CHULA VISTA, Calif. – There was a dicey moment when Officer Christopher Lawrence jumped a fence to assist a fellow cop on a foot pursuit.
Lawrence, a 31-year-old former Camp Pendleton Marine, has one foot. The rookie cop vaulted the fence and landed hard on his prosthetic right leg. Crunch. The metal limb broke under the weight of his gear.
Lawrence thought, “Whoa! I’m going to have to see someone about that.”
It’s been a long road since August 2007, when a bomb blew apart his leg during his deployment in Iraq, leading to amputation below the knee. But, for the past four months, he has been working the beat as a full-fledged Chula Vista police officer, defying the odds facing military amputees who want to stay in uniform.
“The top things in my life for pride: becoming a Marine, becoming a dad and being a Chula Vista officer,” Lawrence said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
It’s a small fraternity of service members who have done it — succeeded in either staying in the active-duty military or translating their skills to civilian law enforcement.
In 2005, Army Capt. David Rozelle became the first military amputee to go back into a combat zone. Last March, double amputee Matias Ferreira was sworn in as a full-service deputy sheriff on Long Island. And, in 2015, Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Lavery became the first Special Forces soldier to return to combat as an above-the-knee amputee.
More than 1,700 service members have lost limbs in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, said Military Health System figures. A lower-limb amputation became one of the signature injuries of those wars.
As the Afghanistan war tapered off, 2016 became the first year since 2001 with no combat-related amputations for U.S. troops.
Research suggests that just a trickle remained on active duty. One 2010 study of U.S. soldier amputees found a little more than 16 percent were allowed to stay in the military.
And it’s hard to measure how many found meaningful employment back in civilian life.
Police Chief Roxana Kennedy said she was silently rooting for Lawrence as he went through the police academy. “I thought he was so inspiring,” she said. “I figured if he went through the process, and he could pass all the testing, I’d be more than willing to give him a shot.”
Lawrence had detours and roadblocks on his journey to a new uniform.
After his injury, the young Marine tried walking again after six months in a hospital bed. His foot was shredded — in addition to injuries on the other leg, an arm and internal wounds.
“It was right around my 21st birthday. … It was like a foot, and then it turned into a football. It became this big mass,” he recalled.
The doctors told him that bones can heal, but soft-tissue damage is complicated.
“They said ‘We could fuse it, and you can have your foot.’ But I’d have to use a walker for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t be able to stay in the Marine Corps. I’d never be able to run.”
In March 2008, Lawrence made the decision: Cut it off.
But he didn’t stay in the Marine Corps. The guy who enlisted at age 17 didn’t want to be a behind-the-scenes Marine. And, even if he could return to combat, he worried he would be a liability.
But he was still a young man. “I still wanted to do something,” Lawrence said.
Convincing police departments that he was fit for duty wasn’t so easy. He put in applications. Four departments said no.
But he decide he would use his GI Bill to attend Southwestern College’s police academy. It was a gamble: Maybe no one would hire him.
The academy instructor who led the PT sessions was a Chula Vista officer. He became the pace car for Lawrence, who knew that he wasn’t the fastest recruit — but he was damned if he would be the slowest.
He ran with a “regular” leg — not a specialized running leg, sometimes called a blade. He, and others, knew that there would be no time during a foot chase to swap out prosthetics.
“It hurt,” said Lawrence, who stands over 6 feet tall and weighs about 200 pounds. “But that’s what I did. I did 11 months like that.”
People noticed. He got a job offer before he finished the academy in June 2017. He was able to graduate in a Chula Vista police uniform. It was almost exactly 10 years after his injury.
The public hasn’t made an issue of his right leg. It’s possible people don’t notice, with his pants and boot hiding the missing portion.
“Most of the time, people are looking at the badge and uniform,” he said.