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Injured in Afghanistan, now US Open ballperson

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NEW YORK — From his hospital bed, Angelo Anderson could see the wheelchair, the cane and the walker with the tennis balls on the bottom.

He told himself he would ditch them one by one to walk out on his own, after bullets shattered the bones in his upper leg and arm in Afghanistan.

This week, he will do far more than walk at the U.S. Open — just over three years and hundreds of hours of physical therapy since the Navy corpsman was shot. Anderson will sprint across the court on that titanium rod that runs from his knee to his hip. He will throw the ball to players using that arm reinforced by a titanium plate. He will kneel next to the net on that leg he once couldn't bend past 45 degrees.

From the stands at the year's last major tournament, Anderson won't look much different from any other ballperson, other than that he's a bit older than many at age 24. Only up close do the deep ripples of scars peek out from his uniform on his right bicep and thigh.

Tattooed on his leg is the date of his injury in Roman numerals. On his arm, the signature of the surgeon who gave him a chance to run and throw again.

Anderson stands out in other ways. At ballperson training, as the group was lectured on the importance of staying hydrated, he chimed in to explain the scientific reasons that eating is also crucial.

Anderson didn't follow tennis much before he was offered a chance to try out for the Open. He's been getting more and more into it ever since.

He played basketball and ran track while growing up outside Atlanta, never considering the military as a career. But a few months after graduating from high school in 2007, slogging through a temp job, Anderson met a recruiter through a family friend.

When he learned the Navy offered the opportunity of experience in the medical field right away, he joined up.

Anderson was working at the infectious disease clinic at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., when he received his orders to report to Afghanistan in December 2009.

He would go out on patrols with Marines, primed to render care should anyone be injured. They'd hear the chatter over his radio about other soldiers being treated and ask Anderson questions, things like what is a normal blood pressure.

"That in the long run actually saved me," Anderson said. "They had heard guys needing a splint. When it was time for them to treat me, it's not new to them. That actually saved my life."

Anderson has noticed that when other soldiers talk about the day their lives changed, "they always say, 'Man, there was something different.'"

Anderson doesn't feel that way about July 2, 2010.

"That's what got me — nothing seemed odd at all," he said. "If anything, it was supposed to be an easy patrol."

They were out talking to some local villagers when Anderson heard the first three-round burst of the AK-47.

He fell to the ground, some equipment digging into his throat. Anderson tried to reach to pull it away; his arm felt as though it was moving, but when he looked down at it, it was motionless, twisted in an awkward position.

He lay there as still as possible to not draw any attention and more bullets. For a half-hour.

"I was crying. I was frantic. I was talking to God, Jesus, everybody, all at once," he said. "The only thing I could do was wait."

The Marines, taking cover, didn't know if he was alive or dead. One finally reached him, his face calm as he said, "Doc, get up. Stop playing around."

Anderson told him, "I don't think I can stand."

He lost blood but never lost consciousness, coaching the Marines through his care as much as he could before a helicopter arrived to evacuate him. He later woke up to see an external fixator — a bulky metal contraption that pokes through the skin to secure the bone — on his arm, and his medical knowledge kicked in. He thought, "This must mean a severe break."

He was transferred to Germany, where he spent the Fourth of July, with no appetite to try the patriotic meal they prepared for him. Then it was back to the United States, where he was now a patient at the hospital where he once worked.

He had been on a gurney for so long, his body in one position, that he yelled in excruciating pain when he was moved. Later, pain medicine made his body so hypersensitive he felt as though each heartbeat lifted him off the bed.

Anderson had been struck by two bullets. One shattered the femur in his right leg, the other the humerus in his right arm. The orthopedic surgeon had to cut away so much dying tissue that a plastic surgeon needed to perform a skin graft.

Anderson was surrounded by family and friends supporting him in his recovery. When they first saw him, they kept saying, "You promised us before you left you wouldn't get hurt. Why did you get hurt?"

If anything, the toughest task was staying patient. It was close to four months before he could walk the short distance to physical therapy.

He needed more surgery in January 2011, a small step back so he could make giant leaps forward.

Meanwhile, Anderson heard about the Warrior Games, the competitions for injured service members. It was at this year's event in May, after he took part in track and field, that he was recruited by the USTA Military Initiative and invited to try out for the Open.

The Warrior Games have inspired him in other ways as well. Anderson hopes to someday work as a physical therapist with injured soldiers looking to compete in adaptive sports.

For now, he trains Marines in medical skills at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. His commander was happy for him to take off work to come to New York.