Alex Wilson ’03’s long journey

Alex Wilson ’03, left, during the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico in 2008.
Alex Wilson ’03, left, during the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico in 2008.
Courtesy Alex Wilson ’03

The two Humvees and a Bradley fighting vehicle were sitting at an intersection in the town of Sab al Bor, about 10 miles northwest of Baghdad. It was late on the evening of May 31, 2007. The platoon was tired. First Lt. Dandy Alexander Wilson ’03 had tacked on this patrol after the unit already had put in a full day’s work. The senior scout asked Wilson if he wanted to go home. Home meant turning left, to the north, back to the main road and from there to base. Continuing straight ahead meant more patrolling.

The choice was Wilson’s. No one would have held it against him if he had decided to go home. But the area had not been patrolled in a while, and the town had been gutted by sectarian violence. If it ever was to become stable enough for the locals to return, Wilson’s unit — 2nd Platoon, B Troop — had to keep up the patrols. It didn’t matter if they were tired, thought the 26-year-old officer. He gave the order to keep going.  

They had gone only about a hundred feet when a loud explosion erupted beneath them. A roadside bomb. Wilson thought it was the Bradley in front that had been hit. He did a quick roll call of the men in his vehicle.

“Is everyone all right?”  

His squad members responded, one by one. By the time the roll call came back to him, Wilson realized he was the one who wasn’t all right.

Something was wrong with his legs. They didn’t hurt so much as feel as if they’d been slapped, hard. He couldn’t see them. The blast had knocked his seat over. His body armor, and all the gear strapped to it, blocked his line of sight.

One of Wilson’s sergeants had gotten out of the Humvee and was now outside Wilson’s door. “L.T.’s legs are f----- up,” he shouted.

Wilson grabbed the door frame and pulled himself up. But his legs didn’t support him, and he crashed to the ground. His right leg was broken in two. The heel stared back at him. His left leg flopped to the side, the foot shattered. It was only then, when his brain connected with what had happened to his body, that he began to feel the pain.

Wilson had joined the Army a year out of college. The military always had been on his radar. Both his parents had served in the Air Force. His grandfather had been in the Navy. A smattering of aunts and uncles had been in the Army and Marines. They took pride in having served.

In his senior year of high school in Saugerties, N.Y., Wilson applied to and was accepted at West Point. But the prospect of signing away nine years of his life was too daunting for the 17-year-old. He headed to Princeton instead, where he majored in ecology and evolutionary biology and played football and rugby.

As graduation approached, Wilson thought alternately about the military, the FBI, and graduate school. In the end, he postponed making a major career decision and took a job with an environmental-services company. But the work was not particularly interesting, and he didn’t feel that he was having a significant impact.  

He knew the FBI looked for special-agent candidates who had certain skills. Military experience was one. There were other reasons to consider joining the Army. He might regret it later in life if he never served. Plus, he thought the Army could help make him a better leader. “I wanted to develop my managerial skills and work on character weaknesses that I saw, like taking charge, self-confidence, and ­decision-making,” he says.

Wilson enlisted in the summer of 2004, completed Officer Candidate School, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He had been assigned to the Chemical Corps, the Army branch responsible for protecting troops against chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks. Placed on the operations staff of the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, an armored reconnaissance unit, Wilson let his superiors know he hoped to lead a platoon one day. “The pressure and responsibility was something I wanted,” Wilson says. “That’s why I joined, to lead soldiers in combat. I wanted to be that leader.”

The 1-7 Cav is a “maneuver” unit — the term used for the units that go into combat, like infantry, artillery, and armor. It is almost unheard-of for a lieutenant from a support branch, like Chemical, to be put in charge of a maneuver platoon. But Wilson asked anyway. Then he got himself trained on the vehicles, weapon systems, and ground tactics required of an armor lieutenant.  

Wilson’s mother, Angela, was not surprised: “For goals he has set for himself, he will always push the envelope.” In 10th grade, after Wilson failed to make his high school basketball team, he practiced every day at the hoop at the end of the driveway, even in the snow. The next year, he made the varsity team.  

“I’ve been a single parent since [Alex and his brother] were 2 and 3 years old,” Angela Wilson says. “They’ve seen me fight for everything. ... I try to teach them that if you want something, you have to work hard to get it.”

Wilson’s work for the 1-7 Cav must have made an impression. In the spring of 2007, when an armor lieutenant moved into a new position, Wilson was assigned the man’s platoon.

The 1-7 Cav had arrived in Iraq in October 2006, around the time the Sunni insurgency had launched a new offensive in the suburbs around Baghdad. The squadron was given responsibility for an area just north of the capital. Wilson’s troop was responsible for Sab al Bor. In principle, Wilson was supposed to do “presence patrols,” drives through the town designed to let anyone watching know that the Americans were there and keeping an eye on the place.

The problem was that Wilson’s team constantly was assigned missions elsewhere — to provide security for a convoy, for example, or to secure an area where a roadside bomb had been found. That meant Sab al Bor didn’t get as many patrols as it needed. So if the platoon had neglected the town for a few days, Wilson made sure to tack on a patrol to whatever else they were doing. May 31, 2007, was one of those days.

Immediately after the explosion, insurgents started firing at the platoon. Wilson’s soldiers shot back. Then they put him on a stretcher, threw him onto the hood of a Humvee, and, with two soldiers covering him, sped back to the outpost they called home. There, they put him in a pickup truck and raced him to Camp Taji, the 1-7 Cav’s headquarters.

Wilson’s soldiers tried to hold his broken leg steady, but each bump in the road sent pain ripping through his body. Every now and then, the pain would subside just enough for one thought to cross his mind: “God, please don’t take my legs.”

At Camp Taji, doctors stabilized him enough to put him on a helicopter to a combat support hospital in Baghdad, where he underwent emergency surgery that night. When Wilson woke up, he peered out at his legs through the fog of anesthesia and painkillers. On the right, he saw a metal frame holding his leg in place. That was good. It meant the leg was still there. Wilson looked down his left. The foot — along with about six inches of the leg — was gone.

Still in a fog, but now in a panic, he dialed his mother back in Saugerties.

Angela Wilson picked up the phone and heard her son yelling on the other end.

“He kept on screaming, ‘Mom, they took my leg, they took my leg,’” she says. “He was screaming that his life was over.” She had to go outside to get air. “I was on my driveway, screaming at him that he better start fighting back,” she says. “I was just telling him he needed to hold on and it was going to be OK.”

Wilson arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, six days later. By then, he had been through daily surgeries in Iraq and Germany, mostly to clean the wounds in his legs. For the next two weeks, Wilson shared a hospital room with three other injured soldiers, including one who didn’t sleep and kept his television on around the clock, and another who’d wake up screaming. Wilson was in pain almost all of the time. He slept about two hours a day. He kept looking down at his leg and seeing that part of it wasn’t there. He beat himself up for pushing on that night: “Over and over again, I said in my head, ‘Should have went north, should have went north, should have went north.’”  

All the while, he thought about what his life was going to be like. “I was wondering whether my personality would change,” says Wilson. “Would I be this outgoing person that I would like to think people liked to get to know or were positively affected by in life, as opposed to a person who was disaffected, negative, irritable?”

Wilson was a 6-foot-4-inch, 245-pound colossus who had been playing sports since he was 5. He earned a black belt in tae kwon do at 18. In high school, he played football and captained the basketball and track teams. At Princeton, he walked on to the football team and was a go-to guy on the rugby team. He continued with rugby in the Army and, in basic training, won the hand-to-hand combat tournament.

About 10 days after arriving in San Antonio, Wilson and his mother visited the Center for the Intrepid (CFI), the state-of-the-art rehabilitation center next to the hospital that was built to treat troops who have been severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was where Wilson would spend the coming months. Wilson struggled to wheel himself over to the building, and by the time they completed their tour, he was in despair. He used to breeze past defenders on the rugby pitch. Now he barely could cross a parking lot. He realized: There was no way he ever would be the guy he had been.

“You have your anger and your denial and your regret,” Wilson says, “your want for retribution, your want for justice. That all goes through your head. Eventu­ally, once you get over all the anger and the blaming, you look at the enormous difficulties that come from being laid up in a hospital with two legs that don’t work, and [you wonder], ‘How am I going to become a functioning individual again?’”

By then, in mid-June, Wilson’s Princeton friends had heard about the injury. Some sent care packages of DVDs and video games. Some collected money so that members of Wilson’s family — his mother, brothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — could stay with him in Texas. Many called.

Adam Nebesar ’03 and another friend hopped on a plane to spend a long weekend with Wilson. They took him out to dinner one day and to a movie another. They were there to cheer Wilson up, but Nebesar couldn’t help feeling sad. “It was such a shame,” he says. “Alex was a big, athletic guy. To not have legs, that seemed like such an awful ­disability.”

The day Wilson first saw a glimmer of hope was the day Matt Parker walked into his hospital room. Parker is a physical therapist at CFI. He explained what was involved in recovery and took Wilson to a physical-therapy room to introduce him to some of the exercises he’d be doing. Wilson got on a hand-pumped elliptical machine, started pedaling, and was wiped out after 10 minutes.  

He remembers: “Matt said, ‘This is the beginning. If you want to get better, you have to push yourself.’ He asked me, ‘Do you want to get better?’ And I’m, like, ‘Yes, I do.’ From that day on, I did whatever he said.”

Soon Wilson moved into outpatient housing, and his days took on a routine. He’d wheel himself to formation first thing in the morning. Go to CFI to do his prescribed exercises. Go to lunch. Go back to CFI to do more exercises. Go home.

In early July, Parker informed Wilson that he’d signed him up for a 150-mile hand-bike race, scheduled to take place in October. Wilson was taken aback.  

“I was like, ‘Don’t you think that’s a little far?’” Wilson says. “He said, “Just do the best you can. You don’t have to finish it.’”

It’s an approach CFI therapists use with many injured soldiers: Sign them up for a physical challenge and make them work toward it. “There’s a mentality in disabled sports, where they say, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,’” Parker explains. “That’s what we’re really instilling in them.”

Wilson was not excited about the race. He was still in a wheelchair. He was still on powerful painkillers that left him fuzzy-headed. His “good” right leg was next to useless: The tibia had shattered, and it was held in place by a titanium rod while bone grew back to fill the gaps. But Wilson had committed to doing what Parker asked of him. “As soon as I signed up for it, I wanted to make it,” Wilson says. “The first time I did 60 to 70 miles in training, I was, like, ‘Wow, that was pretty sweet.’ ”  

In October, after his wound had healed, technicians fitted Wilson with a prosthetic. After making adjustments, “they wheeled him over to the parallel bars,” Angela Wilson remembers. “He stood up and said, ‘Mom, how do I look?’ And he just smiled. He was so excited to see himself standing.

“They told him to let go of the bars, stand up straight, and not look down,” she says. “And all of a sudden, he started walking.”  

“At the time,” Wilson says, “it felt like the greatest and most important moment of my life.”

By the time the race came around later that month, Wilson pushed himself 102 miles on the hand-powered bike and pedaled another 25 miles on a regular one.  

Parker’s protocol of physical challenges continued: a six-day kayaking trip in Mexico in the winter and nonstop drills and exercises back at CFI. In January, Wilson finally started running.  

“Every time you hit another point ... it’s an overwhelming feeling,” Wilson says. “Every new thing that you do, that you didn’t know could be accomplished until you actually did it, it increases your confidence in yourself, in your ability to recover and do the next thing.”

When the spring arrived, Wilson was able to complete the annual Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico, a 26-mile hike commemorating the forced trek through the Philippines made by thousands of captured U.S. soldiers during World War II. Every year, a handful of soldiers and marines who’ve lost limbs in the Middle East participate.

By that summer, a year after his injury, Wilson was ready to move on. He took a medical retirement from the Army and returned to Saugerties, taking with him the rank of captain; a slew of medals, including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star; and four prosthetics: one for everyday use, a backup, a leg for running, and one to use in the water.  

Last July, Wilson enrolled at the University of New South Wales in Australia to pursue graduate studies in international relations. He still has his eye on the FBI, but he knows that special agents have to pass physical fitness tests, including timed runs. Wilson’s right leg never completely healed. When he plays basketball, the left leg, with the prosthetic, is fine, but the right one hurts. So he has a Plan B: international business.

If you passed Wilson on the street today, you probably wouldn’t notice anything unusual about his gait. It wouldn’t occur to you that his left shoe contains not a foot, but a Z-shaped piece of black carbon fiber on the bottom of a height-adjusted cylinder connected to a socket on his leg. Compared to amputees from previous wars, Wilson has regained an amazing amount of function. He snowboards. He surfs. He scuba dives. And since he’s Wilson, when he snowboards, he doesn’t stick to the slopes — he hits the rails. When he arrives at a swimming hole on a hike with his uncle and brother, he doesn’t float in the shallow end — he climbs a cliff and jumps off. Last fall, he took a 10-week solo trip to Central America. At his fifth Princeton reunion, he played in the alumni rugby game.

“He’s probably more physically active than I am,” says his friend Nebesar. What Wilson has accomplished confounded Nebesar’s expectations: “In my mind, he barely has a disability at all.”

Wilson, however, still is getting used to seeing himself in a different light. “Now, if I really want to do something, I may or may not be able to do it,” he says. “Not with harder work. It just might not get done. That’s probably the biggest thing that I have to accept.”  

Wilson says he’s no longer angry at himself for pushing on that night in Sab al Bor. Once, when he was giving a talk at a high school where his brother teaches history, a student asked if he’d ever given any orders he regretted.

“I said I regret making the decision not to return on that patrol,” Wilson recalls. “To some extent I’ll always feel that way.”

“But it wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision,” he adds. “It was just something that happened. It was a very unfortunate event.”

And for all he lost, Wilson says he has no regrets about joining the military. Had he never done it, he always would have wondered “what if.” He also believes he gained something invaluable. “The things I got most out of the Army were character development, leadership skills, and confidence in myself, my abilities, and my decisions,” Wilson says. “I didn’t necessarily have that before. And now I do.”

E.B. Boyd ’89 is a freelance writer in San Francisco.