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70th ISRW amputee Airman hopes to return to active duty, soccer and deploy

Fort George G. Meade, Md (AFNS) --
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

It all began when the 28-year-old signals intelligence analyst rolled his ankle during a soccer match in January 2016.

Staff Sgt. Charles, with the 32nd Intelligence Squadron, 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, joined the Air Force in 2009. He had been playing soccer his whole life. He played at a community college in California, then continued his love for the sport by playing intramural soccer with the 70th.

“I didn’t think too much of it,” Charles said. “I’ve rolled and sprained my ankle millions of times playing soccer. I just figured I’d stay off it for a while.”

When spring came around, Charles tried to run around at the beginning of the soccer season and noticed he couldn’t run or cut like he normally did. He decided to see his primary care doctor at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center at Fort Meade.

“My primary care doctor basically told me everything I already knew,” Charles said.

There wasn’t any reason for the doctor to believe it was anything more than an ankle sprain, so Charles was prescribed some ibuprofen and told to stay off the ankle for a while and come back if the pain didn’t go away.

Charles returned a month later, because his ankle didn’t get better. In May, his primary doctor recommended he see a specialist at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. They took X-rays, but still didn’t see anything.

“I returned to the doctors in June, because my ankle wasn’t getting any better. It was actually getting worse,” Charles said. “I don’t think it’s a sprain. I don’t know if something’s broken and it just didn’t show up on the X-ray,” he told them.

At that time, his doctor decided Charles needed a MRI.

A few weeks later, Charles received the phone call.

“I was eating dinner and watching TV when I got a call from the doctors around 6 o’clock,” he said. “I knew something was probably wrong if I was getting a call from them this late in the day. The doctor said they found some tumors in my results and recommended I see an orthopedic oncologist. I hung up the phone and placed it on the coffee table in front of me. The next thing I know, it was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

The next morning, Charles went into work and pretended everything was normal.

“I tried to explain to my supervisor, Master Sgt. Elizabeth, but the words were not coming out of my mouth clearly,” Charles said. “I told her what they had found and that they recommended I see a cancer specialist.”

His supervisor took him to breakfast and shared stories about people she had known in her career who had cancer and remained in the Air Force.

“Once she said that, it made me feel a little bit better,” he said “Because my first thought was that I’m going to have to get out of the military, and I always wanted to stay in and at least deploy once in my career. I feel like I still have goals that I want to accomplish in the Air Force.”

His next step was to schedule an appointment with the cancer specialist, but this proved challenging because the oncologist was booked for nearly two and a half months.

“That’s a long time to wait (two and half months) and I wasn’t really happy about it,” Charles said. “My supervisor, first sergeant and commander got involved and I was fortunate to be seen a few weeks later, in September.”

When a bone-tissue biopsy was performed, portions of bone from Charles’ ankle and tissue samples of the same area were removed and sent to a lab and the National Institutes of Health at Walter Reed to analyze, Charles said.

Those results came back in October 2016.

“They said it was pseudomyogenic hemangioendothelioma of bone,” Charles said. “The specialist spelled the disease across the hospital paper bed roll.”

The specialist said the disease was in the bone, and there were only 10 other documented cases in the world, Charles said.

The doctor then informed Charles of the options to fight the disease: The first choice was to remove the tumor, the second choice was to just wait to see if it grew or spread, and third choice was amputation.

According to the doctor, option one was not available to Charles, because the tumor had grown into his bones and in between certain bones of his foot and lower leg.

“Your foot is never going to get better,” the doctor explained. “You’re never going to be able to walk the way you did before. You’re never going to be able to play soccer (if you choose option two).”
Charles was in shock. His only real option was number three: amputation.

“I didn’t believe it. There’s no way!” he said. “This is not real. I’m not going to lose my leg. I’m a soccer player. I can’t not have my leg.”
So, Charles just sat there while his mom started crying. The doctor suggested Charles take some time to think about the entire situation and get back to him.

Charles recalled the doctor telling him “It’s not the end of the world. With prosthetics these days, and technology, you are going to be able to play soccer again. You might not be as fast or as mobile as you once were, but you’re going to play soccer again.”

The soccer player and seven-year Air Force veteran had a four-hour surgery on November 9, 2016. A day later, Charles was eager to start walking.

“I don’t remember a lot the few days after the surgery,” he said. “But, I decided I was going to get out of bed on the third day and go the restroom. The nurses were like ‘you’re not supposed to be up moving around this fast after surgery’.”

His stay at the hospital wasn’t long. He was ready to get out of there.

“One of the first things I did when I got home was crash in bed,” he said. “It was so difficult to sleep in (the hospital) with all the sounds.”

During inpatient physical therapy, Charles learned to travel up flights of stairs, which helped greatly because he lived in a town house and had to climb three flights of stairs. He also completed occupational physical therapy, where he learned how to obtain items from the ground, fall and get back up and travel up hills in a wheelchair.

It’s been a little more than two months since Charles had his left leg amputated, but his goals remain high.

This wounded warrior’s determination, along with his support system, are helping him pave his way back to his military profession, soccer and hopefully a deployment in the near future.

Currently, Charles attends physical therapy three times a week at Walter Reed. His physical therapy sessions were initially to work on hip and abdominal core drills, but have progressed to leg strengthening drills with resistance bands.

“Additionally, I’m training with Harvey, a former physical therapist who worked in Special Forces, after my normal PT sessions,” said the Airman. “My PT sessions with Harvey are a bit more hardcore than the normal physical therapy. We do an hour of straight cardio. We are looking to starting boxing soon.”

In addition to Harvey, Charles, a Montana-native, is thankful for his strong support system, which included his parents, chain of command, his supervisor and many friends.

“My mom and dad put everything on hold for about two months to help me get back on my foot,” Charles said jokingly. “My friend Paige also flew up here on two different occasions to help me out with driving me to my appointments.”

Paige, who currently lives in Alabama, went the extra mile to help her friend.

Separated by nearly 1,000 miles, she would set alarms on her phone to wake her up so she could call and remind him to take his pain medicines, Charles said.

“She would always check up on me,” Charles said. “We’d watch movies together by us both turning on Netflix and watching it at the same time.”

Through the entire experience, Charles never gave up.

“My advice to anyone who is going through a similar situation is to just keep pushing, it’s going to get better,” he said. “If you don’t push yourself, then it won’t get better as soon as it could. The only way to get through it is to take it on.”