Photo by JASON EASTERLY // Buy this photo
"My dad gave me the money to buy the tickets and I won the bike. I really wanted to win the bike.”
- R.J. Shirk
CAPE CORAL — For Corey Kent, learning to walk again is a mental and physical battle that he wages on his body everyday.
It’s been just over one year since the 22-year-old U.S. Army Pfc. lost both of his legs and the digits from his left hand after stepping on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan. He spent the first six months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from his extensive internal injuries and having skin grafts. He began the long journey of re-learning how to be mobile in January of 2011.
Kent isn’t alone.
At the Military Amputee Training Center (MATC) at Walter Reed he is surrounded by other soldiers waging the same battle. The numbers of amputees that have resulted from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars aren’t easy to pin down, but there have been more than 1,200 amputees among the 44,923 wounded soldiers.
When Kent arrived at Walter Reed many of the patients, like him, were from the 101st Airborne Division.
“There were 4 or 5 amputees; all the guys were from my battery,” Kent said. “By the time I was conscience they were stopping by and I said, ‘how many of you guys are here?’ My battery went from 17 to 9 guys in the first three weeks.”
Kent had been deployed with Alpha Battery 1-320 FAR 2nd Brigade 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) for three weeks when he was injured. He had only been at Combat Outpost Nolen in Afghanistan for 8 days. The area was notorious for heavy attacks by Afghan forces, and many casualties from IEDs. The soldiers could typically set their watches by the attacks which came between 4 and 7 p.m. every day.
Studying photos of the area around Combat Outpost Nolen, many civilians would be surprised at the lush green foliage that patrolling soldiers would be walking through. This foliage would make it impossible to see an IED or an enemy soldier. When Kent was injured he was flown to Germany and later to Walter Reed where he and his mother, Tiffany Ashby, have spent the past year. His stepfather, Dan Ashby, has been flying back and forth the entire time. Both parents are extremely active in Kent’s care and rehabilitation.
This month, Kent was able to come home to Cape Coral for some much needed time away from the hospital. He will return to Walter Reed soon, but for now is enjoying being out of the hospital environment and having some down time away from his intense therapy routine.
On Monday, Kent had a special visit in the form of 12-year-old R.J. Shirk.
Shirk rides in the Miracle Limbs Bike Ride in March of each year that raises money to help amputees and their families. This year a Trek FX 7.3 was raffled off as a fund raiser. Shirk bought as many tickets as he could and told his parents that if he won, he was giving the bike to Kent.
Shirk did win, and on Monday he finally had the opportunity to meet Kent and present him with the bike.
"My dad gave me the money to buy the tickets and I won the bike," Shirk said. "I really wanted to win the bike."
"Corey's story definitely affected us," said Shannon Morgan, Shirk's mother. "I don't think you get the full effect or realize what is going on (in the war) and Corey truly gave it a face and a story. He is so young."
As Shirk presented Kent with the bike and they looked it over, Shirk and his family said that they hoped soon Kent would be fitted with the proper prosthesis that would allow him the mobility of walking, riding a bike and doing the things he did before his injuries.
Kent gave Shirk some patches and pins of the 101st and told him a little about the brotherhood of soldiers.
“With kids like Ryan we can all begin to understand our shared humanity,” said Bob Ayers, founder of Miracle Limbs.
“I was very impressed when he won it and did that because I know he would like to have a new bike and instead he donated it to Corey,” Morgan said. “My husband and I love to ride and I’m really hoping Corey gets to the point where he can ride and get that sense of freedom.”
Ayers, who brought the bike to Kent’s house for the presentation, has been involved with Kent and his family through Miracle Limbs since October.
“What we do is we assist amputees and their families,” Ayers said. “Tiffany quit her job in Cape Coral to be with Corey in Washington and Dan is here but he flies back and forth to Washington, D.C. We have stepped in to help some of their financial bleeding.”
“The biggest thing we can say to families and organization’s like Bob’s is, ‘thank you,’” Dan said. “The support we have had is amazing.”
“We definitely have the greatest community,” Tiffany said. “Everyone is reaching out showing their love and support like he is their own.”
Soon after arriving home this month, Corey came to realize that he had become somewhat of a local celebrity.
“We have gone out to dinner once since he has been here and people kept running out wanting to shake his hand,” Dan said.
Kent and his mother will be returning to Walter Reed soon and returning to the physical therapy work. Kent will stay in Washington, D.C. until he is released from the Army and considered medically retired- a process that he says could take up to nine months.
He and his mother stay at Mologne House with other soldiers who are being provided care at Walter Reed. Recently Kent’s therapists are requiring him to try to walk from Mologne to MATC for his care.
“They have stepped up the game,” Tiffany said.
“Walking on the concrete is harder, it isn’t level or air conditioned, it’s hot and there are cracks in the pavement,” Kent said. “It takes me about 1.5 hours to make it halfway.”
Through the process of rehabilitation Kent began on short prosthesis and is working his way up to his full height. He has come a long way in a few short months, and he and his family are positive and optimistic about his treatment at Walter Reed.
“Really being around the other guys, it pushes you,” Kent said. “You see people there with injuries as bad, or worse than yours, and I say ‘I guess I can do that.’”