Amputee vet studying business of employing wounded troops

PALO ALTO, Calif. Twenty-nine-year-old Dan Berschinski used to compete in marathons and triathlons. But in 2009, the Army first lieutenant stepped on a buried bomb in a Taliban-heavy area just outside Kandahar, Afghanistan after leading his men to reinforce a sister platoon.

"I tilted my head back but I reached down with my hand to feel for my legs, and I remember not feeling anything. And I instantly - this is really dorky - but I instantly thought of the movie, 'Forrest Gump,' with Lt. Dan, where he has an explosion and he has no legs," he told CBSNews.com.

Army 1st Lt. Dan Berschinski (R) in Afghanistan.

"For about 10 seconds I thought man, my life is over; I don't want to live like this."

The explosion shattered his arm, fractured his jaw, and blew off both of his legs, leaving intact only part of his left thigh. Medics were able to save his hand, and miraculously, he suffered no brain injuries. After undergoing treatment in the field and in Germany, he was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center.

"When I woke up in that hospital bed, I was in a different world," Berschinski said.

"You take a type-a personality; a hard-charging, intelligent soldier who's at the prime of his physical fitness, who's young and so much of his identity was contained in physical capability - or leading a team. I had been in charge of 35 soldiers in combat - one of the greatest responsibilities an American can ever have - and now I couldn't even get myself to the bathroom."

But he fought on, smile in place: "When you're in such a bad situation, in my opinion, you have no other alternative than to assume that things are gonna be alright," Berschinski reflected. "You have to have a positive attitude or else things won't be ok. Did I really believe that things were gonna be ok? No, probably not."

At Walter Reed, Berschinski's spirits were boosted with visits from "certified peers" with the nonprofit Amputee Coalition - something he called "huge" in the recovery process; "to meet someone else that's like you and to know that life can turn out OK." After a number of surgeries to be outfitted with artificial legs, Berschinski became actively involved in the Coalition, counseling for its kids' summer camp and eventually joining the board of directors.

"I realized there was a great role for the AC to play in interacting with America's veteran population, and I'm happy to say we are forging a stronger relationship with the Veterans Administration, and also with Walter Reed, with the young guys like me who are still recovering," he said.

Growing ever more comfortable with his artificial legs, Berschinski has learned to do a somersault to get himself up.

Informational and emotional support, though, is only half of the equation in the wounded warrior recovery process. Recognizing the value in marrying nonprofit assistance with for-profits, Berschinski began work with Agile Brigade - a software testing company based in Richmond, Va. - helping identify talent and recruit wounded veterans for potential employment.

"What I really liked about it is they took their strength, software testing - inherently an indoor, air conditioned, computer-focused job, a task - and they said this would be a great pair with wounded veterans," he said. "You know, I'd love to be a park ranger, but you're not going to see me walking around a national park or driving a bulldozer working on a construction site. I can sit in an office and work at a computer.

"It's not just a one-time thing," Berschinski went on. "It's not just a charity sending guys off on a trip to have fun - which is great, that's a huge part of the recovery process - but this is a career. It's something that a wounded veteran can build a family on."

Berschinski channeled that business model into creating his own small business, called Two-Six industries. The manufacturing company currently focuses on distributing a line of plastic injection molded products like storage tubs and stepstools on military bases. In the future, he hopes to produce original equipment parts for the Defense Department.

Berschinski leading a study group at Stanford.

That dream brought him to Palo Alto, Calif., where along with his girlfriend of four years, Rebecca Taber, he began classes this fall at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business using tuition from the Department of Veterans Affairs. With an MBA under his belt in two years, Berschinski plans to grow his business and hire on other disabled veterans.

"I like working with other veterans. I also feel that it's a duty to help them as much as I can - but again, I'm not giving out handouts here," he qualified. "I want to run a good company that can provide jobs with smart, driven individuals. And I think the veteran population is perfect for that."

Nonprofits still play a big role in Berschinski's life. In addition to staying active with the AC, he moves around campus easily on a Segway donated by the charity, "Segs4Vets." But, he admits, he's partial to the "teach a man to fish" school.

"I'm here learning how to fish right now; I want to go back out there and teach other people how to fish," he said. "My friends, the guys that I did rehab with, if they can't get back to the fight, they want to get out in the country and be a success story."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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