WASHINGTON -- Nearly six years ago, an armor plate stopped a copper projectile from killing Army veteran Bryan Wagner. That armor plate, along with the copper penetrator propelled from the improvised explosive device, or IED, that detonated near his vehicle in Iraq, was returned to Wagner during a ceremony in Jacksonville, Fla. "I'm usually not at a lack of words," Wagner said, shortly after he received the armor plate. But he had said very little on stage at the event, calling the experience "humbling and surreal."
Following the IED explosion, which destroyed Wagner's vehicle on the outskirts of Baghdad in late 2007, Wagner was severely injured and had a leg amputated. He later went through the year-long TRACK program with the Wounded Warrior Project. That program is designed to help wounded Soldiers meet their educational goals while rehabilitating from injuries. After completing the program, Wagner was made assistant dean of the Wounded Warrior Project. This makes him a direct liaison for wounded Soldiers going through the TRACK program. "He took the role and expanded it greatly," said Chris Rick, dean of the Wounded Warrior Project. "This guy is the definition of resiliency." Wagner plans to continue his education and become a physical therapist, a decision he says is heavily influenced by his recovery. He is now finishing his undergraduate degree in athletic training and plans to get a Ph.D. in physical therapy. "I lost too many buddies to complain about only having one leg," Wagner said. "I want to show to myself and everybody else that disability is only a state of mind." The enhanced side ballistic inserts that saved Wagner was taken in by researchers at Program Executive Office, or PEO, - Soldier. That agency develops uniforms and equipment for Soldiers in conjunction with industry contractors. The plate's resilience was a unique case because the plate isn't designed to handle the type of damage it sustained from the IED, said Command Sgt. Maj. Emmett Maunakea, with PEO Soldier. Wagner said he remembers putting in the side plates that day in Iraq. "We weren't very happy about the plates because they added extra weight," Wagner said. "And to think about that action and the action of all the guys who've gotten killed who didn't have them is very humbling." He wasn't aware that the plate took a direct hit until he recently received a phone call letting him know the armor plate would be returned to him. "It was shocking," he said. "I thought all the shrapnel and everything hit my lower body."