By Army Staff Sgt. Curt Squires
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 24, 2009 - Two Special Forces soldiers who are close friends have much in common. Both were wounded in combat -- one in Iraq, the other Afghanistan. Both are recipients of the Silver Star Medal for their actions in combat. Both are single-leg amputees. And both were official finishers of the 113th Boston Marathon on April 20. Army Maj. Kent Solheim from the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School and Army Staff Sgt. John Walding from the 3rd Special Forces Group completed the marathon on hand cycles, a type of bike in which the rider pedals with his arms instead of his legs.
Solheim finished in 1 hour, 50 minutes and 23 seconds, and Walding was right behind him at 1:52:53, accomplishing their joint goal of finishing in less than two hours.
Solheim was wounded in Karbala, Iraq, while he was assigned to the 3rd SFG. His team fast-roped onto its target, and in the gun battle that ensued, he was shot four different times. Originally, doctors tried to save his leg, but 20 months later, he made the tough decision to have his right leg amputated. That was seven weeks ago.
Walding was wounded in Afghanistan on April 5, 2008, when a sniper's round instantly amputated his right leg. From there, Walding folded his leg into his crotch and tied it with his bootlace. With the help of his team, he later made it down the side of the mountain.
Walding spent four months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before deciding to return to Fort Bragg, N.C. In February, he had to return to Walter Reed for a higher level of care.
"My rehabilitation progress has been phenomenal," Walding said. "Since returning to Walter Reed, I've gone from literally not being able to walk a full day without my back hurting to being able to run a 7 minute, 30 second mile last week."
Walter Reed has a strong team of therapist and experience that is passed down to every soldier who passes through there, Solheim said. The rehabilitation process is a long road, but support is essential to that process.
While at Walter Reed, Solheim and Walding met up again -- they had served together in Company B, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group. Both soldiers said they know the physical therapy helped, but that their friendship pushed them further.
"I really believe God put us together for a reason," Walding explained. "If [Solheim] had not been here with me, I would not have pushed as hard as I did. I still would have hit the gym, still have done the cardio, I would have still ran and done what I was supposed to, [but] we feed off each other. It really has doubled what my intentions are."
It's huge to have a partner when you are going through something like this, Solheim said.
"John and I are able to work out together. We both support each other and have been close friends here. I push him, he pushes me; it's a mutual thing. Both of us have achieved high levels of success and our own goals because we have been able to push each other."
"You have to have that kind of support behind you," Walding said. "We're Green Berets; we're not lazy people. When you take a Green Beret and say you can't walk any more, it's not just the physical aspect, it's the mental aspect of, 'Man, I can't go run today,' and it's a lot to take in. I gave three years of my life to get this hat and join the brotherhood, and now I may not have that job any more."
The Green Berets found motivation not only in each other, but in their families as well.
Family is essential to recovery -- from the wife, the children, parents or just someone who supports you, it's one of the most important factors in making a comeback, Solheim said.
"To have the support of your wife and kids back home and show you this is why you're here is essential," Walding began to explain. "I don't necessarily get healthy to get back to an [operational detachment]. I mean, that is where my heart is, but when my son is 12 or 15 years old and wants to play football, Daddy can run around and play football. When my daughter wants to play tennis, Dad can play tennis. It's not their fault this happened to us, but having their support is the best motivation anyone could ever ask for."
Walding said he and Solheim weren't training for the Boston Marathon at first.
"We were just training so we could play with our kids again," he said. "It's not our kids' fault that we got shot, and going through this together, it doesn't matter who finishes first. I couldn't have done it without Kent, and we will finish together."
The soldiers had help getting into the race.
It would not have been possible without Team Achilles – Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, Walding said. People don't understand how difficult it was to get hand cycles into the Boston Marathon, he said. Out of 26,385 participants, 20 were hand cycles.
"That's because of Team Achilles," Walding said. "They fought to get us in here, not only getting us the spots, but we didn't have to qualify either. We just have to say, 'I have an interest to get on a hand crank and do 26.2 miles,' and they make it happen. They are truly an enabler for people who want to get healthy."
The Freedom Team program is run through Walter Reed. Achilles makes the hand cranks available to the wounded warriors with the goal of getting them back on their feet and looking at other opportunities the athletes have in life.
"Having lost a leg, you can't swim because you have sutures in your leg," Walding said. "You can't ride a bike, because you can't wear a prosthetic. You obviously can't run or walk, so any type of cardiovascular activity you want to do is going to come from your upper body."
"I just got tired of the exercises [Walter Reed] has in the clinic," Solheim said, "so I just decided to try the hand cranks. I took one to a local park ... and started riding on a daily basis. I was there with Staff Sergeant Walding, and it was just something we started doing together.
"It's a been a tool for us to get out of the hospital, outdoors every day," he said, "and now it has led to the opportunity to do the race." Prior to competing in the Boston Marathon, Solheim and Walding had been riding the hand cranks for only about seven weeks.
The Boston Marathon is a large accomplishment, but the men have bigger goals.
"I'm no longer in the hospital fighting for my life. Now, I'm getting back to life," Solheim said before the race. "I think the Boston Marathon is kind of a capstone to what we have been doing. We've trained together, worked out together, and in my mind, we'll finish together. Whether he is in front of me or behind me, it's insignificant. We started this together, and we're going to finish together."
(Army Staff Sgt. Curt Squires serves at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.)