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Photographer's loss offers hope for Boston wounded

Wednesday - 4/24/2013, 5:32am  ET

In this Jan. 8, 2005 photo, men who lost their legs after stepping on anti-personnel mines learn to walk with their prosthesis at the Orthopedic Center of the Red Cross, which runs one of the best rehabilitation centers in the country and is one of the few that provides prostheses to patients, including children, who had been blown up by forgotten mines in rural areas in Kabul, Afghanistan. Emilio Morenatti's world changed on Aug. 11, 2009 when during his embed in southern Afghanistan with the U.S. military, which was to have been his last patrol before going home, the eight-wheel armored Stryker vehicle in which he was traveling with U.S. soldiers hit a roadside bomb and flipped over, knocking him unconscious. "I never stop thinking about those Afghan patients and how they were facing their rehabilitation process even in that calamitous center," writes Morenatti, who lost his leg below the knee in the bomb blast. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
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EMILIO MORENATTI
Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- In the first horrific moments after the Boston bombing, with smoke still billowing around the wounded, I know what is going through the minds of the maimed victims.

They are at once conscious and unconscious. They want to scream, but they cannot scream. They want to wake up from a nightmare, but they are awake.

Overcome with a sense of deja vu, I feel my past converge with the future of those wounded spectators.

I lost my leg in a bomb blast. I know the violent shock of a day that begins well and ends with an amputation, the fog of drugs and surgery, the months of painful rehabilitation.

I know the suffering that lies ahead for these people in Boston. And I know the possibilities, too.

For those who lost a limb or more in the Boston Marathon, Monday, April 15, 2013, was the day their world changed forever.

Mine changed on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. I had been embedded with the U.S. military for two weeks in southern Afghanistan as a photographer for The Associated Press, and this was to have been my last patrol before going home. It had been a long day in the open desert of Kandahar province and I was whipped, barely awake, in fact, when our eight-wheel armored Stryker vehicle hit a roadside bomb and flipped over, knocking me unconscious.

When I came to, I tried to get up but couldn't; my left foot was hanging by a few tendons. I felt brutal pain, like an electric shock, that began in my leg and swept through the rest of my body. Lying inside the vehicle, I thought of my wife, and willed myself to stay alive.

Eventually, a soldier found me and tied on a tourniquet.

In my years as a photojournalist, I'd taken many pictures of wounded soldiers and victims of suicide bombers. I had covered medical evacuations from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, and found it odd to suddenly be among those pulled from an inferno and carried on a stretcher -- along with two other soldiers and AP Television News videographer Andi Jatmiko.

They loaded me onto a helicopter next to a soldier who had lost both of his legs and we locked hands as the chopper took off for the provincial capital of Kandahar. The solidarity in that moment is the last thing I remember before waking up in a hospital tent to find my left leg had been amputated below the knee. There was no option to save it, doctors told me. Bone and tissue were destroyed by shrapnel. But fortunately my knee was intact, and that would make a substantial difference in my future mobility, they explained.

That offered little comfort as I lay alone and exhausted in a hospital bed in Afghanistan. I had so many questions about life with just one leg but I preferred sleep to thinking about my uncertain future.

The difference between those who lost limbs in Boston and me is that I knew I was taking a risk in a war zone and assumed it willingly, while they had merely gone out to cheer friends and relatives at a family sporting event.

They weren't supposed to be in danger.

I was a photographer documenting soldiers at war and everyday life for civilians under fire. But before violence grabs you, does anyone really believe he will become one of the dead or wounded? No. Nothing had happened to me on dozens of previous patrols with the military through hostile lands. And while I suspected I was playing a kind of Russian roulette, I also told myself that car accidents happen every day and most people don't stop driving because of that.

For months after the explosion I was tortured by so many "what ifs." What if I had stayed back to pack rather than going on patrol that day? What if I had sat a little bit to the right, would the shrapnel have missed my leg? Or if I had sat to the left, would I have lost both legs like the soldier next to me?

I imagine those in Boston whose bodies were torn up by nails or the blasts have similar thoughts: Why didn't I stand at mile 25, go for water, leave earlier, stay home? I would like to tell them that these questions fade as one begins to accept the reality of losing a limb.

The morphine they gave me to dim the pain of my amputation sapped my energy. I wanted off it so I could start my recuperation with all my strength and walk as soon as possible. I am a Spanish citizen, not American, and was lucky that the AP was able to work bureaucratic miracles to get me admitted to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, one of the world's best rehab hospitals.

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