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Sep 16 2012

Survivor Spotlight – Richard Smith

Richard Smith – by SCTA Volunteer Sharma Howard

Some people recovering from spinal surgery might use their condition as an excuse to take a medical discharge from the Army, but not Richard Smith. A sergeant and senior cook with the 1st Infantry Division of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad, Smith had a goal of serving 20 years in the military, and nothing was going to get in his way.

“Staying on active duty was nobody’s decision but mine,” he says in an e-mail from Iraq.

Smith, who says chatting online with other SCTA members helps him feel more in tune with people who have suffered from similar problems. Richard says he recuperated from surgery for 18 months before feeling somewhat normal, though he estimates he has lost about 70 percent of the feeling in both legs and can hardly feel his feet.

In 2000, Smith was initially diagnosed with a pinched nerve; it wasn’t until two and a half years later that he would be diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor at the T8-9 level. Surgery was performed by Col. James Ecklund, head of neurosurgery at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but when he went in to remove the tumor the doctor determined that Smith had a spinal cord abcess, essentially an infection of the spinal cord that was quite extensive. Ecklund removed most of the infection, but recovery has been difficult.

Prior to surgery, Smith didn’t have much pain, instead experiencing numbness in his left leg and left side as well as an occasional burning sensation in the back. He had some physical therapy, the most helpful of which proved to be aquatherapy, but progress was slow.

“The first 10 months, I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself — depressed, even lonely,” he says. “My unit deployed to Iraq, my soldiers were at war and I was a cripple. I would watch the news and cry when I saw soldiers in Iraq. I would become teary-eyed whenever I saw a soldier running for physical training because I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Smith ballooned from a healthy 220 pounds up to 295, lost in a narcotic haze of medicines: Valium, oxycontin, morphine, antidepressants and others. Then he began mixing in booze occasionally and became worse.

“I woke up one day in December 2003, ten months after my surgery, and I was sober enough to realize what I was doing to myself and began to change my life around, and that is when I really began to recover. I started to exercise regularly, took myself off all the narcotics, lost a bunch of weight and took every day one step at a time.”

After a major operation, the military gives soldiers a year to recover before determining whether they can stay on active duty. Somehow, Smith managed to pass the physical and get back to active duty, taking a cocktail of medications at night to ease the pain, relax the muscles, reduce spasms and prevent swelling.

“As for the pain, I live with it every day,” he says. “Some days are better than others and some are worse. I try not to focus on it too much.”

Still, the pain has a way of rearing its ugly head, and that’s when Smith tries to listen to his body and slow down. With Smith’s unit supporting three combat outposts, however, he sometimes has to carry a full complement of body armor, rucksack and weaponry, which can total 120 to 140 pounds. Soldiers can often tote body armor and a weapon for 10 to 12 hours, but Smith says he feels the weight more in his legs than on his back.

His back can be affected, however, by rudimentary bedding such as what the military dispensed when he first arrived in Iraq. Smith soon figured out a solution, using two mattresses with a piece of plywood in between and two eggshell pads from Wal-Mart.

“My command knows about my condition but rarely cuts me any slack,” says Smith, who will be able to retire in 2009, “and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

As for his mission to Iraq, Smith, who has a wife and 14-year-old daughter back home, remains upbeat.

“My greatest hope is that peace can be established in this region, and Iraq will one day be as beautiful as it once was,” he says. “I think whatever part I play here will be so small that I can’t be judged by what I will have accomplished; the part I hope to play is to bring all my soldiers home safey.”

* Sharma Howard is a feature writer for The Norwich Bulletin in Norwich, Conn., and has been associated with the SCTA for the past seven years.