By Sgt. Joshua Syberg
| Oct. 16, 2020
Sgt. Alex Woodsmall, a recruiter for the Indiana National Guard, starts his morning like every other soldier— with one small difference. In 2015, while working in a warehouse, Woodsmall ankle became crushed. Leading to his future amputation. (Photo by Sgt. Joshua Syberg)
The Indiana National Guard has been sending Hoosiers to war since the Mexican-American War in the 1840’s.
Life and limbs are often casualties. But the list of soldiers sent to war with less than four limbs is extremely limited.
During his shift at his warehouse job in 2015, Sgt. Alex Woodsmall of Greenfield, was driving a reach truck. After turning a corner the machine he was driving veered into a large rack.
“Milliseconds start adding up. I let off the emergency-stop switch on the truck but the truck continued going the same speed, so I let go of everything. I knew if I jumped off the machine and got to this one spot where there were no pallets or present dangers, the machine would hit the rack, but I would be protected from it.”
His ankle stuck between the truck and a support beam.
After getting the machine to move again, Woodsmall knew immediately something was horribly wrong with his leg. After unlacing his steel-toed boot his foot began to dangle freely.
“I’m pretty sure the only thing that was holding it all together was my green Army sock I had on,” Woodsmall said. “First thing that kicked in was combat lifesaver skills to make sure I wasn’t bleeding out. Luckily, I only saw a few droplets of blood.”
After the accident, doctors were able to put him back together.
Then gangrene had different plans.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine website, gangrene is a dangerous and potentially fatal condition that happens when the blood flow to a large area of tissue is cut off. This causes the tissue to break down and die. Often turning the affected skin a greenish-black color.
Four surgeries later, after failing to contain the spread, Woodsmall was given a choice. He had three equally daunting paths to choose from.
Doctors could take half of his foot, giving him an 80 percent chance of having to remove more later due to gangrene.
They could amputate his foot at the ankle. However, the amount of prosthetics for that type of amputation are incredibly limited and his mobility would be extremely limited.
The third and most drastic option was to amputate below the knee.
Despite the agonizing amount of pain he was in, Woodsmall’s first asked, “Which one will give me the greatest chance of staying in the military?”
After he was given his answer, his response was simple — lets chop this thing off.
“First day the nurse comes in and says ‘Hey, we are going clean this off. I don’t know if you want to do it now or wait a while to take a look at it,’” Woodsmall said. “At first I decided I wouldn’t look at it and wait a couple of days. Then when she took the bandages off I said ‘screw it, let me look at it.’ Once I got to see it I yelled out ‘dang, that’s sexy!’”
While in the hospital for his amputation, nurses came to know him as a rarity. Unlike many patients, Woodsmall had a positive outlook on his new way of life.
His below-the-knee amputation would give him the most mobility and the largest options of prosthetics, which would allow him to lift heavy objects and move effectively for his physical fitness and military occupation.
Luckily for Woodsmall, four years before his accident he chose multichannel transmission systems operator-maintainer, a non-combat role, as his military occupation, which gave him a higher chance of thriving in the military environment. This, combined with the support of his unit, made him have an even more positive outlook on his military career.
However, after transferring to a medical detachment, his outlook began to change. He decided he would let his six-year contract expire and move on from the Indiana National Guard.
One of the lowest points after his accident was when the National Guard Bureau notified him that he was no longer medically qualified to stay in the National Guard.
Since joining the military, Woodsmall kept his personal motto of “never quit” in the back of his head, and he wouldn’t let a piece of paper tell him he couldn’t succeed. After all many soldiers also know there’s a waiver for everything.
He discovered he had the option to write a rebuttal back to the NGB.
A year and a half from his accident he finally receives the letter stating he could stay. Woodsmall said that year and half was some of the darkest times of his life.
Then came the medical evaluation board, his biggest obstacle to continuing his military career.
By happenstance, while attending an event with his wife prior to his medical board, Woodsmall met now retired Command Sgt. Maj. James H. Martin Jr., 38th Infantry Division’s senior noncommissioned officer at the time. Martin would then give Woodsmall a gift that changed his life.
“His story struck me very hard because here was a young man that had lost a limb and was afraid that the military was not going to retain him,” Martin said. “He had such a huge heart, and he was already saying, ‘I will do whatever it takes to stay in the military.’ While others throughout the Army struggled to pass the physical fitness test, he was adamant that he would pass the test. His wife was standing by his side so very proud of him. I did what any leader would do in this situation — do everything possible to save a soldier that wanted to make his mark in the Indiana National Guard. So I wrote a memo to retain Sgt. Woodsmall in the Indiana Army National Guard. I still follow him and his family, and I am so very proud of all of his accomplishments.”
The medical board ultimately chose to let Woodsmall continue his military career and later in 2018 deploy to Kuwait with the Indiana National Guard’s 38th Sustainment Brigade. This deployment possibly made him the first Indiana Guardsmen to deploy with a prosthetic limb.
After returning from Kuwait an accident struck again.
While on the way to drill, a soldier from his unit was in a car accident, which ultimately caused her to become a lower-body amputee as well.
“We became friends while we were overseas.” Woodsmall said. “That’s how when we came back, we were able to connect in that way because I was already an amputee. So I was able to give her some support and help her through some difficult times, helping her understand the process and how things work. I felt a responsibility because she didn’t have anybody else who has ever had this experience.”
Now as a recruiter for the Indiana National Guard, Woodsmall uses his experiences and outlook to help new recruits understand the invaluable Army camaraderie and friendships that will last a lifetime.
Woodsmall continues to live and preach his motto — never quit.