Soldier-athlete runs on prosthetics

SUNDAY, APRIL 27, 2008

NEW YORK – John Fernandez should not have been playing lacrosse Saturday in the Army-Navy alumni game at Madison Square Garden. By all rights, the former U.S. Army first lieutenant should be dead. But luck intervened.

“It was just a matter of chance – pure luck,” said Fernandez, of Shoreham, Long Island, who was severely wounded in Iraq after a U.S. plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on his Humvee in a case of friendly fire on April 3, 2003. Shrapnel from the explosion shredded his legs.

“I crawled,” Fernandez recalled. “I couldn’t walk.”

More than five years later, the soldier can do more than just walk. He can play lacrosse thanks to prosthetic limbs, as he demonstrated during the Heroes Cup, which preceded the New York Titans professional game Saturday night.

“Change of direction is a little bit more difficult just because I don’t have ankles,” Fernandez said. “I get around. I’m not necessarily the guy who’s going to be taking the ball and driving from behind the cage. I’m out there and playing. Running around, setting picks and scoring goals.”

Fernandez speaks impassively when he recounts what happened to him. But his story is extraordinary.

Somehow the bomb, which ripped through his Humvee, spared Fernandez, who was sleeping next to the vehicle on a cot south of Baghdad in Karballa. It did not spare his driver, gunner nor the platoon sergeant nearby in another Humvee.

Seven others were injured.

Afterward, Fernandez, 30, was flown to a naval base in Spain and then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Doctors delivered a grim prognosis when he arrived. Part of his right leg had to go. They could try to save his left foot, but it might be more trouble than it was worth.

There could be lasting complications.

Fernandez told doctors: “Just take it off. Cut it off and move on. It’s literally cutting your losses.”

Surgeons amputated his right leg eight inches below the knee. They also removed his left foot.

But Fernandez was undeterred. He returned home that June for many months of painful rehabilitation. The soldier in him refused to lie down – so did his wife, Kristi, who helped Fernandez recover.

“We just kept looking ahead,” she said while watching Fernandez play at the Garden, cheering the Army players who eventually lost to Navy 10-6.

The first few years were a learning process, but over time he adapted to his new legs. His latest set is made mostly of carbon fiber. He’s been able to play sports for about four years.

“I put on my legs in the morning like you put on your shoes,” said Fernandez, now alumni director of the Wounded Warrior Project in New York, dedicated to veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And he never limited himself.

“I wanted to be able to do everything I could do prior to the injury,” he said.


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