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Former Sen. Dole's rehab inspires troops

By Shawna Shepherd, CNN White House Producer
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Bob Dole's rehab inspires soldiers
  • Dole is recovering from knee surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center
  • Troops say Dole inspires them daily with kindness, humor
  • World War II injury in 1945 left Dole's right arm paralyzed

Washington (CNN) -- One of the most famous veterans of the "Greatest Generation" has joined the ranks of recently injured members of the military at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Former Sen. Bob Dole was so badly wounded 65 years ago that he almost didn't make it off the battlefield. Now, he is recovering from surgery alongside troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm just sort of one of the group. We show up at 10 o'clock and do our stuff," Dole said as he pedaled a stationary bike during a morning physical therapy session.

Dole, who turns 87 this month, is at Walter Reed for rehabilitation connected to knee replacement surgery. A bout with pneumonia lengthened his post-op recuperation, so he's been with the young troops since they arrived from the battlefield.

"I've been here long enough to watch when they first came in, and then to see them today. Whether it's Lee or Chris or Levi, it's amazing," Dole said, as he watches Army Spc. Levi Crawford do a step exercise. "He couldn't stand up on that step yesterday."

As a veteran-turned-lawmaker, Dole has advocated for the nation's veterans throughout his career, including serving as co-chair of a 2007 presidential commission that investigated shoddy conditions at Walter Reed, but he has nothing but praise for the medical care he has seen.

He marvels at the stark contrast between treatment today and his own experience in 1945, which left his right arm paralyzed.

"These modern medical miracles, you see them every day here," he said. "If they're wounded on one day, they can be in Walter Reed the third day. It took me nine hours to get off a battlefield. It took me weeks to get home."

Dole sympathizes with Air Force Sgt. Christopher Curtis, 32, who was in dire shape after his CV-22 Osprey crashed in Afghanistan back in April.

"I couldn't move. I was in a body cast," Dole said. "That's all behind me, but it does give you pause. I think about, 'Jiminy - was I ever in as bad as shape as Chris?'"

Curtis said recovering alongside Dole has inspired him.

"Knowing that I'm going through what (Dole) went through...I'm not in a full body cast or anything like that," he said. "They've basically eliminated that factor and here I am already in rehab (thanks to) surgeries and advanced technologies."

The servicemembers said that when Dole comes to physical therapy, he always talks to everyone in the room, including family members who are always by their side -- just like his mother was there for him 65 years ago.

While opinions about wars may change, Dole said, a family's support is "one of those values that never changes."

Everyone welcomes the former senator's wise-cracking sense of humor.

"He's a very funny guy, so he keeps everybody around him laughing and in good spirits," Curtis said.

Dole is even willing to take a few jabs at himself and his failed run for president in 1996.

After Curtis told him he voted for him for president, Dole called him "a smart fella," then deadpanned, "I finally found somebody that voted for me."

Dole said he doesn't dwell on how close he came to becoming president.

"You've got to move on, you know. Life's short you got to keep pushing and realize we live in a great country," he said. "One chapter ends and another chapter starts. You keep going."

Army Sgt. Lee Langley, 26, said knowing how much Dole has accomplished after being seriously wounded on the battlefield gives him, and troops with more severe injuries than his, hope.

"It just means that I have all the opportunities in the world," Langley said. "A lot of people are paralyzed, a lot of people don't have legs or arms, but they can still have a good life afterwards."

Surrounded by his young friends at the end of physical therapy, Dole makes a few wisecracks about age with Crawford, Curtis, and Langley like he's one of the group.

"This is what America is all about, right here," Dole said, pointing to the young troops.