For 11 long, excruciating hours, from the time he was shot to the time he finally got to the operating room, retired Army Sergeant Bill Dunham, 42, vividly remembers what was going through his head. “Luckily not a bullet,” he jokes. But in reality, his military medical training had manifested; he knew he was badly injured, but that most importantly, he couldn’t let himself go into shock or else he could lose his life. “It seemed like an eternity,” Dunham remembers.

Thankfully, Dunham’s life was well within grasp. What he did lose, however, was something most of us take for granted: physical stability. Dunham was shot and his leg was seriously injured.

Shots fired

On December 20th, 1989, Sgt. Dunham was assigned to a mission with his U.S. Army Special Opertions Command to parachute into the Panamanian Defense Force’s 6th Infantry Company at Rio Hato, secure the airfield, and apprehend Manuel Noriega. “We jumped out at about 500 ft. altitude,” says Dunham.

But over the next six hours, as the dangers of the mission heightened, four U.S. soldiers, Dunham among them, were hit. “I got shot by an American Helicopter, so it was a friendly fire.” But the damage was done. “Two were killed and three were severely injured,” he says.

Technology saves lives

Dunham’s injury caused stress to his leg and lower back, and when he finally made it to the operating room, he was faced with the decision that would change his life. “I remember just praying that I would see my family and friends again,” says Dunham. After eight days in the hospital, when doctors asked him to choose whether to amputate his wounded leg or continue trying to revive it, his faith in technology decided for him.

“I made the decision to amputate, thinking the technology would be really good,” recalls Dunham. “But then I found out it wasn’t as good as I thought. It was a letdown.”

Over 20 years later, Dunham now has much more mobility and stability than he did as a new amputee. With advancements in prosthetics, including a computer-powered knee that reads the sensory nerves sent from the foot and ankle, Dunham says he has so much more function in life. “I can walk down to the boat and go sailing.”

Regardless of how amputation occurs, losing a limb is a challenge. “The war has produced a lot of amputees, but the positive thing is that technology has really risen and it’s helping a lot of people — not just veterans, but civilians, too,” Dunham states. “A lot of technology probably would not have advanced if it wasn’t for the Veteran Administration and the Military.”

Dunham, a veteran of the military and of amputee life, provides peer-to-peer support for people facing an amputation or who have undergone an amputation. “I’m grateful that they have such a great support network today.” His advice to new amputees: “Get in there, work together, rehab and get better.”