FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Sgt. 1st Class Greg Robinson has become the first amputee to complete Army air assault school, a course so grueling his prosthetic leg broke twice over the 10 days spent rappelling down ropes, navigating obstacle courses and completing strenuous road marches.
Each year thousands of soldiers are physically and mentally tested at the Fort Campbell school. Instructors said Robinson accomplished everything other participants did and trainers cut him no slack even though he lost part of his right leg on a deployment to Afghanistan in 2006.
When Robinson joined teammates at a brief graduation ceremony Monday at the Sabalauski Air Assault School, others called his success a testament to what can be achieved by amputees. War wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan and the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon have highlighted the challenges amputee patients face in recovering.
An inspiration to the Boston bombing victims? Robinson, a 34-year-old noncommissioned officer from Elizabethtown, Ill., said his attitude was one of just wanting to grit it out and complete the same program he sends soldiers to who are under his command.
"Right now, I am a platoon sergeant," Robinson told reporters after graduating. "I have roughly 30 men in my platoon. As a leader, I didn't want to tell my soldiers that they needed to go to air assault school, if I am not air assault qualified."
On Monday, he had his followers: dozens of soldiers from his unit lined up to congratulate Robinson after he graduated. His 4-year-old daughter, Drew, and his wife, Amanda, gave him hugs and kisses.
The 34-year-old noncommissioned officer from Elizabethtown, Ill., toughed out Monday's 12-mile road march even after he had to repair his prothesis in mid-trek.
Robinson was wounded in 2006 during an attack while on a major military operation. But he said his traumatic injury wasn't going to prevent him from meeting some of the Army's toughest standards or finishing his career in the Army.
"It's not my job; it's my lifestyle," said Robinson, who has deployed four times in his 16 years in the military.
The 101st Airborne Division — unlike other airborne units in planes — uses helicopters to quickly drop troops into combat and move equipment on the battlefield.
Each day of the course began with running a couple of miles. Troops were expected to carry a 35-pound ruck sack as they complete their tasks. Though he ran with a noticeable limp, his boot and trousers covered his prosthetic leg and generally made him indistinguishable from the others. He also learned to rappel from a tower and maneuver past obstacles.
Robinson said he decided about six months ago to take on the program, though he had to get a doctor's approval. Now he hopes his accomplishment will encourage other wounded soldiers with their recoveries.
"It's not a disability if you don't let it slow you down," he said.
His instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Connolly, said there was some concern at one point whether he was going to make it through when a piston in his leg stopped working on the obstacle course.
"He got down and fixed it, reattempted the obstacle and went back on," Connolly said.
Capt. Greg Gibson, an Army nurse with Robinson's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said his attitude was what pushed him to finish the course. Gibson said that in his experience treating amputees, attitude and will are critical to recovery.
Gibson worked with amputees at Walter Reed before coming to Fort Campbell and said many patients struggle at first with the loss of a limb, their own body image and the pain of multiple surgeries.
"Some of these guys never even learn to walk on a prosthesis, let alone go through the air assault course," Gibson said.
Gibson said Robinson is adept at using his prosthesis, which is below the knee, but the air assault course requires using muscles in a way Robinson would have found very difficult.
One part of the obstacle course, nicknamed "The Tough One," is a mandatory 3-meter rope climb in which participants wrap their feet around a rope and pull themselves up with their hands and feet. Gibson said completing that climb had to have been arduous for an amputee.
In light of the traumatic leg injuries suffered at the Boston Marathon, including several amputations, Gibson said Robinson's accomplishments translate beyond the military world.
"He's had this thing happen to him that most would see as a career ender," Gibson said. "He's a shining example that life can carry on."