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The Recovery of J.R. Salzman

10/1/2007

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WASHINGTON — The fog stands out for him now. It was the densest he'd seen, not just in Iraq, but ever, a foreboding murk that repelled even the spotlights on his Humvee. The dampness had turned the ground at supply base into muddy slop. For some reason, he had felt compelled to snap a lot of photos that night. Otherwise, the night of December 19, 2006, was shaping up to be routine for J.R. Salzman: an all-night drive leading 20 empty fuel tankers south through Baghdad to Tallil Air Base, watching for bombs all the way.

He crammed himself into the passenger seat, swaddled in the gear of war: two radios, a GPS and a computer on the console, an M4 carbine rifle, night vision goggles, body armor on his person, a cooler full of drinks. He carried more ammo than anyone else in his unit — always saying that if he died in Iraq, it wouldn't be for lack of bullets — and fully outfitted, he was heavy enough that he had to sit on a cushion he called his "ass pillow." Salzman had been running these sorts of escorts for most of a year, and if there was one thing he had learned, it was to bring a cushion. The two times he forgot it, he was sore for weeks.

The convoy passed the usual sights along the way: sheep, nomads, concrete pillars for freeway overpasses that may or may not ever be built, Iraqis driving SUVs with giant plastic containers lashed to the roofs. If he hadn't been wedged in the truck wearing 50 pounds of armor, it might have been a pleasant ride. On a hot day, the insides of these steel monsters reminded Salzman of the blast from the oven when his grandmother baked cookies. The winter tamed the heat, even if the fog unnerved him.

In Baghdad's northwest suburbs, the three highway lanes pocked with holes from past blasts, he told his driver to slow down to about 35 mph. Salzman changed safety glasses, and reached up with his right hand to hang the old pair on a cord strung up along the windshield.

"All of a sudden," Salzman recalled later, "everything got really loud."

The spotlights went blind as detritus cascaded against the vehicle. All four tires went flat. At the bottom of Salzman's window, an impact mark like a lunar crater appeared on ballistic glass that had turned the color of a spent match head.

He was unconscious for a moment after the explosion. He came to inside a charred nightmare splattered in blood and Red Bull and glass confetti. His helmet and logbook took on a fried copper smell that to this day reminds him of death. The 9 mm on his chest was melted into its holster.

He tried to open his door, but couldn't grab the handle. He soon realized why: his right hand was gone. And the left had been blitzed with shrapnel.

As he sat waiting for the medic, he took inventory of the rest of his body. He slid his feet — and they responded. Knees, too. His manhood was intact. He moved his shoulders. His insides felt good.

The medic arrived, and as he wrapped a tourniquet around Salzman's arm, he just kept telling Salzman how sorry he was that this had happened to him.

Salzman, in shock, dehydrated, bleeding, with one arm halved and the other hand mangled, reassured him. It's OK, he said. If I've still got my legs, I can still logroll.

'How do I do it?'

When he was wounded nine months ago, Darrell "J.R." Salzman, now 28-years-old, was among the preeminent outdoors athletes of the previous decade. In the six-year run of ESPN's Great Outdoors Games, he won a record 14 medals, in logrolling (a.k.a. "birling") and the boom run, in which competitors sprint along chains of logs. In 2005 he took home an ESPY as the Best Outdoor Sportsman, and between 1998 and 2005 he captured five logrolling titles at the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wis., his hometown.

Timbersports comprises a small realm, but Salzman was among its brightest stars, and aside from former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan in April of 2004, Salzman may be the most prominent athlete casualty in America's wars since Sept. 11, 2001.

Logrolling demands stamina and power — but it is balance, primarily, Salzman will forfeit without the lower half of his right arm. The old axiom holds that every athlete dies two deaths: one at the end of his career, and one at the end of his life. Having cheated the latter, Salzman hopes to logroll again, that he wouldn't have died even a single death in the desert.

It's a hell of a long road. Phantom pains, nightmares, memory loss, weight loss, physical therapy, menial bureaucracy, insomnia and a constant, low-grade narcotic coma are to be expected once a man gets one hand exploded and the other maimed.

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