By Rob L. Bussard
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Fear and intimidation washed through 1st Lt. Rob Callahan’s mind as he heard the Walter Reed Medical Center’s oncologists daunting diagnosis of his painful leg. Bone cancer. Not good for a tough 26-year-old gung-ho Army Soldier with dreams of remaining an Army paratrooper.
Not wanting to be defined by limitations, Callahan’s wanted to view his amputation and forthcoming chemotherapy as a challenge rather than an impediment, he said.
Callahan said he considers himself ‘handi-capable’ rather than handicapped and has overcome the physical, mental and spiritual challenges that tested his determination to remain on active duty status.
Now a major at North American Aerospace Defense Command and grateful to the Army for his care and recovery, Callahan said he considers himself very fortunate to remain on active-duty status after the loss of a major limb.
It all began mid-2002, when he began to feel pain in his lower right leg. At first, he said the pain was merely bothersome, not enough to stop physical training and certainly not enough to quit paratrooper jumps.
Callahan waited a full 18 months before breaking down and going to sick call at his home station of Fort Bragg, he said, mostly because he couldn’t put his boot on.
At Fort Bragg they performed the typical tests, took an X-ray and sent him home with medication to manage the pain. Later that afternoon, he said they called to advise him to cease all running and paratrooper activities and asked to see him the next day. Fort Bragg doctors sent him to Walter Reed to see a specialist.
Once at Walter Reed, the oncologist set Callahan up with an MRI and a biopsy. The diagnosis was a cancer called osteosarcoma. Then the really bad news: the doctor told him he may not be able to stay in the Army. Callahan didn’t want that. He said he wanted to have a career in the Army, do his 20 years or maybe more.
“And because I was an idiot; I still wanted to jump out of planes,” he said.
The oncologist gave Callahan several treatment options, one of which was amputation of his lower leg, and also suggested he go to the amputee ward and talk to some of the Soldiers there.
His leg was amputated about seven inches below the knee on July 20, 2004, and he returned to Fort Bragg and was fitted with an all-purpose utility prosthetic in nearby Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Before he could begin physical therapy and the road to recovery Callahan was told he had a more aggressive form of cancer than he was originally diagnosed with and needed chemotherapy.
“I think physically that was the hardest part,” said his wife Becky. “The chemotherapy just took all of his strength. He got so sick.”
Finished with chemotherapy, Callahan said he discovered that learning to walk was going to be a huge physical challenge, and he began eight long months of physical therapy at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center to learn to walk with his prosthetic.
After he learned to walk, he needed to run. A lot. He said the biggest mental block he faced was passing the Army physical fitness test. The running standard for flight duty at his age was two miles in 16 minutes flat. It took three hard years of training to get there, but he finally did it. Now they couldn’t take his Army career from him.
Callahan said he received love and encouragement from his wife Becky, and every person in a leadership position, regardless of military branch, was supportive of his intent to remain a Soldier.
Additionally, his faith in God and the help from his church was an asset. He said he and Becky were flanked by some very helpful Christians, some of whom had in-depth knowledge and connections with Tricare, the DoD health care program.
“I was 19 years old and I didn’t know how to navigate Tricare at that time,” said Becky. “And they just surrounded us and helped us, they brought us meals, helped us figure out Tricare, kept me company when I needed it, stuff like that.”
Callahan now has four prosthetic legs; two basic utility prosthetics, one assault leg for jumps, and another for jogging and running.
“Amputees are all kinda’ like Barbies; with the right accessories you can do anything,” he said.
Despite wanting to remain a paratrooper, Callahan said he eventually decided it was too risky for him to jump with a prosthetic. He closed his jump log in a celebratory jump with the Army’s Golden Knights parachuting team a few years ago. He is still qualified for direct combat operations.
Callahan never gave up, although that was the easier option. He had the right to be medically retired as a first lieutenant, which he said wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, he had hope and and wasn’t done with his Army career. This was what he wanted to do. He knew he’d be okay, and “land on his foot.”
He very well did.