I wanted to go into combat. After all, that’s what Marines are expected, trained and prepared to do. I wasn’t prepared to lose my legs, though.
I grew up on a horse farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. I had a pretty normal childhood — had chores to do, had friends, went to school. I was 20 when I joined the Marines in 2005, and it was a completely different journey than I had originally planned for myself. I didn’t grow up in a military family, per se. My father was drafted during the Vietnam era, but he never actually had to go over there, so I didn’t hear much about it.
My inspiration to join the Marines came from the book Brotherhood of Heroes, which is the story of a group of Marines toughing through World War II. They had traits that I didn’t possess that I wanted: courage, respect and a sense of purpose.
So I left college during my junior year at Virginia Tech and enlisted. Two years later, when my reserve unit asked for volunteers to be shipped to Iraq, my hand went right up.
I remember when they were reading the names of the people who were going on the platoon, I was nervous — like the kind of nervous when you’re nominated for an award and don’t know if you’re gonna get it or not. Then they did call my name, and I was excited and happy about it.
But nothing really happened that tour. And even though by that point I had gained most — if not all — of the traits I wanted when I enlisted, my mission as a Marine did not end. We were still at war, and there were more battles to be fought. And because I’m a Marine, my purpose was to fight those battles.
It was during a tour in 2009 when things changed for me.
My team and I were going to Afghanistan, when it was kind of heating back up. We were clearing safe routes through danger areas — areas that had a high likelihood of containing improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
If we were gonna cross a bridge and we thought there might be IEDs on either side of the bridge, I would go clear the bridge of IEDs and then everybody would follow me across and continue on.
As we were doing a push into Taliban territory, there was an area we needed to check for IEDs. I ended up stepping on one.
After I woke up — about 20 seconds later — I realized what had happened. The other Marines ran over and applied tourniquets. The corpsman came and gave me morphine, and they loaded me onto a stretcher, took me to a tank and then the corpsman there gave me another shot that made me unconscious. I went from the site of injury to Maryland, all within five days.
It’s a weird feeling to think you’ll never walk again, and to know you’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.
But sitting there and wondering whether or not something was fair or deserved didn’t really matter. I realized, kind of instinctively, that just because I was a double amputee didn’t mean that I didn’t still have a mission or purpose in life, which was to make it enjoyable and meaningful — and to get back on my feet and get my self-reliance back.
My overall mission, to fight America’s battles, didn’t change. It just shifted.
You look at any Hollywood movie about a veteran, and I’d say there’s about a 100 percent chance it features a vet who came back broken and nearly destroyed his family. It’s an important story to show — and it’s a true story that does happen — but it’s not the story of all of us. And I want to show that.
Since my injury, I’ve received the USRowing Man of the Year award in 2012. In 2016, I was a bronze medalist in the triathlon at the Paralympics. I’ve been invited to throw out first pitches at major league baseball games. Last year, I ran 31 marathons in 31 days.
I did all of this not just to prove that I could do it, but to show America how strong our service members are.
There are plenty of awards I’ve won as a disabled athlete to prove I’m worthy and still a strong Marine. But I think the most rewarding thing I get is when people come up to me and tell me that I made a difference for them. Because at the end of the day, I do this to show others what’s possible, and to show people this journey that I’ve created despite the obvious shortcoming of losing my legs.
There are plenty of us in the military who have lost our legs — especially in these past few wars — but we’re not broken. We’re Marines. Oorah!