In september, Dawn Halfaker attended her company picnic. The company may be a research unit of the Department of Defense, but it was still your basic weekday get-together: hot dogs, fresh air, tug-of-war. Maybe even basketball. She's not sure about that, but what is clear in her mind is how the feeling hit her all at once, for the first time: I'm watching. A couple of years ago she would've been in the middle of the action, taking on the men. Now, at 26, she could only ... spectate. A cutesy blonde, as if transported from the 1950s, sat nearby, mystified by her boyfriend's volleyball game. Halfaker tried to explain the rules, the scoring. And she thought, This sucks.
Injured veterans are not typical of the general disabled population in the U.S. Cut from a force of young, disciplined, physically fit action junkies, they're primed for the shock of physical therapy, driven to get back on their feet and go. The USOC Paralympic Military Program has already run two multisport summits for veterans in the last three months, hoping to unearth talent for the 2008 Games in Beijing. "We treat the patient at the level of a tactical athlete," says Chuck Scoville, program manager for amputee care at Reed. "The only difference between our guys and other athletes is that our season is yearlong."
After a stellar career at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, Halfaker was one of the key seniors behind West Point's turnaround 19-win basketball season in 2001, a slashing, defense-obsessed guard known for her aggressiveness. In practice she'd demand that teammates guard her more closely, and she loved nothing more than picking a dribbler clean. "If I had a team of Dawns," says Rancho Bernardo coach Peggy Brose, 54, "I'd coach till I was 70." Halfaker's favorite picture from her Army career shows her lunging at a Navy player while two teammates hold her back. "I look," Halfaker says with a smile, "like I'm going to kill her."
She loved everything about being an athlete: the locker room, the high jinks, the endless push to get better. Basketball was a way to break the ice with others, to show who she was. In late October of Halfaker's sophomore year a teammate fell on her left knee, ripping muscles from the bone and tearing the posterior cruciate ligament. The doctor said she would be sidelined for six months; Halfaker pushed her physical therapist to get her on the court in three. In January she was in the lineup. To hear her describe her best steal, against Bucknell as a junior, is to know why. "This girl was coming down with the ball really fast, it was late in the game and we were rallying," she says. "She got the ball, and I darted toward her, and I don't know how I didn't get called for a foul, but I just punched the ball hard with my left."
She stands up in a friend's living room in Washington, D.C. She's not wearing her prosthesis. Her right arm and a portion of the shoulder muscle are gone, but she doesn't care: She's got this imaginary ball and an imaginary opponent. She lunges, face alight, grabbing the imaginary ball and then spinning, almost dancing around the coffee table. "I almost barreled through her," she says, "and another girl was coming, and I just frickin' whipped the ball around, just broke her ankles. It was awesome. Whipped it around my body to my right hand"--the invisible ball bounces under an invisible hand--"and went downcourt and spun and put it up righthanded, finger-rolled it in. Everyone was going crazy. My favorite play of all time."
After graduating in 2001, a second lieutenant heading into the military police, Halfaker found there was no better way to bond with her men than by outplaying guys from other units on the basketball court. While waiting in Kuwait to head into Iraq, "guys were getting pissed off because Dawn schooled them," says Sgt. 1st Class Norberto (Nerbie) Luis Lara. "We had guys wanting to fight her."
The 4/293 Platoon's mission was to create a model Iraqi-run police station, and teaching Iraqi officers how to run an effective, ethical force. Halfaker helped spring one innocent man from prison; his wife named their child Dawn. Soon after her platoon took charge of the Diyala Province police station in Iraq, in March 2004, someone nailed a basket up in the jail. Prisoners would watch the games through the bars. Halfaker could feel the Muslim men watching as she beat men at their own game. She felt respect.
Within a month she saw her first action. There's a famous quote by Gen. Douglas MacArthur that Halfaker can recite from memory: "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days will bear the fruits of victory." But she has no illusions about the parallels between sports and war. "We killed people, of course," Halfaker says of her unit. "You can never know what that feeling is like until you do it. You always wonder: Will I be able to do it? And once you do, it's something you wish you never knew how it felt. You handle it because you have to. Because life goes on."
On June 19 she was riding in the backseat of a Humvee on a street in Baquba, behind Sergeant Lara. A rocket-propelled grenade ripped through the passenger side of the vehicle, slicing off Lara's right arm and then destroying Halfaker's at the shoulder. Lara passed out; Halfaker shouted at the driver to get back to the station. She couldn't understand why she couldn't open her door. When they got there, she begged the medic, "Don't cut it off. Don't cut my arm off."
Halfaker spent the next week--in Baghdad, Germany and then Walter Reed--in a coma. Her face had been burned, five ribs had been broken and, worst of all, her lungs had collapsed. Once she was stabilized, she was wheeled into the physical therapy clinic at Walter Reed. Lieutenant Colonel Springer, who as a West Point physical therapist had helped rehab Halfaker's knee six years before, was staggered by the sight of her sunken and battered body. "Such a sickening feeling," Springer says. But she knew her patient. Two days later Halfaker was doing crunches in her bed. She couldn't get enough PT. "If we didn't push her hard enough, she'd get frustrated," Springer says. "Dawn wanted to be smoked."