CHICAGO (Reuters) - Bryan Anderson whizzed into a coffee shop on Chicago’s North Side on a recent afternoon, maneuvering past chairs and patrons with confidence, speed and grace, catching every customers’ eye.
The 30-year-old suburban Chicago resident is completely conspicuous, and he knows it.
Anderson is an Iraq veteran and a triple amputee. He lost both legs and his left arm when he was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq six years ago. But he has no patience for pity.
“Please don’t feel bad for me,” he says. “I have an extraordinary life.”
Anderson is part actor, part athlete, part motivational speaker, and all-American hero.
He’s had guest appearances on the television show “CSI: NY” and in the award-winning movie “The Wrestler.” He graced the cover of Esquire magazine. He can snowboard, rock climb and even skateboard with his wheel chair.
“I treat the world as my jungle gym,” said Anderson. “My biggest nemesis is a button down shirt.”
Now, in time for Veterans Day, Anderson has added author to his list of accomplishments, releasing a book earlier this month called, “No Turning Back,” co-authored by David Mack.
His basic message: Good can from even the worst tragedies.
‘SCARIEST DAY OF MY LIFE’
The book details October 23, 2005, the day Anderson got hit. He was serving in one of the Army’s military police units on his second tour of duty in Iraq.
That morning, he and several comrades were on a routine mission, escorting a commanding officer to Iraqi police stations in downtown Baghdad. Anderson was driving the last vehicle in the convoy, a Humvee, when it rolled over the IED.
“It was the luck of the draw. We all knew that we were gonna get hit eventually. Everybody got hit.” he said.
“You know, is it gonna be one of those moments where it’s slow motion and you watch shrapnel go right by your face but you didn’t get a scratch?”
Anderson took the brunt of the blast. It instantly severed his legs and arm. None of his buddies was injured as badly, and they pulled him to safety. Twelve minutes later the medevac chopper arrived.
“It was probably the scariest day of my life. That’s all,” Anderson said.
“I never felt like I was gonna die. So it was really kind of just a scary moment. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. I didn’t know if everything was going to be OK.”
Anderson woke up seven days later at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., with his parents, identical twin brother and younger sister by his side. He spent the next 13 months recovering from his injuries, and enduring countless surgeries and grueling physical therapy to adjust to his new normal.
“No Turning Back” contains vignettes of ups and downs from Anderson’s recovery to living life with only one natural limb. He writes about the excruciating phantom pains he still gets, overcoming depression and reclaiming his sex life.
“I‘m not kidding. Sex with no legs is great,” he writes.
“Maybe I‘m not every gal’s dream lover, but I haven’t heard anyone complain yet.”
And he talks about defining moments like when he insisted on standing to meet his unit in Fort Hood, Texas, when it first returned from Iraq.
“I saw them two months after I got blown up,” Anderson said.
“I couldn’t walk yet, but I was standing there saluting them as they walked in, and they were all like, wait, I thought he was missing his legs because I had a uniform on so you couldn’t see the prosthetics or anything. But that was really important.”
Anderson, who drives a specially equipped van and gets around in either an electric wheel chair, manual wheel chair or with prosthetic legs depending on the situation, said he never intended on being an inspiration.
But during his recovery, he learned about inner strength and drive that helped him adapt to his injuries and succeed in the post-war phase of his life in which some other soldiers have not done so well.
That’s the premise of his book. It’s more about moving beyond his life-changing accident than the event itself.
“My goal for the book is that people can pick it up, apply it to any kind of issue or problem that they’re having in their own life.”
“Just because something bad happens or the world seems like it’s crashing down on you, that’s the perfect time to take control, pick a person you want to be and start being that person.”
For Anderson, who he wants to be is a work in progress. He’s entertaining a future in acting and which may or may not include marriage and children. But he wants to stay involved in causes for veterans.
When leaving the coffee shop, two women, who overheard Anderson talking about Iraq, stopped him simply to say “thank you.”
“It’s important for veterans to know that at home we think they’re rock stars,” said Aly Pesvento, 21, whose boyfriend is serving in Afghanistan.
Anderson’s injuries have paved the way for opportunity and recognition.
“I like making a name for myself. You know, I don’t want to be known as, I don’t know, the Iraq war veteran triple amputee. I want to be known as the things I do afterward.”
Editing by Jerry Norton