If there were signature wounds for veterans injured since 9/11, they would be traumatic brain injuries and amputations. Unlike previous generations, our soldiers are facing less danger from enemy fire, and far more from roadside bombs and IEDs. One advantage to an unfortunate reality is that these injuries have forced technology and the medical industry to advance and evolve. Wounded veterans–a special breed of survivors–often have to deal with the extremes of life beyond the battlefield.
Sargent John Peck was a Marine serving in Afghanistan until 2010, when he was leading a sweep of a compound in Sangin, part of the Helmand Province. His team inspected bedrooms, living quarters and small crawl spaces before heading outside. Peck vividly recalls the details of the moment that changed his life: dirt flying, colors, shapes and thinking, “I don’t want to die here.”
His mother, Lisa, does not remember much from the day she learned her son had been injured.
“I’ve been told that I pulled into the driveway and didn’t even put my car in park,” she said. “I jumped out of the car and asked, ‘What did they do to my baby?'”
For two months, Lisa sat beside her son’s bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Despite the fact he was not responsive, she put her hand on his chest to let him know she was there, talked to him as if he could understand her, and sang him country songs. She urged him to hang on, but also told him she understood if he needed to go.
His injuries were serious. Peck had become a quadruple amputee and suffered a traumatic brain injury that left his fate uncertain.
“I woke up two months later, and basically found out that I don’t have arms or legs no more,” he said.
After waking up, he learned that his young wife had left him, having been unable to deal with his injuries. Beck refers to the period after his divorce as the darkest period of his life. Luckily, he had his mother’s support and no choice but to continue living.
Today, after 29 surgeries, Peck is fairly independent.
“People see me and think, ‘He needs help 24 hours a day,'” he said. “Every day I brush my teeth, take care of what I need to do.”
Peck is doing more than just taking care of his daily needs. He’s been skydiving and scuba diving, and is preparing to go cliff diving. He lives with his mother and has an optimistic view on the future. He’s even considering opening a landscaping business.
In his free time, Peck can be found off-roading in his Track Chair, which is a wheelchair specially designed like an all-terrain vehicle. The chair costs $15,000 and the Veteran’s Administration cannot afford to provide the Track Chair to injured veterans. His chair was purchased with funds raised by a non-profit group called the Independence Fund, along with funds collected by a New York firefighter who is also an Elvis impersonator.
In past wars, soldiers with injuries like Peck’s would never make it out of the war zone alive, but today, medical personnel at outposts on the edge of battlefields are performing lifesaving treatment. Now surgery and trauma care that could only be accomplished at major hospitals can be done on site. Procedures like decompressive craniotomy are saving the lives of our wounded warriors every day.