WASHINGTON -- "It smells good in here already," a visitor to "Fort Independence" said as she walked into the kitchen where amputees sharpen their culinary skills at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
Fort Independence is a mock apartment set up in the hospital's occupational-therapy department to train newly disabled patients how to cook, get around an apartment safely, clean, and other skills they need to relearn to live alone after being discharged from the hospital.
What the visitor smelled was "my grandmother Fairbanks' pot roast recipe," said Capt. Jonathan Kuniholm, who lost part of his right arm on New Year's morning 2005 when an improvised explosive device exploded while he was on foot patrol in Haditha, Iraq.
Kuniholm said cooking classes for amputees is "a great idea."
"It's a good way to get people to test their skills or learn some new skills in preparing food," he said. "It's also a good way for all the patients to get to know each other a little bit better."
In Iraq, Kuniholm was assigned to Company C, 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, which is part of the 4th Marine Division.
While the aroma of Kuniholm's grandmother's pot roast permeated the kitchen, Army Sgt. Robert W. Blikle used his right hand to push a potato down on two nails to steady it on a chopping board. He used a vegetable peeler to peel one side, then turned it over, stuck it back on the nails, and peeled the other side.
Blikle was using only his right hand because an improvised explosive device blew off his left hand in Iraq in March, while he was serving with B Battery, 1st Battalion, 78th Field Artillery, South Carolina National Guard. He also suffered shrapnel wounds in his head above his eyes and on his right arm.
Blikle said taking cooking classes in Fort Independence "gives you a little taste of what you have to prepare for when you get back home."
Trish Autery watched silently as her son, Lance Cpl. Ryan A. Autery, 20, used his prosthetic hand to hold a piece of potato while he cut it with his other hand.
"Since I just got my (prosthetic) arm, I'm learning things slowly," Autery said. "I'm trying to integrate using my prosthetic arm, but cutting potatoes was kind of difficult because they were wet and slippery.
"This is a good thing because it teaches us how to be able to cook for ourselves if we live alone," he noted. "It's just another way of teaching how to work with one hand and one prosthetic hand."
"I think it's a wonderful idea because they need to be able to learn to do this stuff by themselves instead of just calling pizza delivery," Trish Autery said. "You've got to have some nourishing food every once in a while."
The three service members prepared pot roast, mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. Normally four to seven patients attend cooking classes Fort Independence.
The kitchen is outfitted with a stove, microwave, dishwasher, washer and dryer, irons and ironing boards. The mock apartment is also outfitted with a bedroom, bathroom and living room with a television, computer and other amenities.
Kristi Say, an occupational therapist, said the biggest goals of Fort Independence are trying to increase the amputees' independence and safety. "This isn't really teaching them to cook, but more so retraining," she said.
She noted they also have to make a bed, do laundry, and fold clothes and towels. "In the bathroom, they have to show us that they can safely and independently get in and out of the bathtub, on and off the toilet," she continued.
Kitchen safety issues might include "things like instead of carrying something across the room, they might put it on a wheeled cart and push it across the room," Say said. "We also have brooms, dust pans, mops, and they have to totally clean up after they cook."
"We're using their prostheses with real-life tasks that they'll do when they leave here," said Army Capt. Jon Verdoni, who is in charge of the amputee section of the occupational therapy department. "It doesn't get more real than this."
Verdoni said the more cooking classes that are held, the better the meals get. "We had a student here about three weeks ago who was a professional chef on the outside," he said. "For his last week here he did smoked chicken enchiladas. It was awesome."
Verdoni said he and Say try to keep the classes structured, but it's not a regimented activity. "It's not like a military activity; we want the informalities, camaraderie and socialization, which is a goal in itself to get these guys socializing again in a proper manner," he said.