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“I felt like my legs had been taken without my permission,” says Cedric King, 37, of waking up at Walter Reed in August 2012 after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan. The Army master sergeant quickly sank into depression—until his daughters Amari, 11, and Khamya, 7, made him try swimming. It felt like drowning at first, he says, but “I needed to know that I could get back to everything I did before.”
“I felt like my legs had been taken without my permission,” says Cedric King, 37, of waking up at Walter Reed in August 2012 after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan. The Army master sergeant quickly sank into depression—until his daughters Amari, 11, and Khamya, 7, made him try swimming. It felt like drowning at first, he says, but “I needed to know that I could get back to everything I did before.”James Nachtwey for TIME
“I felt like my legs had been taken without my permission,” says Cedric King, 37, of waking up at Walter Reed in August 2012 after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan. The Army master sergeant quickly sank into depression—until his daughters Amari, 11, and Khamya, 7, made him try swimming. It felt like drowning at first, he says, but “I needed to know that I could get back to everything I did before.”
Before he started swimming at a Walter Reed pool, above, King would often fall asleep to audio of motivational speakers and Bible verses and play around on his iPad, searching for inspiration and a new talent. On a whim, he typed in “double amputee running” and was struck by videos of Scott Rigsby, a double-leg-amputee triathlete. “It felt so good to see that was possible,” he says. “I was like, Man, maybe this is what I’m supposed to do.”
In addition to strength training at a Walter Reed gym, left, King ran numerous practice races, each time thinking, “I’m not as fast as I thought I was going to be, but I can get faster.” He finished the 2014 Boston Marathon in just over 6 hours (despite “agonizing” pain), then followed it with a Half Ironman race in September, the New York City marathon in November, and a series of motivational speaking gigs. Today, King calls his condition “a gift,” because it gave his life purpose. “There’s no reason I’m alive,” he says, “other than to show people the impossible really isn’t impossible.”
When King got prosthetic legs in November 2012, he says he was “discouraged” because he couldn’t walk for more than 10 minutes at a time. But after five months of practice, he graduated to running blades. King took his first jog at one of Walter Reed’s indoor tracks, below, while watching coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. He vowed to run it next year.
When Wayne Waldon started his recovery process, “I couldn’t stand on my leg and walk without being in pain and drenched in sweat,” says the retired Army captain, 32, who lost his right leg in combat in Baghdad. Seven years and countless exercises later—including core-­strengthening jackknives, above—Waldon not only walks, but he’s also an adaptive-­snowboarding champion. “The prosthetic leg doesn’t feel stuck to me anymore,” he says. “It has become part of me.”
After Army Specialist Stephanie Morris, 25, suffered a leg and foot injury in an attack on June 18, 2013, at a bus stop in Bagram, Afghanistan, doctors doubted she would ever run again. “My self-­esteem shot way down,” says Morris, who underwent treatment for anger issues and PTSD. Now she works out and does physical therapy, as seen here. Last month she ran the Army Ten-Miler. “I have to do it for them,” she says of friends she lost in the attack.
Retired Navy hospital corpsman Jose Ramos, 34, who lost his arm in a July 28, 2004, rocket attack in Iraq, loves marathons and triathlons. “Running is what I do to relax,” he says. But Ramos, who is eyeing the 2016 Paralympics, struggles to transition from swimming to biking with his prosthetic arm; here, he’s working with experts to fashion a bike with a prosthesis already attached.
Army Staff Sergeant Allan Armstrong, 30, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times and had just finished training to go to Korea when an October 2013 motorcycle crash in South Carolina resulted in a right-leg amputation. At first he thought he might not be able to run again, but if he learned anything from those deployments, it was resilience. Therapists at Walter Reed, especially Harvey Naranjo, encouraged the life-long runner to train for races like the 2014 Warrior Games, where he placed first in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. But family is what really keeps him motivated. “After I was injured, my older daughter’s grades dropped in school, and she was really upset, so I knew I had to get better for her,” he says. “I need to show her that I’m well now.”
Army combat medic Sergeant Adam Hartswick, 23, below, lost his legs and suffered a traumatic brain injury on May 14, 2013, when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan while treating wounded soldiers. A few months ago he started virtual-­reality therapy, in which he uses his prosthetic legs to move a boat through a slalom course, among other exercises. “I’m making steady progress,” he says. “I’ve become a great walker.”
“I felt like my legs had been taken without my permission,” says Cedric King, 37, of waking up at Walter Reed in August
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James Nachtwey for TIME
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Life After War: James Nachtwey's Photographs From Walter Reed

Nov 06, 2014

Last week, TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md, to photograph combat veterans and wounded soldiers recovering at the facility.

"He was patient enough to listen to what happened to me," says Army Master Sergeant Cedric King, a bilateral leg amputee and the main subject of a ten-page photo essay published in this week's TIME magazine. "When it was time to get his shot, he explained exactly what he wanted."

In August 2012, King woke up in the Walter Reed Bethesda to his mother and wife beside his bed. Both his legs had been amputated. A week before, King was on a combat patrol in an explosive-making factory in Afghanistan when insurgents attacked. While trying to get his fellow soldiers to safety, King stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED), which immediately threw him out into the air and blew his legs off.

King, from Norlina, N.C., appears confident and comfortable in front of the camera. He believes his injuries had gifted him strength and wants his family as well as the readers to see his positivity.

“It’s not about what happened to you, but what happens in you,” King says.

Army master sergeant Cedric King finished his first New York City Marathon on Nov. 2—despite breaking his prosthetic legs twice. Lindsay Deckard 

One year after his injuries, King began running. Last Sunday, he took up the challenge to run the New York City Marathon, during which his prosthetics broke in Brooklyn, forcing him to stop and get them fixed.

His make-or-break moment came when he was close to the 59th Street Bridge. Volunteers have already started cleaning the streets and getting ready to go home. King was exhausted, both his mind and his body.

“I kneeled down the bridge and I just started to pray,” King said. “I just put one foot in front of the other. That was the only thing I could do.”

After 10 hours, He was among the last 10 people to kiss the finish line.

The New York City Marathon was not his first marathon. In April this year, King completed the Boston Marathon and participated in a Ironman 70.3 competition in Georgia in September.

King is going to retire from the military and leave Walter Reed in July, 2015. He plans to run about 400 miles from Walter Reed to North Carolina in two and a half months to raise funds for a new home.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

With reporting by Olivia B. Waxman from Bethesda, Md.

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