I’m terrified of heights. So, of course, every time I’m sitting in the back of a plane climbing toward the clouds I think, “After everything I’ve been through, why am I about to jump out of this plane when I could have just stayed safely on the ground?”
But, I have known the answer to that question since the moment I woke up in the hospital. I want, need and have to make my second chance at life worth it. Anything that makes my once flatlined heart pound in my chest helps reassure me that I am doing just that.
I was a typical kid growing up in the Southeast during the 1990s and early 2000s. I liked to ride bikes, rollerblade and just generally do the things that kids do to drive their parents crazy. But, during my junior year of high school, I went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. That was when I saw what little some people had for themselves and realized there was a world outside of the comfort and security with which I grew up. That trip helped shape me, my thoughts and made me realize that I wanted to be different – that I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself.
“I want, need and have to make my second chance at life worth it.”
I found that something in the United States Marine Corps. And while October 19, 1989 is my birthday, it was November 21, 2010 that became my “Alive Day.”
I rolled out of my sleeping bag that morning, around 8am, to the sound of AK-47s. The Taliban had initiated another attack on our patrol base. It was going to be another noisy day in Marjah, Afghanistan.
When my time on post (lookout) came, I was positioned on a hot, dusty roof inside a small circle of sandbags waiting out an eerie, four-hour lull in the fighting. The next thing I knew, and felt, I had warm water running over my body. But, as I fought through my disorientation, I realized I had been hit. What I thought was warm water, was actually me bleeding out. Immediately I thought of how devastated my family was going to be that I never made it home from Afghanistan. I said a quick prayer and let the strangely peaceful tiredness, from the blood loss, consume me. I went to sleep for what I thought was going to be the last time on this earth.
The next thing I remember is waking up to the sight of Christmas stockings on a wall and snow covering a hospital room window at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland. That was five weeks after ‘falling asleep.’
During those five weeks, my fellow Marines and my people in my medical evacuation units, which are some of the best doctors and nurses in the world, had worked tirelessly to save my life.
I had to be resuscitated once during my medical evacuation from the battlefield, again at the first military hospital I was airlifted to, and a third time at Walter Reed. And, while I was grateful to be alive, it was hard to comprehend that I had a projected minimum two-year recovery ahead of me.
I arrived at Walter Reed November 28, 2010. It wasn’t until the last week of February 2011 when I left the immediate, lifesaving and stabilizing inpatient stay of my time in the hospital. Now, it was time for what would be my two-year, 10-month road to recovery.
It was just a few months into my recovery when I was sitting at the kitchen counter, carefully trying to balance a spoon in my left hand – one of many basic skills I was having to relearn – and trying to eat a bowl of cereal, which wasn’t easy given that the same grenade that had shattered my arm in 30 places and had also blown off most of my lower jaw and almost all of my teeth.
Struggling to hold onto my spoon, and with milk and cereal dribbling down my chin, I suddenly felt something inside me break. Thankfully, my mother had come into the kitchen just to say hello, but she immediately saw that something was very wrong and clicked into “mom mode,” hugging me and asking if I was in pain. Through sobs, I managed to choke out one devastating question:
“Who is ever going to love me again?”
I could see that my words absolutely tore her heart in two. I immediately regretted saying what I had. But, my mom responded the only way a mother can – she hugged me, promised me that I was going to get through this and that things were going to get better. She assured me that someday, someone was going to love me, and that I was going to be happy for the rest of my life. And, as we sat together in the kitchen, with the overhead lights reflecting back against the darkness outside, I had a realization. I was either going to get up and live the rest of my life. Or, I could spend my life sitting at that counter. I chose to get up and live.
During my recovery, I became determined not just to get back physically, mentally and spiritually to the place I was before, but to do more. So, for another two years, I pushed through more surgery, pain and rehabilitation. I also set goals for myself. Run a marathon, finish college, backpack through Europe, and, yes, jump out of an airplane.
I’ve done those things, and more. But most importantly, I’ve been given the chance to share my story with others. It’s not the story of a hero – but the story of an ordinary man placed in an extraordinary situation.
I want my story to help others see what’s extraordinary in themselves; to see how small acts of gratitude and kindness can change the world around them, and how we can all be part of something bigger than ourselves.