

But Booth soon noticed his injuries went beyond the physical. During the day, he felt on edge. At night, he had nightmares or insomnia. He started seeing a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with PTSD and prescribed medication.

He wondered what he would do with his life when some Navy instructors who were training young medics invited him to the film studio.

A year ago in April, Booth started work with Strategic Operations. He has now performed with the group a dozen times, and he isn't bothered by the gore and gunfire. Rather, said Booth, the exercises have helped him deal with his post-traumatic stress.

"When we're at the point where the explosions and the gunfire is going off, I'm in a whole different mindset. I'm yelling and screaming and waiting for the corpsmen to come help me. So I'm not really worried about that (PTSD) anymore," said Booth, who has since stopped taking his PTSD medication. "It's more so about the guys coming to get me and really helping them."

ROLE-PLAYING HELPS

Mental health professionals said they are not surprised Booth has found solace in his role-playing.

"For many of these guys it doesn't get better than that -- to be able to know you are making a difference in the lives of people who are still in combat," said Nancy Commisso, a therapist with Easter Seals. "None of these guys want to be the patient -- especially corpsmen who tend to be the ultimate persona of strength and someone who wants to help."

Commisso has had veterans with PTSD re-enact their combat experiences to diffuse the emotions burdening them.

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