Backstory: Leaping tall stereotypes in a single bound

A state trooper redefines the parameters of 'disability.'

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If he'd lost his leg in a war, or in a high-speed chase, or in a shootout with a fugitive, there might have been easy glory for New York State Trooper Matt Swartz.

But the only remarkable thing about the day his life changed was its perfect ordinariness. He was driving his wife, Alison, to work on a chilly fall morning, winding past hay fields on a country road he traveled every day here in upstate New York. At 7:34 a.m., a man made a sudden left into the driver's side of Mr. Swartz's pickup. The truck flipped. Swartz was thrown out a window. His left leg was so badly injured that doctors decided to amputate.

"Just a plain old stupid accident," Swartz would say later.

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If he were to find redemption in the randomness, if he were to defy the expectations of doctors and make New York State Police history, he would have to search inside himself.

***

For Swartz, police work always seemed less choice than destiny. Both his parents were small-town cops. If he was out with his dad on an errand and an emergency call came in, his father didn't bother to deposit his son at home first. While other kids were playing ball or riding bikes, Matt was watching from the backseat as his father hosed down fires or broke up bar fights.

In high school, he thought life might take him in other directions. He aced classes in mechanical drawing and building design, and worked construction in the summer. By 10th grade, he knew he wanted to be an architect. But there was no money for college.

He enlisted in the Air National Guard in 1990 when a recruiter told him about the civil engineering corps. After just a day in uniform, however, superiors told him there were no engineering vacancies. So he chose the one job he'd been around as a kid, and served as a police officer in the military for six years, three on active duty.

Swartz had already worked at a half-dozen small upstate police departments by 1999, when he scored high enough for admission to the State Police academy. He was assigned to Troop G, in the same rural county west of Albany where he grew up, and patrolled towns too small to have their own police departments.

Backup was often 30 minutes or more away. So he fine-tuned a cock-eyed stare – "a half a breath away from crazy," he called it – intimidating enough to subdue a room full of felons. Or so he hoped. Because some days, all alone out on the back roads, he felt like a one-man army.

***

Swartz was wiry and strong. He'd been a hurdler and high jumper in high school. Until the accident, in November 2004, few things gave him a bigger rush than chasing a wanted man through the woods, battling blazes as a volunteer firefighter, or dragging a dummy across a freezing river while training with a rescue team.

Now his once-muscular left leg ended in an angry stump five inches below the knee: it looked, he thought, like a loaf of bread. When the gravity of the amputation dawned on him, in the hospital, he found himself more contemplative than panic-stricken.

"It was kind of like a quiet solitude," he recalls. "It was, 'OK, what's next? How am I going to get past this?' "

He looked at his body with the brass-tacks pragmatism of a contractor surveying a hurricane-damaged house: It was a wreck, to be sure, but one that the right combination of tools, supplies, and sweat might just rebuild. This was a kind of architecture he'd never dreamed of in high school.

In January 2005, a few weeks after his release from the hospital, the State Police approved him for a disability retirement. But Swartz asked to hold off. He said he wanted to try to return to work.

"Let's see what happens, Matt," Swartz recallsone of his bosses saying.

His superiors knew as well as Swartz did that there is no light duty for state police. Regulations specify that every trooper be fit for "full and strenuous duty." Swartz couldn't so much as stand without a walker.

People saw he'd need time to think. Troopers donated vacation days to a pool so he could pay spiraling medical bills as he was fitted for a prosthetic leg and learned to walk again.

"Many of us in the state police thought at the time that his career was over," recalls Capt. William Sprague, a supervisor several steps up the chain of command. "None of us knew the courage and heart this man had."

To relieve the social strain when old friends visited, Swartz took to jokingly calling himself "goofy" and "stumpy." But to his bosses, his message was different and serious. If he couldn't wrestle a suspect to the ground, climb a fence, dash through a field, or carry a crash victim to an ambulance, then he was out – fair and square. All he wanted, he said, was a chance.

His approach to rehabilitation was methodical. He drew up lists of goals – "balance time on leg: 30 sec ... sprint 40 yds ... in+out of car really fast ... 100 lb backpack upstairs" – and worked, sometimes through tears, until he nailed them.

By March 2005, he was walking without a cane. By May, he was swimming. By June, he was running on a treadmill. When he and his physical therapist, Dawn Evans, noticed that he'd yet to sling a 140-pound body over his shoulders – a so-called "buddy carry" – Swartz squatted, grabbed her around the legs and ran her in circles around the gym.

"When you can run a mile-and-a-half," Captain Sprague told him on the phone one day, "you call me."

Swartz called in July, and the two started jogging on a local school track. "You couldn't help but be drawn into his campaign to get his job back," Sprague says. "He had a single purpose, and he devoted every ounce of his being to it."

"By September," he adds, "I couldn't catch him."

Swartz ran a 5K later that month and made sure his bosses saw the photo in the paper.

In his downtime, he surfed the Web for stories about American soldiers who'd lost limbs in Iraq. Many were reenlisting, he discovered. A few were returning to the front lines. The soldiers, young and driven, were shattering expectations – not least Swartz's own – about the prospects for a normal life after limb loss. Swartz began documenting his progress in a photo album emblazoned with an antique American flag.

In October 2005, Swartz filed papers to return to duty. He expected a long wait. He half-dreaded a court fight. He'd done enough research in the 11 months since the crash to know that never in the New York State Police's 88-year history had an amputee returned to full and strenuous duty.

Nearly as worrisome was that he'd never been anything but an average trooper. He'd made no headline-grabbing arrests. He wrote fewer traffic tickets than a lot of guys in his barracks.

"I know I'm not God's gift to police work," he remembers thinking.

The State Police superintendent, Wayne E. Bennett, himself a veteran of Troop G, had gotten a final assessment of Swartz on the Friday of Columbus Day Weekend 2005. A state-contracted physician had gone through a checklist and deemed Swartz capable of every duty of a state trooper, from directing traffic in bad weather to subduing unruly suspects. That evening, Bennett sent word from Albany: Swartz was to report to work Monday morning.

A group of troopers took him out to breakfast to celebrate. "Run, Forrest, Run," one of them teased, glimpsing parallels to the come-from-behind hero of "Forrest Gump."

Swartz's first year back, he says, has had its share of "bad leg days." But he hides those struggles from his fellow troopers, believing some battles should be fought alone. The people he talks to about his leg are elsewhere. Soldiers with legs blown off in Iraq. Other police amputees, from agencies as far afield as Arizona and Michigan. His own research suggests perhaps 40 police officers nationwide have returned to full duty after amputations. Many heard his story and called – some for tips, others just to vent.

This winter, Swartz begins training as a ski instructor. He wants to "pay back," he says, and hopes to volunteer with a ski program in the Catskills for disabled children and soldiers.

***

The 19-trooper Fonda Barracks occupies a square building next door to a John Deere tractor dealership, in the gray-green hills of the Mohawk Valley. On one recent afternoon, Trooper Swartz put on his gray uniform and rode out into the rolling landscape of barns and hay fields. He stopped cars for speeding and expired inspection stickers, then approached with the puffed-up swagger of a movie cop, cock-eyed stare at the ready. It was hard to imagine anyone guessing that the lower half of one leg was snapped-on carbon fiber and titanium.

"Typical day," he said during a break in the action, a small smile on his lips. "Riding around, waiting for something to happen."

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