KORTNEY CLEMONS doesn't think what he's doing now is that much different than what he was doing when he still had the full use of both legs. Even if the world around him would disagree.
He's always been a determined athlete, which explains why and how he made his junior-college football team in Mississippi as a freshman, even though he weighed all of 145 pounds. And in the classroom, he wanted to pursue medicine because he wanted to help people. So, in some ways, nothing has changed.
The Penn State senior continues to compete, simply in another arena. And he still wants to reach out to those who, like himself, needed a hand to lift them back into the fray.
A former U.S. Army combat medic who had his right leg blown off in Iraq, he understands what it's like to wake up and think that everything's over. Yet he not only survived, he has become an example for others, showing that there really are reasons to keep on going and make the most out of what you have.
Words can be hollow, of course. But he's living proof of what's possible if you don't give up. Not that he thinks of himself as anything special. Clemons sees a man pursuing his dreams. New dreams. Nothing more, or less. If others want to judge him otherwise, so be it.
"I think I have a lot to offer," says Clemons, who was injured in a February 2005 explosion in Baghdad. "That's what motivates me. Once you realize that, the rest is easy. If you just sit around in your pity, you really can't do much. It's not the way to go through life."
Clemons, a Paralympic hopeful, will run in the open 100-meter dash tomorrow afternoon at Franklin Field. It's the first time in the history of the Penn Relays that amputee athletes will be given part of the stage. Clemons will run on a prosthetic leg.
"Since I haven't been doing track for long, it really hasn't hit me, as far as being like a big event," he says. "That's good. I can settle down and run within myself. Hopefully it'll turn out well. People will get a chance to see what they came to see, which is people running at the top of their game.
"I hope I can be one of them. I'm very competitive. But my thing is, as long as I can keep running, then I'm enjoying myself. At the same time, if I can get others inspired by that it's a win-win situation, whether I win or not. Just knowing I've touched somebody, that's rewarding enough in itself."
Clemons lost his right leg above the knee after being hit by an explosive device while on patrol. That was 26 months ago. Most of his unit had already gone home. He was scheduled to be shipped stateside in a few weeks. But he never made it back whole. Obviously, he wasn't the only one. Yet it's one thing to see it happen to others and treating them as patients on the front lines of hell. It's completely numbing when it's your body that gets mutilated and your psyche that gets turned inside out.
"We'd lost a medic, a friend of mine, so that was kind of hard," Clemons recalls. "Another one of my friends got shot in the foot in an ambush. I was able to assist him and get him to the hospital. Once you're out there you know it can happen to anybody. [The enemy] doesn't know if you're a medic or not.
"We were riding around, on our way back to the forward operating base, when we came across a tipped-over Humvee. We stopped to help out. One guy was injured pretty bad. So we did what we could to stablize him, keep him comfortable until the [helicopter] arrived. Once it picked him up, the next thing I heard was 'bang.' Actually, I didn't even hear it. We were in a hostile area. They just set it off. I knew I was hurt bad. But I didn't know how bad.
"I just remember [my men] crowding around me. I knew something was wrong then. I stayed conscious until the next helicopter got there. I remember them picking me up and putting me in. When I woke up, I'd already had the amputation. At first I was just happy to be alive, you know, considering what happened to other guys. You think it's a dream."
It didn't take long for reality to sink in. His life would never be the same. Now it was up to him to determine what kind of life it would be.
During his rehab, he came in contact with many guys who'd suffered similiar injuries. He saw that many of them were running. He watched films of amputees doing power weightlifting. It gave him hope.
"I was like, 'Man, I want to be able to do that, too,' " Clemons says. "I didn't want my handicap to hold me back or hinder me any more than it had to. I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work. But I remember how good it felt, telling my parents what I was going to do. I think they knew, more than I did, just what it meant. But once I got started, it was OK. A lot of the guys at least had both their knees. I was one of the first that didn't. It makes it more difficult. But I had the right support around me."
Clemons, a native of Little Rock, Miss., actually did part of his rehab at a center in Newtown Square, Delaware County. Which, through one of his therapists, is how he found his way to Penn State. And how he knows at least a little about the annual Penn Relays, now in its 113th year.
"The more I hear about it, I realize what a big deal it is," he says. "People come from all over to be there. So I guess we have a lot to live up to.
"For me, it's the same feeling I had playing in high school. You get butterflies, not knowing what's going to happen. It's like a high. You want it, but it doesn't last long. Probably 15 seconds, tops, from getting in the blocks to the finish. And there's all that going on inside you. For those watching, they see a guy like me, who may not have been dealt the best cards, still trying to go for it, not letting it hold him down. That means a lot."
For Clemons, 26, who these days packs 180 pounds onto his muscular frame, just getting in the blocks is a chore. He has to get his "foot," which looks more like the curved blade on a hockey stick, properly aligned with what passes for his knee socket. It's difficult to envision anyone walking down the straightaway under those restraints, let alone covering the distance in a reasonably fast time.
"For a while, I was discouraged a little bit," Clemons admits. "It just takes time."
And unlike some of the people he left behind halfway around the globe, that's one commodity he does have in his favor. He has no plans to waste it.
"You know, I was a decent player [when I was younger]," he says. "I just wasn't big enough. Me and a lot of other guys. I planned to get back into sports, once I got out [of the military]. I was just as fast as I was before. I felt like it would have been hard for people to overlook me then."
Now, it's impossible to overlook him, from a totally different perspective.
He understands the reality and the burden that goes with it. He's not shy about owning up to the responsibilities. To himself. And the ones he touches.
"You go through that phase where you're kind of angry," he explains. "You just wonder, 'Why me?' And then you have people tell you, it could have been worse. And in the back of your mind you say, 'But it could have been better.' It's complicated.
"The first step is just getting back up. Until you do that you're no good to anybody, most of all yourself. Once you realize that you have the potential to make something of yourself again, it gets better.
"Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you have to stop breathing. If you can run up and a down a track, or roll a wheelchair up and down a [basketball] court, life shouldn't be too much harder than that. We just have to overcome physical barriers, that's all."
He's majoring in therapeutic recreation, with a minor in family counseling. He wants to spread the message.
"There are a lot of people like me out there," he says. "I intend to work with them until I'm not able to."
Same war, changing battlefield. *