By Steve Lewis
SAN DIEGO, CA — Tristan Wyatt, an Army veteran whose combat wounds led to the loss of a leg, openly admits he has a “personal stake” in his position as chief of Prosthetic and Sensory Aids for the VA San Diego Healthcare System
“People who work at VA always have their hearts in the right place, but you have an alternative perspective as a user of the system,” Wyatt explains.
In his position, which he assumed at age 31, he oversees the fabrication of artificial limbs, custom bracing and procurement of millions of dollars of durable medical equipment.
Wyatt was injured in Iraq in August 2003 when a projectile launched by insurgents essentially severed his leg at the knee. He was 20 years old and had achieved the rank of E3 with 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He notes that he had “absolutely no medical experience” at the time, aside from a combat medical course.
His eventual employment at VA “just happened organically,” he recounts. “As I was getting ready to get out of Walter Reed, I had the impression they feel what you’re going through when you are newly injured. They did a really good job, giving as much outreach as possible.”
Still, Wyatt said, he “sat on my butt for six months,” and then realized he needed to do something productive before that became a habit. “It was the best thing I ever did in my life — getting out of that comfort zone and giving it a shot,” he declares.
Wyatt started off in a low-level administrative position, but it gave him the opportunity to get a taste of all the different VA departments and a feel for what he wanted to do. “Because I was young and not married, I had the luxury to move around a lot,” he adds.
He subsequently moved to San Diego under the Veteran Benefits Administration and got a taste of what they do but decided it was not his cup of tea. “I then applied for an internship program with prosthetics, which I thought was fitting because I was a user,” he explains. “I had a good experience in Manhattan, and then a supervisor position opened up in San Diego and then, lo and behold, the chief moved up and I was able to move into his position. It was a combination of good luck and being mobile.”
None of this was in his plans when he enlisted, Wyatt notes.
“I joined the military not long after 9-11: That was the motivation,” he recalls. “I’m not sure I would have joined if it were not a time of war, but I had just gotten out of high school and the country had been so good to me I probably would have felt guilty if I had not enlisted.”
A battle in Fallujah ended all of that. “The projectile that hit me in the knee during the course of the firefight essentially just ripped my leg off,” he said.
He said he struggled with maintaining a positive attitude after injury. “To be honest, I had a ‘one day at a time’ attitude” he says. “There was no master philosophy; you wake up and you try to get a little further than you did the day before.”
Wyatt describes his mission at the VA as a double-edged sword. “I see it from different perspectives — from the personal perspective of being a vet and wanting to contribute, and then from the perspective of a particular demographic, an amputee using the system and relying on it,” he explains “It’s good in the sense that I never show up to work with my heart in the wrong place. If I had not been an amputee it would still be a fulfilling thing to do.”
Wyatt notes that he has often been included on committees that set up policies and procedures, “And I imagine they are not just requisitioning me for my experience, but probably from the perspective of an end-user and policymaker, because I bring an extra dimension.”
He said he finds that improving the system is rewarding. “It is something close to my heart; it affects me and my friends, people I was injured with,” he shares. “If I see I’m doing a good job affecting the lives of the newly injured in a positive way, that’s all the incentive I need. As long as I’m walking through the door I’m going to work hard at this.”
And even though he has achieved an important position in a short period of time, Wyatt is not without even loftier goals for the future. “I would eventually like to someday work out of the headquarters building where I can make policy and further support the field once I put my years in here,” he says, “But there is still a lot more to be seen and experienced here.”