Wednesday, July 29, 2009
After Violence of Iraq, Finding Peace in Logrolling
By JOHN BRANCH HAYWARD, Wis. — Sgt. J. R. Salzman remembers reaching for his ballistic glasses just as the roadside bomb blew apart his right arm. He remembers being unable to reach the handle of the Humvee’s passenger door and realizing that his arm was instantly shortened. He remembers the look on the face of the medic. Just about everything from Dec. 19, 2006, when he was in the lead truck of a tanker convoy in northwest Baghdad, is lodged in Salzman’s mind. That includes what he thought when he realized he would not die: I’ve still got my legs. I can still logroll. And that explained why Salzman cried when he won his seventh men’s logrolling title at the Lumberjack world championships on Sunday, his first with a prosthetic arm. “It’s what I do,” he said in the quiet shadows after a lengthy standing ovation. “This is my life in the summertime.” Salzman won the event five years in a row, from 1998 to 2002, and again in 2005. In between, Jamie Fischer won two titles, then another in 2006. Salzman was in Iraq by then. Still nagged and inspired to serve by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he had joined the Minnesota National Guard. He eloped with his girlfriend just before he was sent to Iraq in March 2006. She saw him again on Christmas Day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Salzman’s right forearm was a stump. His left hand had severe nerve damage and was missing its fourth finger. Trauma to the brain left him without much of his memory. Some old friends, whose faces look familiar, can see the damage in his arms but do not quite understand why Salzman cannot always remember their names. Logrolling brings comfortable familiarity and therapy. But it is not the same as it used to be. Salzman, 30, still has the quick feet and strong legs required to spin and stop the floating logs in a high-speed attempt to make an opponent fall. Arms, however, provide balance. There is a lot of semicontrolled flailing in logrolling. Even splayed fingers can be the difference between getting wet and staying dry. Salzman’s carbon-fiber prosthetic — “my Tinkertoy arm,” he called it — is waterproof and hollow. Inside are thin rolls of lead for weight. In last year’s event here, he filled it with sand from the shore of Lake Hayward to try to find the right balance. He was matched with Fischer in his first match last year. Salzman lost. “I was in good physical condition,” Salzman said. “Emotionally, I was a wreck.” He had one and a half pounds of lead in the arm, which made it lighter than his left but heavy enough to provide counterbalance. He and Fischer met Sunday in the best-of-five finals. The two fell into the water almost simultaneously in one match, and Salzman won the point. When Fischer fell in to decide the title, Salzman slid into the water and the two embraced. Salzman waded to the dock, where his sister Tina, a 10-time champion at the Lumberjack world championships, had shouted encouragement, and clung tight. Salzman admitted he had struggled to find the right balance to his life. He imagines bombs around every corner and in every box along the road. He bolts awake at night. He and his wife, Josie, live in Menomonie, Wis., where Salzman attends the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He wants to teach technical arts. “It’s the old joke, the one-armed shop teacher,” he said. But teaching would allow Salzman to spend his summers logrolling. And as he learned Sunday, that can make him feel whole again.