WASHINGTON (AP) – A state-of-the-art rehabilitation center opening next year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center seeks to return more amputee soldiers to a place once thought impossible: the battlefield.

Besides treadmills and stationary bikes, the $10 million Military Amputee Training Center will have weapons simulators, a climbing and rappelling wall and military vehicle simulators to help soldiers adapt their prosthetics to driving tanks and trucks.

“Our guys and gals, they don’t want to just walk household distances, they want to be able to return to running, they want to be able to return to duty,” Lt. Col. Jeff Gambel, clinical chief of the amputee clinic, said Friday at a groundbreaking ceremony. “And if they don’t return to duty, they want to be able to rock climb and do all those other things.”

The center brings together new and existing facilities and counseling services for amputees in a single 30,000-square-foot, three-story addition to the hospital.

When it opens in December 2005, the center will feature a running track, obstacle courses and a one-of-a kind hydraulic platform to simulate different terrain, from mud to sand to gravel. Computer labs will help amputees learn to control advanced prosthetics and a gait lab will help patients learn to walk and run again.

“If there’s somebody who drove a tank, we can build a simulated vehicle and actually allow them to drive that,” said Lt. Col. Paul Pasquina, medical director of Walter Reed’s amputee program. “We look at the controls and figure out how they can operate it with either an upper extremity prosthesis or lower extremity prosthesis.”

With advances in body armor that protects the torso and improved battlefield treatment, many soldiers who would have been killed in earlier wars now are surviving after losing limbs. Walter Reed has treated more than 900 battle casualties from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, including about 180 amputees.

“What we’re finding in each subsequent conflict is there is an increased percentage of upper extremity amputations,” Gambel said.

Chuck Scoville, amputee program manager at Walter Reed, told a congressional committee this summer that amputations accounted for 2.4 percent of all wounded in action in Iraq, twice the rate in World Wars I and II.

One of those amputees is Marine Corp. Peter Bagarella, who attended the groundbreaking with more than a dozen other amputees, families and military personnel. On foot patrol this summer with his unit in western Iraq, the 21-year-old from Cape Cod, Mass., stopped to examine a suspicious object.

“The next thing I know, my eyes turned white and my ears were ringing,” he said. “My left foot fell off, it was just gone, and I went blind because shrapnel got in my eyes.”

Bagarella had his left leg amputated below the knee, suffered hundreds of tiny shrapnel wounds in his right leg and left knee, and has impaired vision. Walking carefully with his new prosthetic and a cane, he said the new center gives survivors hope they can lead the kind of lives they had before getting injured.

“It will give them motivation and show them that even if you have an amputated leg, you can do just as much as if you had a leg,” Bagarella said.

He does not plan to return to active duty, but at least 10 amputees treated at Walter Reed have returned or are planning to return to their units, hospital officials said.

“This center is saying we recognize your sacrifice, we recognize your importance, we’re not abandoning you,” Pasquina said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.