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Soldiers

Part I "Allah be with you" Part II "Get the hell out of my room" Part III "That game's for sissies"

Part IV "His head was the size of a basketball"

By William Nack, Special to ESPN.com

Ramon Guitard was riding shotgun in the bus when his world appeared to split in two before him, first with a violent boom, then with the searing explosion of bluish-white light and black smoke, then with the voice of the female behind him screaming in his ears.

It was Oct. 9, 2004, dusk was falling in Iraq, and the 22-year-old U.S. Army specialist and generator mechanic with the 659th Maintenance Company was riding in a convoy of vehicles heading south from Baghdad toward Kuwait. Guitard had sensed it coming. A group of U.S. soldiers manning a highway checkpoint had just warned the drivers in his convoy that they were heading for a stretch of landscape known for its mines and hidden IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, known by civilians as roadside bombs.

The insurgents had been planting 155mm artillery shells along those roads and waited for the convoys to come along, setting off the shells, electronically, with cell phones. Fifteen minutes from the checkpoint, they were tooling south when a shell went off under the bus.

"There was a massive, bright flash of light and a tremendous boom," Guitard remembers. "My ears started ringing, and ... I smelled smoke rising from underneath me and I heard the female soldier behind me screaming, 'My legs! My legs!' When I heard her screaming, I looked down at my legs, and there was a big hole in the floorboard under me and both my legs were split open like Subway sandwiches."

"HE PROBABLY SAW THAT I WAS IN CHARGE AND SET IT OFF WITH A CELL PHONE."

In the frenetic moments that ensued, rescuers took Guitard off the bus and layed him on a stretcher on the side of the road. He began yelling "I don't wanna lose my legs!" when a stranger approached and kneeled down next to him. He was an Iraqi national, a driver of one of the vehicles, and in the desert gloaming Guitard heard him say, "Do you mind if I pray for you in Arabic?"

"I don't mind," Guitard said. "I don't mind at all."

As the Iraqi prayed for him in Arabic, Guitard heard the whir of a Blackhawk medical helicopter as it settled off the side of the road. When the medics lifted Guitard and his stretcher aboard the helicopter, he heard the Arab driver conclude his prayer in English. "Allah will be with you," he said.

Ramon Guitard once thought he would never walk again, but found support and hope for a life renewed at Walter Reed.

On a perfect December day for skiing, Kirk Bauer took his new friends -- Joe Ramos and John Jones -- skiing down the slopes in Breckenridge, Colo. It didn't matter that Bauer had lost his left leg on the battlefield in Vietnam. That Ramos had lost his left arm below the elbow, and Jones both his legs, in Iraq. On the slopes that day, Ramos and Jones were among 58 disabled soldiers whose lives were forever altered in the line of duty. As they skied, they were shattering boundaries they once imagined they'd never be able to cross.

Tune in to Outside The Lines at 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday for Steve Cyphers' report on Bauer's work with Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warriors Project.

Guitard blacked out at the hospital in Baghdad, where surgeons amputated his right leg above the knee and lowered him into a medically induced coma. He awoke a month later, in early November, in the intensive care unit at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where surgeons later replaced his ruined left knee with a titanium rod that joins the upper to the lower leg, fusing the former knee joint in place. After spending three months in the hospital, including four weeks in intensive care, Guitard moved into living quarters at Reed with his wife, Melissa, and two young daughters, Shaunta, now 6, and Alecia, 1. It was there that he began the long, slow process of physical and mental rehabilitation.

Guitard thus became one of scores of recent Iraq War veterans, many of them in their early 20s, who have turned to sports as a way of rehabilitating themselves -- mentally, as well as physically -- after suffering life-changing injuries in the war.

"When I was in the hospital bed," Guitard recalls, "I told my wife, 'I'll never walk again. I'll never be able to do anything again.' Then I started handcycling. I went to my first race in New York with the Achilles Track Club this summer, and I did five miles in 26 minutes! That was my first race ever! I finished eighth, but it has brought new life to me."

Sports has given Guitard confidence. It has kept him mobile and active. "I'm not sitting on my butt," he says. "I'm going places."

While working his upper body at Walter Reed, Guitard was preparing to clear his life's greatest hurdle.

The Achilles Track Club, which helps people with disabilities participate in mainstream athletics, hasn't been alone in recruiting disabled Iraq War vets at Walter Reed. Veterans have found another extended hand at Disabled Sports USA, an organization of 86 chapters in 35 states that also is devoted to getting people with disabilities -- war veterans or not -- involved in sports as an adventure in rehabilitation and recreation.

Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA, is a Vietnam veteran who lost a leg to a hand grenade explosion in Southeast Asia, but lived to experience the healing influence of sports as he made his way back to civilian life.

"When I was in the hospital, I had lost my leg and I had that crisis to deal with: Who am I? Where am I going? What can I do?" Bauer says. "They put me through some tests and said, 'Well, we're gonna send you to school.' The thought of getting a degree and being active in four years was nice, but it meant nothing to me at that moment. I needed something right now! Something to validate me and increase my self-confidence.

"That's what sports did for me. I learned how to ski. They pushed me up a hill, turned me around and I skied down. It was the greatest high in the world."

Bauer now makes the rounds at Walter Reed and other hospitals, hoping to make contact with soldiers at the moment when they are in their beds trying to figure out "what the hell happened to their world."

"It's been turned upside down," he answers himself.

Though confined to a wheelchair, Guitard found sports was never out of his reach.

Sports is a tool for rehabilitation, Bauer says, and it is a particularly effective one because it provides not only a reliable means by which to measure physical progress and achievement -- "to show the physically disabled that they can lead an active life despite the fact they have a disability," he says -- but also because the gratification from the accomplishment is nearly instant. Disabled Sports USA offers a dozen land and water sports -- from sailing, outrigger canoeing and kayaking to handcycling, golf and rock climbing -- and Bauer insists that each can be learned in next to no time.

"We can teach the basics of a sport in a day," he says. "In one day, they realize that they can do something. A sport starts right away to rebuild the self-confidence.

"That's what we're all about in the rehab process."

William Nack, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Part I "Allah be with you" Part II "Get the hell out of my room" Part III "That game's for sissies" Part IV "His head was the size of a basketball"

By William Nack, Special to ESPN.com What so many in this band of wounded brothers have in common -- aside from the absence of self-pity and their resolve to live a "normal life" again -- is not only that they escaped death, which is miracle enough given what they went through, but also that they've since come back to begin a vibrant, active life anew.

The experiences of two Army veterans, Lt. Steven Rice, 24, and Sgt. Chris Schneider, 29, represent a kind of clinic -- showcased by Disabled Sports USA -- on how sports can work as a transforming mechanism in the process of rehabilitating wounded soldiers and as healing therapy for their psychological as well as physical problems.

On Dec. 27, 2003, Rice and his men were on a reconnaissance patrol when he got a call that a unit of American troops had come under fire and needed help. Rushing to provide support, Rice nearly was blown away in the explosion of a 155mm shell buried on the roadside. "Someone was sitting on the overpass and watching me," Rice says. "He probably saw that I was in charge and set it off with a cell phone."

Sprawled on the ground, he implored his men to get him to a hospital. "The shrapnel had spun through my ankle and ripped out those vital ball-and-socket joints in the foot and blew off my big toe," Rice says. "It had to be sewn back on."

Doctors managed to save Rice's foot, but the injury left him in intense pain and in a constant state of surgical recovery; in all, he endured 18 operations to save the foot. While Rice was at Walter Reed, Kirk Bauer of Disabled Sports USA visited him and declared, "This may seem bad now, but I'm gonna have you up and skiing in a couple of months."

"Get the hell outta my room," Rice demanded.

It took a while for Steven Rice to warm up to Kirk Bauer and the idea of using Disabled Sports USA.

Schneider arrived at Reed not long after Rice. Seventeen days after the lieutenant went down, Schneider was riding in a 2-ton cargo truck, on a narrow, two-lane road some 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, when the truck's head-on crash with another truck catapulted him about 120 feet through the air.

A heavy equipment tractor-trailer, weighing some 100 tons, plunged off the road to avoid the accident and roared to a dusty stop on the soft desert sand. Two of its giant tires crushed Schneider's left hip, breaking it in two places and pinching off the nerves. He could feel nothing.

Looking up, though, he could see everything: the iron bottom of the giant truck, which was carrying an M-88 tank recovery vehicle on its bed; his left leg caught between a pair of dual tires and bleeding profusely; and, suddenly, a Special Forces medic, the man who would save his life, sprinkling a blood-clotting powder on the wound.

As soldiers tried to dig Schneider out, his blood pressure dropped so quickly the medic could not find a vein to take the IV. The wounded soldier was too unstable for morphine. The medic couldn't apply a tourniquet because the gushing wound was wedged between the tires. "It opened my leg like a banana. It turned everything but the bones to pulp," Schneider says. "So for 20 minutes, all I had was that medic and his QuikClot."

By the time they got him to a hospital, he was nearly dead. After Schneider flatlined twice, doctors never expected him to wake up from his surgery. When he survived that, they did not think he would survive the flight to Germany, let alone the long trip to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. "Fortunately, I survived them all," Schneider says. The doctors finally stabilized him at Reed, but when he awoke two weeks after the accident, he learned from his wife, Cassandra -- the mother of their two small children, Eli and Talia -- that his leg was gone. "It was a shock," he says. "Then I started thinking about it. How is this going to affect my life? What am I gonna do?"

So there, at Walter Reed, Rice and Schneider began battling two altogether different feelings: Schneider slipped into depression; Rice did not.

His injured foot mangled and in constant pain, and unable to run or even cycle without the throbbing hurt, Rice grew too angry to be depressed. He had been an active runner and soccer player. He had been a black belt instructor in a Korean martial art, hapkido. Sports had always been a part of Rice's life, as they had been for the golfing Schneider.

"All those things I wanted to do, those things I'd been doing all my life, they vanished right in front of me," Rice says. "I didn't realize how angry I was. My family told me I was upset and pissed off at the world. I didn't understand that until I finally had the foot amputated."

It was a year after that hidden artillery round had mangled his foot in Iraq that Rice finally gave up on more surgeries and decided to have it cut off, vowing to himself: "This is what we're gonna do and not look back."

Since finding the outlet of sports, Steven Rice has regained his sense of humor.

The anger, along with the pain, suddenly vanished. So Bauer came around again and told Rice, "I think you're ready now."

The next few months completely changed the direction of Rice's life. Six weeks after the final surgery, Bauer's group whisked him off to a skiing event. Supported through corporate and private donations -- no government money is involved -- Disabled Sports USA picked up all the expenses for lodging and travel, then pointed Rice down a steep hill. He soon found himself kayaking on the Potomac, then later cycling in Colorado in a 500-mile race to raise money for a sister organization, the Wounded Warrior Project.

Just as Rice got over his anger, sports raised Schneider from his depression. Not long after Bauer had stopped by to see him at Walter Reed, Schneider was flying out to a sports clinic in Long Beach, Calif., where instructors prodded and pushed him to try all events. It was May 2004, four months after he flatlined twice, and his body was still weak as it recovered from the trauma. "I had no clue how many things I'd be able to do," Schneider says. "I was still very new on the prosthetic."

And not all that confident on it -- until, that is, he got swept up in the energy of the thing and began to try everything. He climbed rocks. He scuba dived. He bicycled. He paddled the outrigger canoe. Schneider felt liberated, unshackled from his disability.

"It was amazing," he says. "The hardest thing for me to do was the water-skiing. I refused to do it on anything other than my one leg. I didn't want to go out on one of those sitting skis."

It was, he says, a matter of pride.

Spec. Richard Ingram, right, and Sgt. Tim Gustafson paddle the double-hulled "Wounded Warrior" to shore. The Kent Island Outrigger Canoe Club helps Disabled Sports USA to train disabled veterans in the sport of outrigger canoeing.

Schneider figures he spent 25 minutes repeatedly falling off that one ski. He quickly grew exhausted, so tired and weak after falling the second time that he did not think he could go on. At his instructors' urging, he persevered. "I won't say I mastered it, but I got up for 30 seconds and water-skied," Schneider says. "It's completely different having only one leg to do it. You don't have that second foot to keep your ski straight or to get your balance on. I pushed myself past limits that I thought I was not going to be able to get past."

Finding those limits and stretching them are the constant challenges offered, physically and psychologically, in the arenas of sport. Disabled servicemen, in particular, cherish and value those challenges on their roads back.

"Going out there and doing those events is physical therapy in itself because of the exertion and attention you have to put into it," Schneider says. "It is also psychologically fulfilling because you're finding where your limits are and finding if you can get past them. It [sports] gives you barriers. It's like climbing a mountain. Your goal is to climb it and see the other side. Once you get there, it's a physical and psychological high. It gives you a sense of elation knowing that you've conquered a doubt in your mind."

Rice sees the rehab process as just another branch on a much larger tree, one familiar to all.

A picturesque day near Kent Island is a welcome respite for disabled soldiers on Chesapeake Bay.

"Life is all about coping skills and how you get through hard times," he says. "Instead of sitting at the hospital and not going through physical therapy -- instead of saying 'Woe is me. Woe is me. My life is gonna end.' -- I decided to go the other way. I got up on my prosthetic as soon as possible and I pushed it and I pushed it to the limit.

"You've gotta get out in the sunshine and go out on a cold January day and go flying down the side of a mountain. That makes you feel good. It wakes you up. It lets you know that you're alive. It lets you know there's more than this limb that's hanging off your body.

"It says to you: I can still do things!" William Nack, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Part I "Allah be with you" Part II "Get the hell out of my room" Part III "That game's for sissies" Part IV "His head was the size of a basketball"

By William Nack, Special to ESPN.com Sean Lewis was caught in a web of angst and despair, a one-legged jock feeling useless and restless in his diminished mobility, when he ran into Billy Bartlett at a dinner party one night at Fran O'Brien's Stadium Steak House in Washington, D.C. It was fall 2004. The 21-year-old Lewis was still recovering from wounds he had suffered while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Bartlett, an old Vietnam vet who had been injured on duty for the D.C. Fire Department, knew what Lewis was going through -- indeed, what a lot of injured U.S. servicemembers were going through in rehab at Walter Reed. Bartlett did not like the way many of the amputees were spending their leisure time, either drinking in bars or sitting idly at home. Bartlett loved golf, and he saw in the game an answer to their ennui -- a sport that not only would take them off the stools and into a world of fairways and greens but also would offer them a physical challenge beyond the tedium of daily rehab work, a place to rebuild lost confidence. So he sprang the idea on Lewis and Wasim Khan, 27, a Pakistani-born U.S. Army sergeant who was wounded when the armored personnel carrier he was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, damaging his right knee so badly that he cannot bend it today. "Let's go to the range and hit a few balls and see if you like it," Bartlett said. Khan agreed, but Lewis waffled.

Standing on only one leg, the thought of swinging a golf club seemed impossible to Sean Lewis.

"Oh yeah, right, golf!" Lewis said. "That game's for sissies." Bartlett persisted: "If you don't like it, I'll never bother you again about it." At that moment, learning how to hit that little dimpled ball off one leg seemed the most absurd of all possible athletic pursuits for Lewis. On Jan. 21, 2004, this bright, active, talkative former Indiana high school rugby player and long-distance runner was horsing around with two friends at a base camp in Baqubah, Iraq, when a 120mm mortar round slammed into the ground a few feet away. The blast cut one soldier in half, killing him instantly and covering Lewis with his blood. Instinctively, Lewis reached up and tapped his own head to make sure it was still there, then looked over and saw the other soldier, his chest cut open by shrapnel. "I could see his heart beating, and he was just bleeding out," Lewis says. "He reached and I kind of grabbed for him and he died. Then I looked down at myself and ... the piece of shrapnel that cut off my right leg had jabbed into my left leg." Three major arteries were sliced open -- the femoral arteries in both legs and the carotid artery in his neck. A soldier and a medic rushed to his aid. They put a tourniquet on the butchered right leg and a pressure bandage on the left leg, and the medic, Mike Bradley, another of Lewis' friends, plugged the carotid artery by sticking a finger in it. "Stay with me, Sean!" the two men yelled. "I don't wanna die here!" Lewis yelled back. "It sucks!" "Sean, we're not gonna let you die here. You're gonna be fine." Under the impression that if he passed out, he would die, Lewis fought to stay conscious. But at the base hospital, he begged for relief from the pain despite the anesthesiologist's warning. "Doc, I'm dyin' now! Put me out!" When Lewis finally awoke, he heard the doctor say, "I hate to tell you this, but you lost your [right] leg."

With Billy Bartlett's encouragement, Lewis finally stepped up to the tee and found a new direction in life.

"I know that," Lewis replied. "I saw it layin' next to me last night." When Lewis began his therapy at Walter Reed, he battled that descending shadow of depression, while trying to figure out what he had left, what he had to look forward to. "You feel useless for a long time after you become an amputee," Lewis says. "Even if you're not an amputee, if your arms or legs or face are messed up, you feel useless. You feel like there's nothing you can do."

Along came Bartlett. Next thing Lewis knew, he was beating balls at the Olney Golf Park in Olney, Md., the best public driving range in the D.C. area, with its enormous fairway dotted with flagged greens and crowned by an island green set in the middle of an artificial lake. Bartlett had Lewis, Khan and a few other disabled soldiers in tow that day when he approached Tim Landres, the park's principal owner, and asked about getting a discount on the balls. Landres looked around and saw all those disabled Iraq War vets. "Their money's no good here," Landres told an elated Bartlett. "I don't want them spending a dime. And I'll even do you one better: I'm gonna get my pros to work with them." The first day he ever hit balls at Olney, with his prosthesis planted on the ground, Lewis grew so frustrated he suddenly ripped off his prosthesis and tossed it 15 feet behind him, to Bartlett's feet. "The leg was flying through the air!" Bartlett recalls, with Lewis growling: "I can't hit with this damn thing on me!" That was the last time he ever hit a golf ball while wearing his artificial leg. The head pro at Olney, Jim Estes, took the job so seriously that he practiced raising his right leg and hitting the ball off his left for hours as he tried to figure out the best way, mechanically, for one-legged people like right-handed Lewis to hit the ball. "I had to learn to hit it his way to know what he was experiencing," Estes says. He moved Lewis' grip from weak to strong, had him stand with the ball farther back in his stance and emphasized the importance of spinning through the shot on his left foot. "He learned to spin and keep his balance," Estes says, "and this allowed him to get his lower body around." Once he got the hang of it, Lewis began to play and practice as often as he could, working on his grip with a special diligence. "Jim showed me the grip, and I spent nine hours and hit roughly 1,200 balls until I got it right," he says. "I'm a very determined person." Landres, Estes and his other pro helpers -- Dale Turner and Edward Simms -- threw a fundraiser for war veterans at Olney Golf Park this summer and raised $25,000 to buy clubs and equipment for disabled Iraq War vets.

He once called golf a game for sissies, but now completes a round standing on only one leg.

Now Lewis calls himself "an excellent putter" and "good with my irons," regularly driving the ball 250 yards and shooting in the 80s. On Sept. 15, in a bank-sponsored tournament, he hit the longest drive of his life: a 267-yarder that came to rest six yards shy of the green on a short par-4. The game he once derided as a sissy sport now consumes him. "I'm pretty obsessed about it," he says. "It was a short while, but there was a time when I was thinkin', 'Man, what can I do as far as sports is concerned? When I get my new leg, I'll start running again.' Golf is my main sport now. I'd like to get down to being a scratch player. I love it. It helps you get back into the world."

And, often away from it. Lewis has gone through a difficult separation and divorce since his return from Iraq, and golf has been a healthy diversion for him. "Sometimes I need to get away from things for a while and I'll go out and play golf," he says. "Or go horseback riding. Golf is a sport I can do." Khan has grown proficient at it, too. He played cricket and soccer in his native Pakistan before coming to America eight years ago on a "diversity visa," but he has embraced golf since joining Lewis at Olney and, with Estes' help, has adapted to swinging with a stiff right leg. One day this summer, Khan was slashing balls with a 3-iron, sending them on white arcs across the artificial lake and plainly relishing the moment, with Bartlett looking on. "This is wonderful," Khan says. "I've got to get into this game." He coiled over the ball and launched the perfect 3-iron over the lake and to the green 221 yards away. The ball bit and stopped on the grass. "Look at the Pakistani Prince!" Bartlett crowed. "You've created a monster," a passerby said. "I love it!" Billy said. "I love it!" William Nack, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Part I "Allah be with you" Part II "Get the hell out of my room" Part III "That game's for sissies" Part IV "His head was the size of a basketball"

By William Nack, Special to ESPN.com So Billy Bartlett started something out at Olney Golf Park last year. He has brought out a small parade of wounded Iraq War servicemen to learn and practice golf as part of their rehabilitation, and the park's reputation as a haven for disabled golfers grew when a local TV station featured Jim Estes giving Sean Lewis a lesson. Sgt. Paul Statzer found out about the golf park this summer and started coming out with his father, James. Paul was surely the most accomplished athlete to pursue rehabilitation through sports this year out of Walter Reed. At one time a world-class, 148-pound weightlifter who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team in 1988 -- "I was six pounds short of going to Korea for the Olympics," he says -- Statzer ultimately became a world champion powerlifter in 2000 when, in the 198-pound class, he squatted 800 pounds, benched 480 and dead-lifted 525 more. In a way, as he works to come back, his struggle is all the more poignant. By all medical accounts, James Statzer says, his son should not have made it out of Iraq alive. On the morning of March 29, while Statzer was checking the crater made by an explosion earlier in the day, insurgents set off a 155mm shell just three feet away from him. A piece of shrapnel sheared off the left side of Statzer's skull, taking part of his frontal lobe, and drove his left eyeball deep into his head. "His left eye got blowed back into his brain," James says, as they stand behind a green practice mat at the golf park. Paul smiled faintly. "It's still there," he says.

Though he needs a foam helmet to protect his injured head, Paul Statzer otherwise needs little help hitting golf balls with his father at Olney Golf Park.

It's a wonder he made it through the first 24 hours. When Paul's parents first got word that he had been injured, the news could not have been graver. From Iraq, the doctor who had done the first surgery called to inform them of the extensive injuries Statzer had suffered, to his brain and eye and neck. "I don't know if he's going to make it through the night," the doctor told them. When Statzer did make it, doctors flew him to Germany, and from Frankfort in a rush to Washington. "There was only a 50-50 chance he would make it to the United States," James says. Survive he did, if barely. But nothing could have prepared the Statzers for the sight of their son in bed at Walter Reed. "I told my wife, 'Be prepared for his head to be swollen.' But I wasn't prepared for what we saw," James says. "His head was the size of a basketball. He didn't look like a human being. The left side of his head was like hamburger meat. There was nothing there."

Doctors had removed a shard of his skull, to give his head room to swell, and implanted the bone in his abdomen to keep it supplied with blood. Every day, even on weekends, his plastic surgeon would come to sit by Paul and peel away the bits of black blood that scabbed on his head, at one point saying, "We're getting skin! We're getting skin!" Gradually, Statzer's head returned to its normal size and his strength and energy came back. And, this summer, he and his dad started going out to Olney Golf Park to hit buckets of free balls. Paul is awaiting a cranioplasty, in which surgeons will insert a plastic skull in the precise shape it was before the injury. (They do not plan to use the shard that was implanted in his stomach.) They also plan to fit him with a glass eye. Statzer lost the trapezius muscle on the left side of his neck, a loss that leaves him incapable of competing again as a powerlifter, but he still might take up lifting as a recreational exercise. "Lifting was everything to me," Paul says. "I was always lifting. But I won't ever lift like I did. Only for fun." For now, the only sports he does are fishing and golf, both of which he pursued before his reserve unit was sent to Iraq on Dec. 15, 2004. Paul does not think as quickly as he once did, his father says, and James figures that golf will help him where he needs it most. "What's good about golf is it is good for concentration," James says. "His mental process is where the problem is. Golf helps him to concentrate." "It gets you out," Paul says.

He'll never be a competitive powerlifter again, but Statzer can flex his muscles. After hitting another long drive off the practice tee, his father can't resist stating the obvious: "That ain't bad for a guy without a trapezius muscle."

So here he is, on the driving range at Olney, swatting balls into a warm blue sky early one autumn day, concentrating as he stands over the ball in his foam-rubber protective helmet, slowly taking his driver back, hitting southpaw. Thwack! The ball rockets out about 220 yards, low and straight. "You're hittin' good today," James says. Thwack! Another bullet straight and true, dropping next to the green some 215 yards down range. "That ain't bad for a guy without a trapezius muscle!" James says. Or for a guy nearly dead earlier this year. Of course, they all start their rehab at Walter Reed, the venerable institution to which some of the worst casualties of this war go to get their lives back again. Its physical therapy center has become a hive of soldiers, working to reclaim as much as they can of what the war has taken from them. One day this summer, working at one end of the room, was Spc. Jerrod Fields, who was spinning and dancing on his C-shaped prosthesis with all the dexterity he once brought to the basketball court as a kid growing up on Chicago's South Side. On Feb. 21, Fields was driving a Bradley armored vehicle on a reconnaissance patrol in Baghdad when it was hit underneath by a roadside bomb. "It opened up the bottom like a can opener," Fields says. "Shrapnel was going everywhere."

Fields had always dreamed of playing professional basketball, and when he was faced with the choice of living the dream or keeping his left leg, he did not hesitate. "They tried to save the leg," he says. "but they had to fuse my ankle. They said I couldn't run. I wanted to play basketball." The only way he could play, they said, was with a prosthesis. So Fields told the doctors, "Cut it off." Now he has a leg on which he can run and play basketball again. "Basketball is my life," he says. "If I can't fulfill the dream of playing in the NBA, then I'm gonna stay in the service. The next step would be to make the All-Army team. I want guys to take me seriously. I will slip by you, and I will get you. I don't want no pity. I want people to know that I can still play. That we, all disabled soldiers, can still play."

Left: It's been a while since he's been on the ice, but Joe Bowser hasn't forgotten how to handle the stick.Right: Jerrod Fields opted to play with a prosthetic leg, but he isn't giving up a step on the basketball court.

On that same summer day at Walter Reed, Joe Bowser was on the other side of the room from Fields, learning how to walk again. He had lost his right leg after a 122mm Chinese rocket came flying into the phone bank in his base camp north of Baghdad, where he was talking to his fiancee in Georgetown, Ky. Doctors tried to save his leg -- he hung on to it for two weeks -- but Bowser finally ordered it cut off after they told him the mangled appendage would cause him pain the rest of his life. "I had it amputated so I could do everything I used to do," says Bowser, a former mailman. "I played ice and street hockey all the time. I was in a men's league. Hockey is my love. Is there any other sport but hockey? Oh, I ride a bike to strengthen my leg. I lift weights to strengthen my upper body. I hand-cranked a bike through the New York City Marathon last year in two hours and six minutes. I'll be here two or three more months. I just have to get this leg squared away. Then I'll be ready to go -- to play hockey and get back to everyday life."

For the first time in his life, Bowser doesn't have to bend over to tie his skate.

Right in the middle of the therapy room that day, stretching on a bench, was Ramon Guitard. Sports has transfigured his life. He has been traveling the country competing in events he never dreamed of doing before his injury: throwing the javelin, trapshooting, playing table tennis and 9-ball, shooting an air gun. "I bowled a 261, the best I've ever bowled in my life, out of a wheelchair!" Guitard says. "It has changed my perspective on life. It's made me realize that, while I'm injured, I'm not giving up. Even when I get old, I'm not giving up. Sports have taught me to be a hell of a lot stronger than I ever was." He called upon that strength when he climbed aboard the handcycle. Churning the pedals with his arms, he navigated the cycle the 26 miles and 485 yards of the Marine Corps and New York City marathons on successive Sundays in November. "This makes me feel like a whole person again," he says after completing the double marathon. "If you don't go out today and you are not sore tomorrow, then you haven't done anything. You haven't pushed yourself. "It is all about taking yourself to the limit." Allah be with him. William Nack, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, is a contributor to ESPN.com.