Once he realized everyone was OK, Lance Thornton let himself relax a little bit.
“I looked around the Humvee and saw that no one was hurt,” Thornton said. “To be real honest about it, I started laughing.”
The improvised explosive device (IED) exploded just as Thornton and the security convoy he was leading came over a bridge on a remote road outside of Baghdad, Iraq. It was around 11 p.m. on July 26, 2007. After the blast, Thornton, who joined the U.S. Army in 2005, quickly tried to secure his radio.
“That’s when I realized something was wrong,” he said. “I was trying to hold my radio, and it just wasn’t there. I looked down and saw that my right hand was gone.”
Thornton, an Environmental Health and Safety Management major at Pittsburg State University, often gets asked what happened to him. He makes no effort to hide the prosthetic that replaced his right arm nearly five years ago.
“I don’t mind talking about it,” he said. “I’d rather people ask me than just sit and stare. I know I’d be curious if I was on the other side of it.”
It also gives him the chance to have a little fun with his classmates.
“Sometimes I tell it like it is,” he said. “Other times I tell people an alligator or shark got me. It’s pretty funny, really.”
Thornton, who lives in Stotts City, Mo., said he especially enjoys talking about it with the College of Technology faculty.
“It’s kind of like one form of therapy, really,” he said. “Everyone here is very supportive, and I know I can talk to the faculty and staff about anything. I’m very lucky to be at a place like this.”
He’s comfortable talking about how the injury has changed his life, how it has made some daily tasks more difficult. He laughs when he talks about how many drinking glasses he’s broken with the metal arm.
“It took me a while to get used to grabbing everything with my left hand,” he said. “I’m naturally right-handed, so it’s just instinct to use my right arm first. After a few broken glasses, we decided not to have glass in the house until I got used to using my left hand all of the time.”
He’ll talk about how it may affect his future professional life or how it may limit him in other ways. He’ll talk about the challenges. He’ll talk about the “bad days.”
But he’ll also talk about the good days, the dreams he’s chasing and his goals for the future.
The first thing I wanted to do when I got back was come up with a way to shoot my bow,” said Thornton, who discovered his passion for archery when he was 7 years old. “I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had to shoot.
‘Had to shoot’
“The first thing I wanted to do when I got back was come up with a way to shoot my bow,” said Thornton, who discovered his passion for archery when he was 7 years old. “I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had to shoot.”
After more than 20 surgeries to remove shrapnel from his arm and eyes, Thornton met Dell Lipe from Hanger Prosthetics in San Antonio. Together, they developed an artificial arm with a release that is triggered by Thornton’s jawbone.
“It’s very interesting, really,” Thornton said. “Basically it mounts right under my jaw, and when I’m ready to shoot, I just push the trigger with my jawbone. I never thought I’d shoot a bow like that.”
Of course, he never really saw any of this coming.
That includes his most recent adventure in Bangkok, Thailand.
Chance of a lifetime
In late October, Thornton traveled to Bangkok to compete in the Para-Archery World Championships as a member of the United States team. Up against some of the best archers in the world, Thornton found himself in what he called a “dream scenario.”
Thornton was sponsored by Bass Pro Shop in Springfield, where he works when not attending classes.
“Archery is one of my true loves in life, and to be in Thailand competing against some of the best in the world was quite an experience,” he said. “Never could I have imagined having that opportunity, and I can’t thank Bass Pro enough for their support.”
Thornton finished ninth at the World Championships, but the ranking meant very little in the end.
“I was proud of the way I competed,” he said. “I was a little nervous, but I knew I had the skill and talent to shoot with the best of them.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Thornton has now set his sights on a new archery goal: Rio 2016.
“I want to represent the United States at the Olympics,” he said. “That’s my goal, and I’m going to work very hard to get there.”
Robi Thornton, Lance’s wife, said she is proud of the way her husband has handled his injury.
“Unless you saw the prosthetic, you wouldn’t really know he has this injury,” she said. “He’s always positive, always smiling. He never once let this get him down, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be by his side. He’s the love of my life.”
Lance said he finds his strength and optimism in his wife.
“Ever since I called her to tell her what happened to me, she’s been my rock,” he said. “She never once let me feel down about this or felt sorry for us. She has my back through everything.”
Married for eight years, Lance and Robi have two children, a 3-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son.
“And you wouldn’t believe how much of an impact it has just being able to be there for them,” Lance said. “I know that some things are a little different. I can’t hold them with two hands. Playing catch is a little different. But at the end of the day, I get to be there and have them in my life. My wife and my kids are everything to me.”
Robi said that feeling is mutual.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I lost Lance,” Robi said. “Yes, I felt terrible that he lost a part of his right arm, but I’m also so very grateful that it wasn’t worse. He had been gone 10 months when the injury happened, and I was just happy to have him home.”
For as long as he can remember, Lance Thornton has had a strong affection for the military.
“There was just something about that brotherhood that appealed to me,” he said. “It’s being a part of something bigger than yourself.”
It was the devotion to country and his fellow soldiers that led him to provide cover when enemy combatant began firing upon the American troops shortly after the IED explosion, despite having just noticed that he lost his right hand. For his actions on that evening, he received the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor for heroism.
“I just did what I needed to do,” he said. “There was some small-arms firing coming at us, so I had to get off some rounds until the rest of our unit came up. It didn’t matter that I was injured. I had a job to do.”
Losing his right arm has not at all diminished his passion for the “brotherhood.”
“I have absolutely no regrets about joining the U.S Army,” he said. “It made me the man I am today. I don’t have my right arm. Big deal. That’s a very small price to pay for the opportunity to serve my country.”
That is also the philosophy that he’s carried with him ever since that warm July night in Baghdad.
“The way I see it, there are two ways to deal with something like this,” he said. “You play the cards you’re dealt, or you curl up in a ball a die. I’m too young to sit here and feel sorry for myself.
“It’s tough at times, but a lot of people deal with things much worse than this,” he said. “If you have the right mindset and stay positive, you can do anything. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.”
*Competition photography courtesy of Dean Alberga / World Archery