Using his experience to inspire others to hold on in spite of pain
A sergeant (E-5) in the Military Police Corp—and a Purple Heart recipient—Bryan Anderson was 20 when he joined the United States Army in Spring 2001. He had enjoyed working for American Airlines after high school, but wanted to see if he had what it took to be in the military.
Bryan left for Basic Training on September 11, 2001. From the beginning, he knew he would be going to war. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 for the invasion, but not much happened during that tour; when he arrived, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) still weren’t used. Eventually, he would see IEDs evolve from Pepsi cans popping along roadsides to powerful bombs that caused death and severe injuries (including amputations).
Arriving for his second tour as part of the Military Police in 2005, Bryan and his unit were surrounded by danger. They experienced daily encounters with IEDs. On October 23, 2005, Bryan had his own encounter.
One day changes everything
It started as a typical day for Bryan. He and his team were on their way to an Iraqi police station when Bryan reached into his pocket to grab a cigarette. As he was lighting it, he looked at his friend and a bomb went off.
The blast spun him in his seat, instantly cutting off both his legs and left hand. He called to his friends to make sure they were okay; smoke and fire blocked his vision. What Bryan didn’t know was that his friends had jumped out of the truck. When they saw he was missing, they ran back for him, ripping the bolts off the door panel to pull him out.
Bryan lay on the side of the road; his friends and fellow soldiers took swift action, running back and forth between the other trucks in the convoy. Bryan didn’t understand the urgency since they were not under continued attack… but then he realized his limbs were gone.
He was the only soldier severely injured in the attack. Doctors credit the tourniquets his unit applied for saving Bryan’s life. He finally lost consciousness after being transported to Baghdad; his next memory is seeing his mom standing over his hospital bed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, seven days later.
Taking it one day at a time
Bryan spent the next 13 months at Walter Reed for medical procedures, recovery, and intense rehabilitation. His mom, dad, twin brother, and younger sister were constantly present: “I don’t know how I got so lucky to be surrounded by great people,” says Bryan. “The community of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, hosted fundraisers to help cover expenses. My dad’s work colleagues all donated their vacation hours so he could stay the first four months with me. My mom’s employer gave her a year off. My brother and sister came from Chicago when they could. I was surrounded by a team of love and support.”
Understanding there was nothing he could do to change the situation, Bryan approached his new life with the simple motto of taking it one day at a time. He excelled at compartmentalization: “I put my mind on rehab and becoming independent again so I could go home,” he says. But like many wounded veterans and amputees, he developed deep depression.
“I was in the shower, and a thought came over me that I could not shake: I was now half a person. Literally, I was half a person. How would people look at me? Who would want to date me? What am I going to do as a triple amputee?”
The next few weeks were rough on Bryan. While focusing on making improvements in therapy, his usual can-do attitude was floundering. He realized he hadn’t experienced real life in over a year. Bryan no longer knew what life was like outside a war zone or hospital, and he needed an adventure.
Time for an adventure
An hour after sharing this with his mom, they were on a plane to Las Vegas to spend time with his dearest friend, Sarah. For three days, Bryan got to be Bryan again.
“Vegas helped me let everything go,” he says. “I realized I could be depressed, stay home and feel like crap all the time for the rest of my life, or I could suck it up, be in the moment and see what happens. This was about me getting my life back. To hell with anyone who looked at me pitifully or wanted to peg me as ‘unable;’ I was going to do what I wanted to do and have fun every day.”
Bryan has never looked back. He made a promise to himself: when he left Walter Reed, he would be mentally and physically independent. He would be “back to good, living a normal life.”
Bryan has kept that promise
While technically retired at 25, a few months of leisure was all he could handle before needing to find new purpose. Today, Bryan shows the world how to find true happiness:
“People underestimate the power of fun. Find what moves and drives you, and do it. It is that simple. And it is not a wounded-thing or a person-with-pain-thing. This is a life-thing. This is for all of us: if you want a good life, you have to make it for yourself. Your happiness depends on you.”
Two months after leaving Walter Reed, Bryan was gaining national attention, appearing on the cover of Esquire magazine. His new manager, Dick McLane, helped shape Bryan’s inspiring career. He became a spokesman for Quantum Rehab (they make power chairs), and in 2011, Bryan published his memoir, No Turning Back. Now Bryan spends his days touring the country as a public speaker with a message of perseverance, determination, and making the most of life.
Partnering with powerful organizations
Bryan has been fortunate to work with great organizations: he’s a spokesperson for USA Cares, which helps provide jobs for veterans, programs to assist with post-traumatic stress, and financial and advocacy support for post-9/11 military families. He also serves on the Ambassador Council for Gary Sinise Foundation, which builds custom smart homes for America’s severely wounded veterans.
His journey has not been easy. Bryan endured more than 30 surgeries and had to figure out how to walk with prosthetic legs, and use a high-tech prosthetic hand. He had to relearn how to perform everyday tasks like cleaning dishes, dressing, opening doors, using stairs, driving, and getting his wheelchair in and out of a vehicle.
Coping with the pain
For a time, horrific phantom limb pain forced Bryan to take massive amounts of pain medication. But after eight years of doctors increasing his dose, Bryan could no longer handle the mood changes it caused. He felt like a zombie on an emotional rollercoaster.
When Bryan realized his main focus centered on taking his prescribed medications, he knew he needed to reevaluate. On his own, he went to a doctor outside the Veterans Administration (VA) who helped him lower his medications. It has now been three years since Bryan last took pain medication.
Although his personal experience with obtaining care through the VA following his injury is positive, Bryan sees flaws in the system—especially the excessive wait time to see doctors. To help, the VA has created the Veterans Choice Program, allowing veterans that qualify the option of seeing a doctor outside the VA system.
Yet even with faster access to health care and treatment, the system is failing. Too many soldiers are tragically choosing suicide. “If you are at that point, please re-assess,” Bryan counsels his fellow veterans. “Nothing can be that bad. Readjust and take the right steps. You are not alone. Someone will always be there for you if you reach out.”
There are no limits to what Bryan can do. A former gymnast and self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Bryan likes to push boundaries and defy the odds. His hobbies include traveling, rock climbing, snowboarding, and white water rafting. Bryan is all about living for the moment.
“I chose to be a soldier,” he says. “Like all soldiers doing their job, I knew the ramifications of my line of work. Bad things happen; I was an incident of the war. But just because I am a triple amputee doesn’t mean my life is over.”
Bryan Anderson is driven, genuine, and humble to a fault. While he might not like the term hero, by definition, he is one. Bryan continues to overcome and conquer pain, break down barriers, and inspire others.
“I just want to be happy every day,” he explains. “To do that, I created rules to live by: It is okay to fail as long as you learn. Know that asking for help makes you stronger. Try until you figure it out; just don’t give up. Keep moving forward—always. Do what makes you happy and have fun every day. You’ve got one life, make it a good one.”
Gary Sinise Foundation: garysinisefoundation.org
USA Cares: usacares.org
Quantum Rehab: quantumrehab.com
Veterans Choice Program: va.gov/opa/choiceact
No Turning Back: One Man’s Inspiring True Story of Courage, Determination, and Hope by Bryan Anderson and David Mack: andersonactive.com/no_turning_back.html