Soldier on

Trilateral Amputee Cameron Clapp makes the best of life taking advantage of the latest prosthetics

Photo Illustration by David Robert and David Jayne

Gracefully navigating his way through the Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Education Fair at John Ascuaga’s Nugget on Feb. 6, triple amputee Cameron Clapp waves across the room to Randy Richardson, the first prosthetic expert to fit him with an artificial arm. Surrounded by peers, Clapp speaks candidly about his intense desire to walk again after a freak accident claimed both his legs, his right arm and nearly his life.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, walking was as natural for the active teenager as a baby taking its first steps. Today, Clapp has endured tragedy and trauma to become a walking miracle who defied death, doctors and the odds to stand on the threshold of his 18th birthday.

“I was going through so much rehabilitating,” Clapp recalls. “All I wanted to do was walk. So I said, ‘screw the arm,’ because it didn’t feel like a part of me. Neither did the legs, but I wanted to be mobile, be tall, walk around and be my old self.”

At the time, however, such mobility was not a reality. Clapp would fall on the ground after taking only one or two steps. He had to build back his strength and once again learn how to balance.

“It’s basically learning how to walk again, because you really are,” he says. “I came to this educational fair two years ago, and Randy says, ‘Let’s see you walk.’ I had my tall legs on, and my whole family with me. At every angle, somebody’s surrounding me, ready to catch me. I had to start off on stubbies; sockets, little plastic things with a heel. That’s when I started to be complete again.”

With courage and conviction, the free-spirited Clapp, with tousled, surfer-blond hair and the face to match, launches into the harrowing story he’s told many times—that he’ll always have to tell.

“I was a typical teenager, just being stupid,” he said. “If I lived over again, I wouldn’t do anything differently. But the downer is, I got hit by a train. I lost 80 percent of my blood. I was on foot, probably sprawled out on the tracks. I was not trying to commit suicide or any bullshit like that. It’s pretty horrible how I placed myself there.”

Clapp interrupts himself to show off his bionics.

“These are the frontier of lower-extremity prosthetics,” he says, resting his leg on his shoulder.

The artificial appendages are called C-legs, and they have to be charged every night. There is a computer chip in the knee of each leg, and adjustments can be made by hooking the leg up to a laptop via a wire. The chip controls the hydraulic unit, using sensors located all over the leg. Information is sent back 50 times a second.

“It reads the level of surface I’m on and adjusts, causing it to expand, [with] resistance.”

He has had little resistance, though, to resuming his active life. Leading the way outside, Clapp quickly scales the “little cement jungle” directly underneath Interstate 80’s eastbound lanes. “Pretty big slope, huh?” he notes fearlessly, halfway up. “It’s harder to go up than down.” Clapp grasps the chain-link fence and begins a controlled descent, saying, “This is the ultimate test.” He topples over, curses, gets up and reshuffles his footing. He zigzags back down to the sidewalk with an effortless grin.

An urban warrior, Clapp lived across from the train tracks in Grover Beach, Calif., and admits to drinking heavily with friends four nights after 9/11.

Photo By David Robert

“It was the day President Bush asked people to light candles for those who died. I went to a party and [got] pretty hammered. Cops broke it up. We went to another party, then back to my neighbor’s house and made ourselves a drink. Around 3 a.m., I stepped outside to get a fresh breath of air. We’d made this little makeshift memorial in the front yard, with a flag, spotlight and a dozen candles on the driveway. Some of the candles had gone out, so I lit them. That’s the last thing I remember.”

Distraught over the thousands of deaths at the hands of terrorists, Clapp vaguely recollects walking to the tracks wanting “a further perspective.” Twin brother Jesse began searching less than 10 minutes after Cameron disappeared. Jesse realized the train had stopped. No whistle. Back in the house. Outside. Emergency vehicles. Couldn’t see in the dark.

“Thank God,” says Cameron. “I don’t know how I survived. My body just put itself into shock, shut down, and I pulled through.”

Recounting that fateful night reveals Clapp’s true story, that of a boy whose biggest dream was to fight for his country, and of the ultimate and unending fallout from the darkest day in contemporary American history.

“One of the first things out of my mouth when I woke up was, ‘Did we catch that fucker yet?"’ he recalls, referring to Osama bin Laden. “My dream was to be a soldier, ‘cause I’ve always, always, always wanted to be a Marine when I turned 18, and dedicate my life for the country.

“Maybe I’m not serving my country, but I’m showing the whole world that I’m a soldier; not with training, learning how to kill people, but helping people. Life goes on, and I hope to fulfill my goals.”

That winning spirit impelled Clapp to graduate a semester early and compete in swimming and running events in the 2002 and 2003 Endeavor Games, where he won the gold medal in the 100- and 200-meter races. Clapp is buoyed by support from family and other amputees, but initially, doctors gave a grim prognosis.

“When the doctor saw Cameron and the severity of his amputations, he said, ‘He might walk on graduation, on his wedding day, but in reality, he’s probably going to spend most of his time in a wheelchair,'” says stepfather Bill Crane.

“He was very discouraging, and never gave us any kind of hope,” says mom, Berny. “We just didn’t accept that, so we researched prosthetics.”

Her strength is evident now, but Berny can’t shake the memory of the news that her son’s life was irretrievably shattered.

“The police came and knocked on our door,” she says. “Like in the movies.”

“It was the most blood-curdling scream I’ve ever heard,” adds Bill.

“I didn’t know I could do that,” says Berny, whose flesh-and-blood survived surgery and lay comatose. “In the hospital, it crossed both our minds that it would be better if he died. We couldn’t imagine what life would be like for him. But that was brief because you want to do anything and everything for your child. When he woke up, he said, ‘Have we gone to war?’ And Bill said ‘No.’ And Cameron said, ‘Those pussies.'”

The family breathes a collective sigh, smiling at that story now. Clapp remains focused on learning to drive, adapting to new limbs as he matures and, typically, girls. He flashes a radiant smile. One tin soldier. A warrior.

With his left hand, Clapp picks up a reporter’s notebook and a red pen, and writes: Cameron is a soldier!!!