Soldiers Sacrifice Limbs for Afghanistan


If you want to measure the price of progress in Afghanistan, there's no better place than the surgical ward at Bethesda Naval Hospital, reports CBS News David Martin

"I was just sitting in the sand and I was kind of digging around trying to find my left leg, and I couldn't find it," said Sgt. Thomas Humphrey.

(Scroll down to watch the video.)

It's been one month since the marine stepped on a mine in Southern Afghanistan. He lost the right leg below the knee, but doctors managed to save that left leg he couldn't find.

Patient privacy laws don't allow us to show you all the wounded marines at Bethesda Naval, but it take it from the commander of the hospital.

Bethesda Naval Hospital
Semper Fi Fund

"There's no question that things have been hopping the last few months," said Rear Admiral Matthew L. Nathan, MD, the hospital's commander. "We're all in."

Almost all the marines were hit while on foot by an enemy they never saw.

"They can set in, hide, set up an ambush and wait for us, you know," said Corpsman Keegan Purcell. "We're the ones out there walking around, you know, patrolling the areas."

Corpsman Purcell was shot through the leg.

"If you're going to get out there and, you know, get out there and put the fight, you know, to the enemy, you got to go out on foot," said Purcell.

All those specially armored vehicles the U.S. bought for the war in Iraq aren't much use to the Marines in Afghanistan.

It's the same story everywhere you go - those foot patrols.

"It's the easiest way to move around in our area," said Sgt. Humphrey. "It's the best way to talk to local individuals. It's just kind of a risk you take."

That leaves the marines with nothing but their body armor to protect them from roadside bombs.

"We're seeing severe damage to the extremities and head wounds," said Dr. Nathan.

A double amputee like Corporal Gabriel Martinez is not at all unusual. There are triple and even quadruple amputees.

"I remember myself flying up in the air and, when I landed like I had this, this one-on-one with God, and he asked me, he said, 'Gabriel do you want to live?' and I said, 'Yes, I want to live,'" said Corporal Martinez.

And he wanted his best friend Justin Gaertner to live. They were hit by the same blast and medevaced on the same helicopter.

"I was right there with him and he was right there with me and us holding hands, it was a good pain reliever," said Corporal Martinez.

The next time they talked was in the intensive care unit at Bethesda, where Gaertner is still recovering from his wounds, including the loss of both legs. Martinez still needs a nerve block to handle his pain, but what he needs more is to get out of the hospital and into physical therapy.

"I'm not scared. I'm not worried. I'm just more anxious to put those prosthetic legs on and see how I walk," said Corporal Martinez. "I might look like Bambi at birth, but it's going to be exciting."

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.