Orthotist Scott Gray fits the prosthetic leg of Tristan Wyatt, assistant chief of prosthetics at the VA San Diego Healthcare System
on Oct. 10, 2011. Wyatt helps veterans rehabilitate their lives following their injuries. VA photo by Christopher Menzie
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2011 – Wounded veterans who come to the San
Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center for their prosthetic care find
the clinic there offers more than top-notch medicine.
also find a compassionate caseworker in Tristan Wyatt, himself a
wounded veteran who's lived the to-hell-and-back journey that proves
there is life after losing a limb.
Wyatt has worn a
prosthetic leg since shortly after an insurgent attack in Fallujah,
Iraq, in 2003 left him and two of his six squad mates each without a
As assistant chief of the prosthetics service, Wyatt
helps introduce new veterans to the VA's program. Many, recognizing
that he's overcome many of the same obstacles they now face, look to
him for guidance.
“I spend a lot of time with them,” Wyatt
said. “And when they do ask, I tell them they'll have to let go of
certain things or come to terms with them to assimilate back into
‘the world back home.'”
Wyatt said severely wounded veterans
know that losing a limb will shape many of their life experiences,
but tells them the road ahead doesn't have to be a lonely one.
Through trial and error, Wyatt said he learned that getting a
new prosthetic leg is about progression -- how to use it, what feels
normal and what doesn't. He thought he had to live with the pain he
felt, but found that adjustments or even new devices could mitigate
“When you're a new user," he tells patients,
"you're not sure how it's supposed to feel or function or what a
normal level of pain or
discomfort is.” If it hurts, he said, take the prosthetic off,
relax, and look into an adjustment.
But Wyatt's experiences weren't just about learning to
“There are things I could've done to
make my life a lot easier -- things I could have avoided and
didn't,” he said. “You want to tell them about things they
shouldn't do, but they're not thinking that way right now.”
Soon after he was injured, Wyatt found he'd lost his
passion for snowboarding in the Colorado Rockies because it
was frustrating and became a lot of work. With time, he
found that he excelled at rowing and kayaking.
said leaving the Army was tough. Wyatt was 19 years old, he
said, when he enlisted at Fort Carson, Colo., and right
away, he knew he'd found his calling. He was just 20 years
old when he was injured.
“My biggest hurdle was I
couldn't go back to the Army,” Wyatt said. “That's what I
wanted, and I didn't know what I was going to do and didn't
necessarily care. I fixated on what it was I couldn't do and
lost track of [options].”
Wyatt spent six months at
Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was
awarded the Purple Heart right after his arrival while he
was still in a wheelchair.
He spent a month fighting
a stubborn infection and numerous surgeries that each took
more of his thigh than doctors first expected. The physical
therapy was grueling and the prosthetic fittings frustrating
as he learned to walk again.
“It was difficult
because ... prosthetics was uncharted territory for
everybody," he said. "And we wondered, ‘What's going to
happen from here?'”
Wyatt said he found it easy to
isolate himself from people. He spent one Christmas alone,
four-wheeling his Jeep on a beach, and increasingly
“disappeared” from family during holidays.
situations weren't comfortable for him, either. “I didn't
want to see anybody,” he recalled. “The thought of being in
a closed environment with a lot of people, having to share
things, and being ‘on display' was something I didn't want.”
Eventually, Wyatt grew tired of living in the past, and
discovered that other opportunities did exist. When the VA
offered him an entry-level job in 2005 in its new
information technology program for veterans, he jumped on it
and moved back to Washington.
Once there, he
testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee,
encouraging the expansion of service member assistance
programs like the VA's. “My separation from the Army was
made a lot smoother than expected because of these people
who truly cared and [were] willing to take a chance on a
busted soldier,” he told committee members.
few years working for the VA, Wyatt applied for the agency's
internship to work as a program manager in a prostheses
clinic. There, he knew he could make a difference.
saw an opportunity where I could maybe go above and beyond
in that arena, because of what I'd been through,” he said.
“It seemed like a perfect fit and too good to pass up.”
Now on the job three years at San Diego's VA hospital,
Wyatt said he's recaptured much of the camaraderie he
enjoyed in the Army as he bonds with new patients beginning
the same journey he started seven years ago.
still brings up a lot of emotion to see them because I know
what they're going through,” he said.
He shuns the
suggestion that he's an inspiration to new prosthetics
patients, but said he hopes they can benefit from his
“There's only a limited amount of what
you can say or do for them, so you feel a little helpless,”
he said. “But I hope they take something away from it.”
Wyatt says he's fortunate to have a job he looks forward
to every day. Today he feels he's reached a place in his
life where the term “wounded warrior" doesn't define him
When he reflects back on all that's happened
over the past seven years, it's a lot to digest, he said.
“And it's a good feeling."
His journey back to the
"real world," Wyatt said, wasn't without help. “I've been
given every opportunity to succeed, so it's not only on my
shoulders,” he said. “It's a testament to the people of this
country and the VA. Look at what they've given me -- it's
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
Comment on this article