when the dust clears

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Wounded Warriors

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On a warm January day last year in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a 27-year-old U.S. Marine walked unsteadily down a carpeted hallway at Peak Performance Physical Therapy, his eyes fixed on a sign taped to a door at the far end. A young woman guided him. A few steps from the door, he staggered and lost his balance, listing toward the wall to his left. With the help of the woman, an upbeat and sturdy therapist, he righted himself and kept going.

This is Staff Sergeant David Marino’s last exercise in a humbling routine designed to counteract the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury—impaired balance and coordination, memory loss—which he sustained in two roadside bombings in Iraq. There’s no treatment to reverse the initial brain damage caused by TBI, according to the National Institutes of Health, but some service members suffering from the condition have shown improvement after physical and occupational therapy. That’s why Marino’s here.

Still a Marine, though not the kind he used to be—an infantryman, a combat leader—Marino was on limited duty because of his injuries. His new status: “combat injured Marine,” commonly known as a “wounded warrior.”

Between 2004 and 2006, David Marino served two tours in Iraq leading men on patrols, escort missions, and “hard-hits”—raids to capture suspected bomb makers and resistance fighters. Though trained for combat, Marino spent most of his time interacting with civilians, questioning, negotiating, and mediating, as part of his larger mission: finding an elusive enemy that hides among ordinary citizens.

More often than not, that enemy found the Marines first.

In 2004, a tremendous improvised explosive device—IED—killed Marino’s best friend, Sergeant Jayton Patterson. Patterson had left his Humvee to inspect a bomb crater in the road.

“Jayton had walked up to the hole, and he was standing on three IEDs,” Marino recalled. Distant attackers detonated the bomb with a remote control.

“I kind of lost it, to tell you the truth. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. My body made sounds and weeps and cries that a grown man shouldn’t make.” Marino served out the rest of the tour by forcing himself to forget.

In 2006, Marino led a platoon of 40 Marines and several Iraqi soldiers through dozens of missions in Anbar province, one of Iraq’s most violent places at that time. Marino saved lives—and he took some, too. Commanders referred to him as a “Marine’s Marine,” perhaps the highest compliment one Marine can pay another.

Marino came home with a severely damaged knee and back. He was in no condition to resume the grueling training cycle of a combat Marine, so he was given a limited duty assignment—a desk job—on base and started treatment for his knee. Other problems began popping up.

“I started forgetting phone calls,” Marino recalled. “Having a conversation and then five minutes later having no idea what we’re talking about.”

Marino quietly left that job and was given a less demanding one, Family Readiness Officer, by his old unit, which deployed to Iraq without him in 2007. As a “FRSNO,” Marino was a liaison between deployed Marines and family members, “making sure they get what they need while their husbands are forward deployed,” he said.

Other troubling problems began to surface.

“It all came out, and it was overwhelming—the PTSD, the memories. I started drinking a lot,” Marino told me in 2008. “Thoughts of suicide. I’m not going to lie. It affects everybody different, and I thought I’d be stronger than that.”

“I finally came forward and told the doctor what was going on, and they got me over at the Wounded Warrior Battalion.”

In 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Maxwell, a senior officer in Marino’s old unit, returned from Iraq severely wounded. An exploding mortar had driven shrapnel into the left side of his brain. His injuries were grave, but the isolation from fellow Marines was even more debilitating.

So Maxwell created a support group for Marines too injured to return to regular duty and set up barracks where they could heal together. This ad hoc assembly of injured Marines has grown into the Wounded Warrior Regiment, with battalions on both the east and west coasts.

Being assigned to Wounded Warrior, however, is no guarantee a Marine will be allowed to stay in the Corps. As an “expeditionary force” that deploys routinely—and when dispatched by the President—the Marine Corps has a limited number of jobs for combat injured Marines. To get such a slot, one must first earn “permanent limited duty status.” The Corps’ stated policy is to retain as many combat injured Marines as is feasible. In practice, staying in as a wounded Marine is tremendously difficult. (The U.S. Army has an even more complicated retention process for wounded soldiers.)

It was hard for Marino to accept that he would never deploy again as a combat Marine. But leaving the Corps was unthinkable.

“I don’t feel like I’m anybody when I go home. It’s home here with the Marines. It’s 10 years of my life in the Marine Corps. I love the Marine Corps. I don’t want to get out.”

To stay in, Marino submitted to a months-long series of medical evaluations by the Corps—this on top of the seemingly endless surgeries and therapy, both physical and psychological. He solicited letters of support from former comrades and commanders. They attested to his exemplary service—and to his ability to continue to contribute to the Marine Corps, even with his injuries.

At the end of 2008, Marino won his bureaucratic battle and was granted permanent limited duty status. He landed a job with the east coast Wounded Warrior Battalion. Nearly 24 hours a day, he connected with and counseled injured Marines by phone, email, and in person.

“The motto is ‘Pay It Forward,’” Marino says of Wounded Warrior. “So as you’re getting treated and you’re helping yourself heal…you find something else inside of you to help you recover, which is helping someone else.”

Most Marines “don’t want pity,” Marino says. “They don’t want someone to say, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you.’ They don’t want that. They want to be like, Yeah, it happened to me. It’s alright. I’ll deal with it. I got help from people that love me, and I’ll move on from it and I’ll be a better person because of it.”

Recently, Marino was promoted from staff sergeant to gunnery sergeant, and he’s settling in to a new assignment with Wounded Warrior in California.

Department of Defense photo—Retirement Ceremmony for Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell, founder of USMC's Wounded Warrior program, June 2009

Department of Defense photo—Retirement Ceremony for Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell, founder of USMC's Wounded Warrior program, June 2009

Still, there are constant reminders that the Corps is still very much a warfighter’s institution. Timothy Maxwell, the founder of Wounded Warrior, left the Marine Corps in early July after 22 years.

“I’ve decided it’s time to go because a year ago I went for surgery to pull out a piece of shrapnel near my brain stem,” Maxwell announced at his June retirement ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

“It crippled me on my right side. Now I can’t represent the Marine Corps like I should,” Maxwell told well-wishers.

“Marines are known for looking good in their uniform and when I can’t look good in my cammies, it’s time to go.”

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Written by bxpnyc

2009/09/04 at 23:56

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