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The Bionic Man

Meet the world's first bionic soldier and the MIT genius who designed him.

The first thing David Rozelle did after the insurgents put a price on his head was up the ante. After all, this was Captain David Rozelle, the one they called Iron Man or Killer 6 or Kowboy 6—the 6 being short for “six-shooter,” as in gunslinger, ass kicker, take your pick. His head for a measly thousand bucks? It was insulting.

This all went down in the summer of 2003 in a police station in the city of Hit (pronounced “Heat”), Iraq. Rozelle and the 139 men under his command, the Army’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment K Troop, had already battled their way from Kuwait to Syria. They had followed the men of Thunder Run and scrapped beside the marines in Fallujah, and when they were done there, the brass had told Rozelle to secure a town in northwestern Iraq. What town? It didn’t matter. Everything was a bloody mess up there.

Rozelle started looking at maps. Hit caught his eye. There were no CIA data on the place. Aerial reconnaissance photos showed lots of fancy cars—Mercedeses, Rolls-Royces—but no major industry. All the earmarks of a significant Sunni stronghold. “Major bad guys for sure,” is how Rozelle describes it.

So Rozelle and K Troop took Hit. In two months, they restored order. Under Rozelle’s command, the members of K Troop taught themselves counterinsurgency tactics: tracking snipers, putting money back into the banks and restoring the electricity. Rozelle even put a woman on the city council, a fact he likes to brag about: “We were going to be the first town in Iraq to have equal rights for women.”

Then, in the sticky weather of early June, at roughly 6:30 p.m., Rozelle arrived at the new police station—new because insurgents had already burned down the old one in an attempt to scare off the police force Rozelle had built—for his nightly pre-mission briefing. Something was wrong. There was tension in the room, people talking in whispers. Demanding an explanation, Rozelle was told that Sunni insurgents had put a price on his head. He was not surprised. But he was curious—how much was he worth?

“I asked my translator,” says Rozelle. “It was this big moment. The room got quiet. He turned to me and said in a stage whisper, ‘One thousand dollars.’”

Rozelle knew there were spies in that room. He knew whatever he said would get back to the insurgents.

“That’s bullshit!” he shouted. “Tell those sons of bitches I’m worth way more than that. I’m worth $10,000. Tell them I’ll pay the bounty myself.”

No one claimed Rozelle’s bounty that first night. Or the next. No one got close for almost two weeks—but that only exacerbated the situation. The insurgents started burying land mines on frequently traveled roads, including the one just outside the soccer stadium. On June 21 Rozelle was leading a convoy down that road. Unwilling to subject his men to dangers he would not face himself, Rozelle had his Humvee take point. He rode shotgun. As was his custom, he held a pistol out the window in his right hand, his left staying firmly atop the Bible his father had given him before he departed for Iraq.

Up ahead, the road looked disturbed, like something had pushed the dirt around. Rozelle halted the convoy and surveyed the area. He told the driver to proceed slowly. Seconds later all hell arrived. The truck hit a land mine. The explosion shot the front end of the Humvee four feet into the air. Doors and windows blew out, scattering debris more than a hundred yards. Rozelle’s flak jacket saved his life. He took shrapnel to the face and arms. His left foot was pinned between the ground and the engine block. His right foot? His boot was still on, but blood and bone oozed out of the side. When he tried to step on it, he drove his tibia and his fibula straight into the ground. Wow, did that hurt like a motherfucker.

The first surgery took place in a dusty tent outside Baghdad. The setup looked like something out of MASH. Rozelle couldn’t believe anyone would operate under such conditions. Operate they did. Doctors are trained to salvage as much of the limb as possible, so they performed a tricky ankle-joint amputation known technically as a Syme’s.

Amputation is one of the greatest possible shocks. Children cannot help staring at amputees, as psychologists have said, because losing a limb is literally the worst thing a child can imagine. Adults may have better manners, but the internal damage is no less severe. The patient must endure a period of heavy grief, as if the mind cannot tell the difference between a lost limb and death itself. “When I woke up from surgery without my foot,” says Rozelle, “I had no frame of reference. I had never known an amputee before. It was like being completely reborn.”

Not long afterward, Rozelle was loaded onto a transport plane for Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Before departure, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Butch Kievenaar, paid a visit. He’d come to deliver a message, telling Rozelle that if he got himself patched up, he could come back to Iraq and be given another command.

Rozelle was pissed. Maybe this was motivational bullshit, something the shrinks dreamed up to keep him from killing himself. But Kievenaar was a straight shooter, so perhaps the offer was good. Either way, at that point, with the bedsheets pressed flat where his foot should have been, all Rozelle could think was, I have given enough.

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