Springfield State Journal Register

March 23, 2005

Injured 233rd soldier fitted with artificial limb after amputation

By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - First Lt. Stephen Rice limped slightly as he walked to the lectern Tuesday to promote Illinois' state fund to help families of National Guard members on active duty overseas.

Two months ago, the 24-year-old Alton man had his left leg amputated at midcalf at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Rice was the most seriously injured of the Springfield-based 233rd Military Police Company of the Illinois National Guard. He was injured by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Dec. 27, 2003.

Despite multiple surgeries and more than a year of therapy, Rice's damaged leg still prevented him from doing simple things like walk without aid. As he was out getting the mail one day, he decided he'd be better off without it.

"I just realized that it was never going to be a viable leg for me, for what I wanted to do. I was never going to be able to run and walk without pain," said Rice, whose leg was amputated Jan. 12.

He received his artificial limb two weeks ago. Last weekend, he went skiing in New Hampshire.

"This past weekend was the most active I've been in the last 15 months, since I was wounded," Rice said. "It's a renewed sense of freedom and mobility."

The ski trips are geared specifically for disabled veterans and are sponsored by Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit that was established to work with disabled Vietnam veterans.

Rice appeared Tuesday at a press conference with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to encourage other states to create funds modeled after the one in Illinois to help Guard members and their families cover unplanned costs related to their being called to active duty.

Ten other states have created such funds. Another 24 are considering doing so.

Rice expects to receive $2,000 from Illinois' Military Family Relief Fund, which will help pay for some of the 10 return trips to Walter Reed and some of his meals while he's there for treatment.

He stays at a hotel for outpatients and families on the Walter Reed campus. Rice expects to be at Walter Reed for most of the next six to eight months as he learns to walk and run with his artificial leg. But he'll be able to leave for short breaks.

He has a weeklong ski trip to Aspen, Colo., planned for early April.

The decision to have his leg amputated "was tough, but it wasn't that tough because I've seen guys out here - some of them running and doing everything that they did before, and I was never going to be able to do that," Rice said.

Now, he said, "I have a brand-new leg ... it's going to be the better deal."

Rice plans to go back to school to study public administration when he's fully recuperated.

"Right now, I'm focused 100 percent on me, rehabbing this leg and getting back to as close to normal" as possible, he said.