Accident only fuels soldier's determination

Quitting has never been an option for Staff Sgt. Luis Elias.

"Going back has been my goal since I've been here, from day one," said Staff Sgt. Elias, who was released from the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center on Dec. 18 to return to active duty as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga.

On June 30, Staff Sgt. Elias was training recruits when a grenade simulator exploded in his right hand, leaving just his thumb. Doctors at Fort Gordon's Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center amputated his hand and two inches of forearm above his wrist July 7. He started therapy at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center on July 9.

"Adapt and overcome is the name of the game. It's just something that happened," said Staff Sgt. Elias, who credits his recovery to a tough mental attitude, a supportive family and faith in God.

Staff Sgt. Elias is no stranger to adversity.

"I grew up in the projects in Miami," he said.

Surrounded by gangs and drugs, he knew that was not the life he wanted. A friend of the family had retired from the military. The service offered Staff Sgt. Elias the opportunity he didn't think he would have if he stayed where he was.

"I wanted a better way of life. I wanted to travel. I didn't want to be stuck in the same thing," said Staff Sgt. Elias, who signed up after he finished high school.

In his six years in the Army, he has completed two tours in Iraq. He met his wife, Claudia, after basic training, when they were both in advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. They were reunited in Germany, the first duty station for both.

"She's my backbone," he said.

Mrs. Elias spent five months at the Fisher House at Fort Gordon to be near her husband during his treatment. She returned to Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning, on Dec. 14 to start decorating for Christmas.

The couple has a 4-year-old son, Noah.

Staff Sgt. Elias plans to make the Army his career and doesn't see losing his right hand as an obstacle to reaching that goal.

In his five months at the hospital, he has learned to do everything with his left hand that he once did as a right-handed person. He even beat Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Foley, Fort Gordon's commanding general, at a game of ping-pong.

Just before he was released from the hospital, he received a new prosthetic device, the iLIMB, which is a robotic hand. He operates it by using the muscles near his elbow.

"He's learning to adapt," said occupational therapist Lisa Dowling. "He's perfectly independent with a hook as well. Cosmetically, this is more appealing."

The iLIMB has a hand and robotic fingers. Staff Sgt. Elias can do multiple tasks with the prosthetic, including lifting a glass to his mouth and drinking, picking up marbles, writing and shaking someone's hand.

"It will take time and practice," said Ms. Dowling.

After a two-week holiday break with his family in Columbus, Staff Sgt. Elias plans to be at work bright and early on Jan. 4.

"It's fun being able to put a footprint on the new soldier (by) being a good role model and training them and teaching them into being a high speed soldier," he said.

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