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Wounded warrior fighting for innovative surgery

From Charley Keyes, CNN National Security Unit
  • Army Chief Warrant Officer Romy Camargo wounded in Afghanistan in 2008
  • Wound left him paralyzed from the neck down
  • Camargo wants Army to approve leading-edge surgery from doctor in Portugal
  • Procedure not approved in the United States, according to military officials

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Army Chief Warrant Officer Romy Camargo is a never-quit kind of guy.

He was a fighter when he joined the Army at 19. He was an elite fighter when he later joined the Special Forces. He was a seasoned fighter on his third tour in Afghanistan in 2008 -- when he was wounded.

"As we were moving out when we came under a pretty vicious ambush," Camargo told CNN on a visit to his Tampa home on Wednesday. "I was shot in the back of the head."

That wound left him paralyzed from the neck down. But Camargo is still in uniform and determined to stay that way. He attitude is upbeat and he's ready to keep fighting.

"Yes, my goal is to stay on active duty. It's basically been 15-and-a-half great years," he said.

His latest battle is for the Army to approve his request to get leading-edge surgery developed by a doctor in Portugal. The procedure takes nerve cells from a person's nose and transplants them to the injured spine. It is not an approved procedure in the United States, according to military officials.

Romy and his wife, Gabriela, have done the research and are convinced that the procedure by Dr. Carlos Lima in Lisbon, Portugal, can help return some feeling and sensation to Romy's body and limbs.

Both say that Army permission to proceed -- and approve an estimated $60,000 price tag -- is not just about Romy. "I think this is a great opportunity for him," Gabriela Camargo said. "Today it is going to be Romy Camardo. But later it will be, as he says, the other wounded warriors."

"If I can open the door for all the other injured soldiers who come behind me then I will do it," Camargo said.

Dr. Lima said he thinks the procedure, combined with intensive physical therapy can help Camargo.

"One thing I told him is that we can have a lot of hope in the procedure, but we don't want to hype the procedure," Dr. Lima said, adding that any improvement would take time.

"It's important to understand that it makes no sense for you to have some cells in the spinal cord injury and hope the next day that people will jump," Dr. Lima said. "The recovery will be slow. It will be step-by-step."

Camargo says the procedure gives him a chance to gain back movement and sensation and recently made his case to an Army panel.

Camargo spends his days at home outside Tampa with his wife and two children, close enough for him to keep in touch with his buddies posted to Special Operations Command. He also spends time counseling other wounded service members. And like the fighter he is, he is already prepared for the next round if the Army refuses his request for the surgery.

"I already have my rebuttal, already played out in my head -- what I'm willing to bring up if they say no," Camargo said.

As for the dangers of such an operation, Camargo sees it as just another mission.

"I was once told that Special Forces may the first ones into a mission. I guess this is the mission I will be sent on for all the other soliders."

CNN's Barbara Starr and Jennifer Rizzo contributed to this report