In his earliest memory, Sgt. Luke Cifka recalls stumbling in front of his dad as a toddler figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other.
The memory came back to him this fall when he began learning to walk again. This time, he’s recovering from a blast in Afghanistan that claimed his legs above the knees.
Last month, Cifka, 26, took his first steps with prosthetic limbs, walking without toes, calves or knees.
“All the muscles are different,” he said. “It takes a minute to get used to it, but it’s all incredible.”
The soldier from Olympia is almost seven months into his recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. The Olympian first told his story in June, eight days after the May 31 blast that changed his life.
Lately, Cifka is feeling the momentum of reuniting his family and taking those steps.
“When I look back at how I was maybe just four months ago, I wasn’t able to feed myself, I was barely able to keep track of what was going on because I was under this blanket of painkillers and anesthesia,” he said. “It’s very humbling to take a measure of how far we’ve come.”
Cifka has at least a year before he might be able to move on from the hospital, and doctors say he’ll likely need more time to heal.
But he and his wife, Kait, have ambitious goals.
They plan to attend a military ball next month at Luke’s home station in Fort Stewart, Ga., where the soldier wants to stand in front of his unit, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. An expert marksman, Luke’s aiming to return to duty as an Army instructor.
“He feels like he can do some good doing that,” said Kait, who grew up in an Army family. Her father is a senior non-commissioned officer, until recently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Cifka, a 2005 Olympia High School graduate, grew up in a family of educators. His dad is a retired Olympia School District teacher. His mom is an art professor at The Evergreen State College.
Luke and Kait Cifka have settled into an apartment on the Walter Reed grounds with their 11-month-old son, Wyatt. They’re close to doctors for Luke’s appointments, but they have a home to themselves after months living inside a hospital.
“Things just feel right,” Kait said. “It’s not an ideal situation, but we’re all together.”
They’ve lifted their spirits with laughter. When they talked about making a Facebook page for friends and family to follow the soldier’s recovery, he suggested “Help Luke Find His Legs.”
It sounded dark, but he liked it. It grew on him as he thought about ways to interpret the phrase.
“The guys in my unit are going to find it hilarious,” Cifka remembered thinking. “It’s also symbolic to the people who are helping us out, helping me get a foothold into my new chapter.”
They get by with the help of other wounded warriors coping with similar life-altering injuries. Kait says she often see amputees running, jumping rope or mentoring others.
“We’re very close with some of the other families here,” Cifka said. “It’s very unique in that everyone’s different, but we all have something in common in that our lives are never going to be the same, and we have to reinvent what we’re going to become.”
After the initial shock of the injury, the Cifkas chose to leave Wyatt in the care of Kait’s mother in Lacey while they focused on the soldier’s surgeries. They missed the child dearly.
Wyatt “was trying to crawl when he was at my mom’s, and that was really hard for us to deal with,” Kait said.
That dynamic changed in September when the Cifkas got their apartment and the soldier moved to outpatient care. Wyatt moved east to be with them.
The boy’s presence lit a fire under his dad, who’s now able to get down on the ground and play with his son.
“Once Wyatt was here, it was a huge change in Luke with his determination,” Kait said.
“Being able to have Wyatt here made all the difference,” Luke added.
Kait’s parents also recently moved to Maryland, when her father took an assignment at Fort Meade. Their home in the area gives the Cifkas an escape from the hospital on weekends.
“There are some days when we just look at each other and say, ‘How in the world are we doing this?’ And then we call our friends and say ‘Do you want to go out to dinner?’ just do something normal,” she said.
Since his first steps, Cifka has had to put his walking on hold. Bones in his legs are trying to regenerate in a painful way that will require more surgeries before he can practice again.
Still, he’s looking forward to the military ball next month. It reminds him of one of his first dates with Kait.
And she’s impressed with the dedication she’s seen in her husband as he pushes himself to get walking again.
“He does things I don’t think I can do,” she said, “and I have all four limbs.”