SAN DIEGO -- The last step Tomy Parker took -- on Dec. 11, in Afghanistan -- detonated a hidden bomb underneath the Marine from Ronan and blew off both of his legs.

Nearly 13 weeks later, on March 10, Parker took his first step since the blast. It happened on what are called "stubbies," very short artificial legs, and between very low parallel bars that helped Parker maintain his balance.

Those first steps were, to say the least, somewhat awkward.

Now, after just five sessions on the stubbies and between the parallel bars, prosthetists at the Naval Medical Center here in San Diego have added 6 inches, and kneelike "rotators," to his new legs, and put a walker in front of him.

"At this level of amputation, the center of gravity has been moved up real high," explains prosthetist Randy Whiteside. "They're top-heavy, and they have to get used to balancing. If we put him up all the way right away, he'd have a very hard time."

Physical therapy assistant Mike Podlenski ties a strap around Parker's chest, and Whiteside sits in front of him and makes adjustments on the longer metal legs.

Parker takes his first step ever using the walker, and nearly tips over before Podlenski steadies him.

Whiteside makes more adjustments.

A couple of more steps, and the right prosthetic clangs into the walker.

It's right step, left step, move the walker. Head up, eyes forward, don't look down.

Readjust the legs. Step, step, move the walker.

Adjust the pad where Parker rests his left arm, the arm he uses to lift and push the left side of the walker.

The forearm is strapped to the pad; Parker lost all four fingers on his left hand in the explosion, too, and so he can't grip the walker with it like he can with his right hand.

The trip out of a room and down a short hallway in the prosthetics department is excruciatingly slow and awkward.

It takes several minutes to move just a few feet, and you can tell it's hard work. The sweat drenches Parker's face.

Then the double doors swing open in the medical center's Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care building -- C-5, for short -- and into a larger hallway.

How far he goes from here, on the first day with the walker, will be up to Parker.


Parker is determined to make a lap around the building's hallways. It's at least a football field-and-a-half's worth of territory in front of him.

"The equivalent," said Podlenski, "to running a 10K when you haven't run at all, haven't trained for it."

The few yards to the first turn in the hallway don't go much faster than the ones to the door. Step, step, move the walker.


Adjust the legs and/or arm pad.


Finally Parker is to the first of four corners. In front of him lies a corridor that must look like the length of the Holland Tunnel to the double amputee.

"It was kind of disorienting" the first time he'd stood just days earlier, Parker said. "I hadn't been vertical in three months. I mean, I'd sat up, but I hadn't stood. It was like a natural high."

"The first thing I wanted to do," he said, "was walk to the bathroom and pee."

Parker asks for a towel, which he uses to wipe more sweat from his face, and drapes around his neck.

Then he's off. Slowly at first.

But in just a few feet, the improvement is evident, almost with every step he takes.

"It's a whole different ballgame for him now," Whiteside said. "He's getting it figured out. You can see it's getting easier for him."

Whiteside is talking about the mechanics of walking on the slightly longer legs, not the physical exertion required to do it.

"I must be burning 1,000 calories per step," the 21-year-old Parker said.

It is immensely more grueling, he said later, than the two-a-day preseason football practices he used to go through back in high school, when he played for the Ronan Chiefs.

Parker's right leg was amputated above the knee after the blast in Afghanistan, but his left had to be sawed off at the hip.

"The tough part is bringing the left leg forward," Parker said. "I do the right one like I'm throwing a punch or a ball -- you step into it. Then I lift the left leg off the ground and rotate my hips through -- it kicks the left leg forward."

Step, rotate, step, move the walker. Step, rotate, step, move the walker.

He's flying now, compared to earlier. Beads of perspiration cover his face and neck. Sweat trickles down his body and much drips deep into the sockets that attach to the stumps that are all that remain of Parker's legs.

"I can feel the sweat puddle up in the bottom" of the sockets, Parker said.

On his trip around the hallways of C-5, Parker will pass a painting showing famous people who overcame physical and mental setbacks: athlete Babe Zaharias (cancer), President Franklin Roosevelt (polio), physicist Albert Einstein (dyslexia).

The artwork, like most on display in C-5's hallways, was done by a Wounded Warrior.

This is Lance Cpl. Thomas Parker's job with the Marines right now: Not just recovering from his wounds, but learning how to live the rest of his life without his own legs.

One of the first steps is learning to walk on artificial ones.

"You can build the best prosthetic in the world, but without motivation, walking again is not going to happen," said Whiteside, who commutes to San Diego from Phoenix, where he has a private practice, to work at the Naval Medical Center for part of the week.

Parker's own story is told in that sweat.

"With similar injuries in the private sector, we'd be six to eight weeks out" before a patient attempted a similar walk, Whiteside said. "Here, we're just six days out."

"Today got me pretty excited," Parker said. "I was worried about my progress on the parallel bars. I didn't think I was moving fast enough. But I'll bet I did over 500 feet today between the walker and the parallel bars. To be able to walk that far -- maybe it's just a baby step, but I feel pretty good about it."

At his practice in Arizona, Whiteside sees several veterans who suffered injuries similar to Parker's in the Vietnam War.

"They didn't have the technology back then that we do now," Whiteside said. "Really, they didn't have the technology even 10 years ago. Ten years ago you'd have been told you better get used to your wheelchair. If you used prosthetics, it would mostly be as a part of your physical therapy. These guys are raising the bar."


It's a striking scene in C-5's physical therapy room. Half a dozen Wounded Warriors are working as we wait for Parker to roll in in his wheelchair and begin his second day using the walker, and the entire gamut of amputees' recoveries is on display.

At one end of the room, a Marine with even worse injuries than Parker -- missing not only both his legs, but most of an arm as well -- lies on a padded table. He doesn't have prosthetics yet. He's exercising, just like Parker did in January while still a patient at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

The Marine is doing what you'd normally call leg lifts -- if he had legs. His stumps rise and drop in the air as he lies on his side.

At the other end, another Marine with full prosthetics is strapped to a rail in the ceiling that runs the length of the room. The Solo Step, as it's called, allows patients to walk without the aid of a cane or walker. There's enough slack in the strap, Mike Podlenski said, so that they can walk with no support, yet it will catch them before they hit the floor if they fall.

This Marine isn't walking, though.

He climbs on a skateboard and pushes off.

"If they want to do it, our people help them achieve it," said Sonja Hanson, the Naval Medical Center's public affairs officer. "Snowboarding, skiing, hiking, rowing, bowling, surfing -- we've had patients go on to compete in triathlons, and ones run marathons who hadn't even done one before they were injured."

As he progresses, Parker said he is interested in pursuing shooting -- a challenge, given that it was the southpaw's left hand where he lost all his fingers -- plus swimming, and maybe even golf.


In a courtyard in the middle of C-5, the Navy has constructed an outdoor area where a tree-shaded pleasantness belies its purpose.

There are several short pathways made of either large rocks, gravel, sand, concrete or brick. There's an arched bridge, angled sidewalks, ramps, steps -- all there to help patients learn to walk on a variety of surfaces and angles -- plus a climbing wall that stretches high into the sky.

It was at the climbing wall that Parker, still in his wheelchair, struck up a conversation with a fellow Marine after being transferred to San Diego from Bethesda.

"A double amputee, just like me," Parker said. "He was climbing that rock wall. It was pretty motivating."

A determined sort before his injuries occurred -- it's a nice way to say bull-headed -- you may be surprised to learn what else motivates Parker.

It's you, the people who are following his recovery - more than 2,200 do so on a Facebook page updated daily by Parker's mother, Lisa Jennison of Ronan - and tell him he's an inspiration to them.

"That inspires me to work even harder," Parker said. "I don't want to let people down."


A day after his monumental hike around the hallways of C-5, Parker wants to up the ante.

Katie McDonald of Polson, a student at Salish Kootenai College and Parker's friend since eighth grade, has arrived in San Diego to spend her spring break with him.

It's a perfect day in San Diego, sunny and warm, and Parker steers his walker toward an exit.

"They all want to work hard, the Marines especially," Podlenski said. "Their attitude is, 'Give me something hard to do.' They want to sweat. You can't hold them back. They're very motivated, even with what they've been through."

And so, in a life now filled with firsts since the bomb exploded underneath him, Parker walks outdoors for the first time since Dec. 11.

It will be another challenge, Podlenski warns him. The smooth, polished floors of C-5's hallways will give way to carpeted mats in front of doors and a concrete plaza laced with brick interlays.

Impressed with your friend's progress? McDonald is asked.

"Oh, yeah, big-time," she said. "I can't imagine doing what he's doing. I wouldn't have half the strength he does."

Standing, and walking, on prosthetics is difficult to describe, Parker said.

"When you stand, you feel your ankles, you feel your weight on the ground," he said. "I can't feel the ground. The thing that throws me is proprioception."

Different from exteroceptive senses, by which we perceive the outside world, and introceptive senses, through which we perceive the pain and movement of internal organs, proprioception provides feedback to whether the body is moving with the required effort, and where various parts of the body are located in relation to each other.

"It's how the body knows where it's at in space," Parker said. "It tells you how far to pick up your foot to step onto a curb. I don't know how far to pick up my foot, because I don't know how far down my legs go."


Parker goes even farther on his second day with the walker -- and, outside in the warm sunshine, sweats even more.

These ever-lengthening journeys in Parker's recovery -- up and down the parallel bars, around the C-5 hallways, outside under palm trees -- could grow to thousands of miles by the end of summer.

No, he won't walk that far.

But he still might wind up in Iceland for a month.

Peter Harsch, director of the prosthetics department at the Naval Medical Center, said he hopes to take Parker and another amputee to Reykjavik in late August.

That's the headquarters of Ossur, an internationally known manufacturer of noninvasive orthopedics, which is developing the world's first powered prosthetic.

"The bionic knee," Parker calls it.

"Because Tomy has his hip, but doesn't have the muscle, he's a good candidate," said Harsh, who worked for Ossur before coming to the Naval Medical Center, and is in discussions with his former employer about Parker's case.

Parker's participation in the ground-breaking technology is not yet set, but he and Harsch are hopeful.

Meantime, Parker is less than a month into one of the most challenging parts of his recovery.

"The first six months to a year are the toughest," Whiteside says. "They have to keep motivated, and keep walking."

Parker can't stand on his own two feet to do it.

Like some 2,000 American servicemen and women who have lost limbs to improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, he'll have to get there on courage, determination, buckets of sweat, and metal legs.

Don't bet against him.