Story and photos by Dustin Senger
Sgt. Charles Berninghausen became the first amputee to complete the Warrior Leader Course at Fort Carson Nov. 12, almost four years after an improvised explosive device in Iraq nearly killed him.
Berninghausen is a tall, slender Soldier, who keeps his hair high-and-tight and his prosthetic limb tucked inside his left combat boot. His only obvious indication of injury is a slight limp – his right leg also has restricted ankle dexterity – but Berninghausen refuses to call himself handicapped.
“The only thing I couldn’t do was the two-mile run,” said Berninghausen, while gathering with the other 103 graduates after the ceremony. “I could do everything else, like every other Soldier.” He performed most physical training events during the two-week course, which included pushing a truck.
“It’s only a matter of time before I can run, too,” he said. “I don’t like being singled out, so once I can run, there’s no reason for me to be any different.”
“Each student has to complete the curriculum,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Macias, 168th Regiment, Regional Training Institute commandant. “Sgt. Berninghausen had to pass the academics and then go out into the field and lead a squad.” Berninghausen is the first Fort Carson WLC amputee graduate, according to Macias.
A 36-hour situational training exercise culminated two weeks of studying leadership skills, training management, land navigation and war-fighting strategies. The final field leadership evaluation positioned Berninghausen into his first tactical situation since suffering his injuries in early 2007. He wrote about surviving enemy engagement and won the WLC class 11-002 Warrior Ethos Essay contest.
The infantryman had been performing late night patrols during the final push through Ramadi, Iraq. While clearing rooms, an IED detonated inside a nearby wall, roughly a foot from the floor. He says the initial sign something went wrong was a bright green flash, possibly from colored chemical light sticks used to mark IEDs. For a moment, he was caught in a deafened state of confusion. And then the pain surfaced.
Berninghausen had absorbed shrapnel from his right ear down to his feet. On his left side, the explosion had shoved him hard enough to perforate his ear drum, break his tibia and fracture his ankle. He endured a series of surgeries and extensive bed rest. A surgeon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington D.C., amputated below his left knee after an infection permeated the tissue, nine months after the blast.
“I was really nervous,” he said. “I thought I’d have to get out of the Army and support my family with a missing limb. But the Army proved me wrong.” With nearly five years of service, a review board in June granted the wounded veteran’s request to remain on active duty.
Berninghausen is assigned to the Fort Carson Warrior Transition Unit, where injured war fighters receive dedicated support from senior leaders and medical professionals. He says WTU is “really supportive” and “always willing to help.” The Soldier starts training for a counterintelligence specialty next month.
“I loved being in the infantry – I made some great friends,” said Berninghausen. “But if you go to an infantry battalion with a prosthetic, you’re somewhat ineffective. I don’t want to risk someone’s life.”