Coaster Death Shows Risks of Vets’ Thrill-seeking

By CAROLYN THOMPSON | July 18, 2011

Combat veterans are known to come home from war hungry for adrenaline, taking up things like motorcycle racing or sky diving to satisfy their cravings. And some who come home without arms or legs are simply determined to do the things they did before war redefined normal.

James Hackemer’s family insists the father of two who lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq was no thrill-seeker, but his fatal fall from a roller coaster highlights the challenge of balancing the desire for both excitement and normalcy with the reality of new disabilities.

“He just had a thirst for life and he just wanted to do as much as possible,” the 29-year-old Army sergeant’s sister, Jody Hackemer, said following her brother’s death at Darien Lake Theme Park & Resort in upstate New York last week.

In fact, riding a roller coaster can be a good way for veterans to feel the rush they so crave after living in a hypervigilant state while in a war zone, far better than driving too fast or abusing drugs or alcohol, according to experts who say those high-risk behaviors are all too common. An Army report last July noted a rise in risky behavior among soldiers, attributing it partly to the ramped-up tempo of military life and faster deployments.

“Going on a high-speed roller coaster is not the same as getting shot at and the danger involved with it is next to nothing, but it’s just the intensity of the high speed, the curves and everything else that are just so exciting,” said Dr. James Tuorila, a psychologist who’s worked with veterans and their “adrenaline addiction” for more than 25 years.

The problem in Hackemer’s case was he chose a roller coaster – the Ride of Steel that had been a favorite before his 2008 injury – that specifically requires riders to have two legs: Its only restraints are a fabric seatbelt and a T-shaped lap bar that comes up between the legs. His will to ride was no match for physics, and he was lifted and thrown to his death during a family outing July 8.

“Mr. Hackemer did not have the physical attributes necessary to be properly restrained,” said Genesee County Sheriff Gary Maha, who ruled the death an accident and said no criminal charges would be filed.

“Obviously, it was a risk,” Jody Hackemer said. But “he never would have thought anything like this would have happened, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

With the Defense Department reporting 31,922 military members wounded in Iraq and 12,593 in Afghanistan since the start of combat operations as of July 14, plenty of veterans face dramatic changes in their physical abilities and limitations.

“Maybe (Hackemer’s case) is an indicator that that needs some more attention,” said Patricia Anderson, a licensed professional counselor who works with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. “Helping people get acclimated and just knowing their personal boundaries.”

“As an adult we get to that point, but then if something catastrophic happens like loss of limbs, you’re kind of starting over,” Anderson said.

The Disabled American Veterans is among groups helping to channel veterans’ need for speed into activities with appropriate levels of risk, including one program that sends them down mountains on specially made skis for a physical and emotional high.

“We’ve seen veterans who have that yearning to do things, a lot have to just do things differently,” said DAV spokesman Dave Autry.

“It’s thrilling to see severely injured folks who have tackled a mountain and it gives them a sense: ‘If I can handle this mountain, you know, I can handle just about anything life throws at me,”‘ Autry said.

Shaking the impulse to seek that level of adrenaline is not easy or even always possible, said Tuorila, a former surgeon general for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“Right now, a lot of these young vets are getting killed in car accidents because they’re driving like they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re driving fast, they’re changing lanes, they’re getting all sorts of tickets,” he said. “We’re just trying in therapy to get them to realize this is America, you’re back home now, you don’t have to worry about those things.

“But it’s real tough once you’ve lived through that environment to change those behaviors that kept you alive,” he said.

After Hackemer, an MP, was caught in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad in March 2008, his heart stopped twice, he had two strokes and was in a coma for six weeks. He lost all of his left leg and part of a hip, and his right leg was amputated above the knee.

He had taken small steps toward regaining his life once he returned home to the rolling farm country that he called home, going hunting or working atop a tractor specially outfitted with seatbelts and hand controls

The kind of help veterans need to make the transition varies, depending on the individual.

“They’re feeling out of sorts, they’re feeling a little bored,” said Anderson. “They’re feeling like they don’t fit in, they’re feeling like their family is going on without them and that they don’t really have a place.

“But to get them into skiing or even jumping out of a plane can be safe,” she said. “Or going around a NASCAR track monitored or whatever it is that turns them on and gets them back into the game.”

The key, she said, is filling the void “in a way that is healthier and safe as opposed to something that is more impulsive and reactive.”

Several hundred people turned out Thursday for Hackemer’s funeral in his small rural hometown of Gowanda, south of Buffalo. He’ll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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