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The First Step

Lt. Col. Kerrie Golden ('89), an Army leader in physical therapy, helps wounded soldiers return to their lives

Story by Fiona Cohen

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In addition to her administrative duties as chief of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Lt. Col. Kerrie Golden also sees patients. | Photo by Aaron Barna
Golden just finished an assignment as chief of physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center, tasked with helping to bring together two large physical therapy groups. | Photo by Aaron Barna
“It’s really rewarding to take someone from a really debilitated physical state to a much more independent view of life,” Golden says. "It’s changing their attitude from hopelessness to 'I can do it.' " | Photo by Aaron Barna
Golden joined recovering patients from Walter Reed on the 2010 Ski to Sea Team "Missing Parts in Action." | Photo by Disabled Sports USA/Reed Hoffman

Sidebar: More soldiers are coming home -- with tougher injuries

More soldiers are coming home -- with tougher injuries

When the wounded soldier first met physical therapist Kerrie Golden (’89), he had already struggled two years with injuries from one terrible day in Iraq.

Sgt. Maj. Robert Haemmerle had been unable to move his shoulder since October 2006 in Ramadi, a violence-wracked town in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. A blast from an improvised explosive device had knocked Haemmerle off a 10-foot wall, and he banged his shoulder and knee. Later that day a rocket propelled grenade hit the building he was in; he got a big blow to the head, resulting in lingering problems with concentration.

Doctors initially didn’t find any permanent problems, so Haemmerle remained in Iraq and didn’t have his injuries treated. There were others who needed more help than he did, he says. But he could no longer raise his arms to pull his body armor over his head – he had to wriggle into it, left arm first, his head buffeted by the ceramic plates.

“It was not fun,” he says.

By the time Haemmerle went on to Afghanistan, a doctor noticed his joint problems and sent him to Bethesda, Md., for surgery at the National Naval Medical Center. The surgeon requested that Haemmerle’s physical therapist be chief of the department: Lt. Col. Kerrie Golden.

By then, Haemmerle worried it wouldn’t be possible to deploy back to Afghanistan. Two years of neglect had warped his wounded muscles.

But while rising through the ranks to become head of the country’s largest hospital physical therapy department, Golden had built a career of getting wounded soldiers to accomplish their own goals, whether it’s returning to battle, playing with their children or completing a 10k race with a hand-cycle.

“It’s changing their attitude from hopelessness to ‘I can do it,’” says Golden, who continues to see patients in addition to her administrative duties.

Physical therapy has been part of Golden’s life plan since she enrolled at Western. A 1985 graduate of Mount Baker High School, she enrolled in WWU’s pre-physical therapy program, with a graduate degree in mind.

She found her courses at Western to be rigorous and serious-minded, both in the sciences and physical education. “I was really surprised at how challenging it was,” she says.

In Professor Kathy Knutzen, she had an adviser she could trust.

When it came time to apply for graduate schools, it was Knutzen who suggested the U.S. Army-Baylor University’s physical therapy program. Attracted to the idea of completing her master’s degree without debt and with a job, she signed up.

Life with the Army has meant moving around the country. She met her husband, Col. Robert Taradash, in Alabama. Both were later stationed in Alaska and married in 1994. They had their first daughter, Aubrey, in Texas in 2000, and a son, Levi, in 2005. She got a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Temple University in 2006.

Then in August 2008, she got her biggest assignment yet: Integrated Physical Therapy Services Chief at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center.

Golden was in charge of helping to integrate the Army and Navy’s large rehabilitation teams as the two medical centers merged. Even within Walter Reed, groups of therapists were separated from each other due to limited space. As a result, they rarely collaborated. “My proudest accomplishment was bringing them together to work more as a team,” she says.

Given that Golden was the top administrator, much of her work was behind the scenes to maintain the Walter Reed physical therapy unit’s reputation as one of the best in the country for helping soldiers recover from the worst injuries.

“It takes a tremendous amount of work to juggle all of that so the therapists can take care of the patients well,” she says.

When she arrived at Walter Reed, the center had a well-established adaptive sports and recreational activities program, including kayaking, scuba, seated volleyball, wheelchair basketball and many other activities as part of patients’ recovery plans. Patients run – or hand-cycle – the Army Ten Miler in Washington, D.C., or even marathons.

Golden also worked with Disabled Sports USA to put together teams to compete in the 2009 and 2010 Ski to Sea races in Bellingham. She served as the Nordic skier on the team, named “Missing Parts in Action.”

Tears come to her eyes when she talks about watching the impact of the athletic program on wounded soldiers: “A lot of the time I feel like they’ve lost so much, and they have,” she says. “But when they’re out there, they can feel normal again.”

It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, Golden says, but there’s nothing like seeing the strength and confidence return as soldiers regain their physical abilities.

“You see these people come in and they’re inpatients and they’re pretty beat-up looking. Later on in rehab, they’re a little better,” she says. “It’s really rewarding to take someone from a really debilitated physical state to a much more independent view of life.”

Ten months after Golden and her husband adopted their younger daughter, Rhea, in December 2008, Golden took her skills closer to the battlefield. From October 2009 to April 2010, she was deployed to Iraq, to run the Physical Therapy Service in a combat support hospital in Baghdad. The soldiers she saw usually had the muscle strains, sprains and backaches she was used to seeing in the U.S. – but she also saw Iraqi civilians.

She particularly remembers a 13-year-old girl recovering from burns from a kitchen accident. The girl spoke no English, but with the help of translator Golden had to gain her trust and coax her body into motion.

“It was hard to explain the necessity of doing physical therapy when it’s so painful,” she says. “In the early stages, just trying to get her out of bed was very difficult.”

Golden improvised a therapy program with her kids’ old toys (Mr. Potato Head was a big hit), games and drawing on walls.

“We would do ‘Ring around the Rosie,’ the ‘Hokey Pokey,’ anything to move,” she says.

Golden didn’t give up on the girl in Iraq, and she wouldn’t give up on Haemmerle, the soldier at Walter Reed who wanted to repair his body enough to return to his unit in Afghanistan.

Golden set a long course of treatment: bending, stretching and exercise.

“As the days and weeks went by Lt. Col. Golden increased my program, she increased my work and what she wanted me to do,” Haemmerle says. “I did much better than I ever thought I would.”

After 12 months of physical therapy, plus therapy for concentration problems, doctors pronounced him fit for duty and he returned to Afghanistan in January 2010.

“Am I 100 percent? No.” he says. “But who is?”

But he no longer has to wriggle sideways into his body armor.

Golden moved to Madigan Army Medical Center in July 2010 as her husband took over command of the 42nd Military Police brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. At Madigan, Golden is just getting started as the Chief of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. One thing she’d like to do is have the rehabilitative services collaborate more closely with the Warrior Transition Brigade’s adaptive sports program to get recuperating soldiers on the water and on the courts.

Golden closes her emails with this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “You don’t have to see the whole entire staircase, just take the first step.”

“It just speaks to possibilities,” she says.