When Lt. Col. David Rozelle ’95 redeployed to Iraq in 2004, he was the first amputee in recent military history to return to active command on the same battlefield, less than 18 months after a land mine tore off his right foot. Today, he is serving in Afghanistan, and it will be his final tour before moving into retirement.
Rozelle has been awarded three campaign ribbons, the Purple Heart and two Bronze Star medals, one with a “V” for valor in combat. But if you walked into the Rozelle family’s home today, you wouldn’t see a display of these recognitions. What you would see, however, is a different award, from Davidson, hanging on the wall—the John W. Kuykendall Award for Community Service presented to Rozelle at his 20th class reunion in 2015.
“Davidson is where I got my spark,” he said.
Rozelle visited Davidson as a high school junior—a surprise stop, arranged by his dad, during a tour of east coast colleges. His dad planned for an overnight visit, and it sealed the deal.
“Nothing compared to Davidson from the rest of my tour, which included Duke, Chapel Hill, Georgetown and Princeton, among others,” Rozelle said. “It was disappointment after disappointment.”
Rozelle was an involved student, devoted to his friendships and to service. Back in high school, he was committed to the military path, but after he started wearing glasses, the option to fly was out, so he decided he might pursue anthropology. That would still allow him to travel and write, two of his academic and personal passions.
“A few anthropologists visited one of my classes my very first semester,” recalled Rozelle. “They were skeletons of men with dirty clothes who spent 30 minutes telling us about the horrible conditions they live in and the hard work they do. That very day, I went to the English department and changed my major.”
The military spark returned to Rozelle, however, thanks to the influence of his roommate and hallmate, both with fathers who had achieved high-ranking positions in the service.
“I joined ROTC and attended airborne school in Fort Benning, Georgia,” he said. “Sending a 19-year-old to jump out of airplanes – that was like summer camp. And the rest was history. When I commissioned from Davidson, making my first salute, I figured I would do four years, continue writing, and then Condé Nast would discover me and hire me as a writer. You see how that turned out.”
Writing, and his Davidson foundation, have never taken a back seat. Rozelle insists that his men keep regular journals, and he encourages them to find a way to make community service part of their lives. He also channeled a Davidson public speaking course, including the lesson of taking a breath before opening one’s mouth, the first time he met a president of the United States.
So, what would have happened if that much anticipated “fit for duty” letter never arrived in the mail after his injury? Rozelle’s “back-up plan,” which would not feel anything like a “back-up” to most people, was to compete as a downhill skier in the Sochi Olympics.
“I had developed the first amputee ski team, and I worked with the US Olympic committee so injured guys on active duty could compete in the Olympics,” he said.
Rozelle knew, and his wife, Kim, reminded him, that if he didn’t go back, he would have spent the rest of his life wishing he had.
“Sometimes even the bravest need a push,” said Rozelle. “My wife has always been that for me. Some might think she just doesn’t want me around.”
Although the injury took place 16 years ago, it is ever-present, every day.
“The worst part of every day is putting my leg on,” he said. “People probably assume I’m always positive, but I am sad every morning when I wake up and have to do that. But I also know that that will be the worst part of my day. My whole life is about setting a goal, meeting that goal, and setting the next goal.”
Rozelle is already setting goals for his post-Army days. First up: training for the Army 10-miler in October. It isn’t safe for him to run and train in Afghanistan, so he can begin training once he gets home.
Chapter 10 of Rozelle’s book, “Back in Action,” is called “Taking My Foot Does Not Mean Taking My Life.” It seems this is the theme of a life well lived—an American hero’s life, with so much more to come.
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