Marine Cpl. Justin McLoud.
Marine Cpl. Justin McLoud wife Amber and son Desmond.
Marine Cpl. Justin McLoud.
By Mike Bush
San Diego, CA (KSDK) - The strongest people don't have enormous muscles, just enormous will.
Like many who come to the rehabilitation center at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California, small steps for Justin McLoud are giant leaps of hope.
"Their attitudes are just amazing and I think that's their driving force," says physical therapist April Walter.
After almost three months in a hospital bed, the 23-year-old Marine Corporal from Cedar Hill, Missouri is learning to walk again.
"I hate sitting around in the chair and not being able to do things. I like being active and stuff," says McLoud.
He's facing this new challenge just like he faced the enemy in Afghanistan, with courage and determination.
McLoud was with a battalion that lost nine Marines in just four days last fall, shortly after arriving in the Northern Helmand province.
"The very first mission we went out on, I'd say 200 meters outside the wire we got ambushed," says McLoud.
The 3rd battalion, 5th Marines out of Camp Pendleton drew one of the war's most deadly assignments, pushing Taliban fighters out the area.
"If you're heads not in the game, you're definitely going to mess up," he says.
McLoud was the point man on foot patrols, meaning he was upfront in charge of navigation. In early December of last year, a member of his squad didn't see the road side bomb while crossing a bridge.
"He stepped on it," says McLoud, "and then I got hit, it threw me up in the air. I landed and tried to pick up my weapon. That's when I could tell my arm was all mangled and stuff."
Not only his arm, but both his legs; he doesn't remember the pain or how close he came to dying.
"The reports said I did die. They had to revive me in the helicopter," he says.
His wife Amber was back in St. Louis, shopping at Wal-Mart when she got the call.
"All he said at first was. Something terrible has happened to your husband," she says. "Are you somewhere where I can talk to you right now?"
Amber and Justin were married after the corporal's first deployment to Iraq. Their son, Desmond, was born just 10 days before Justin left for Afghanistan.
"So it was hard," she said through tears. "And it's a horrible thing to happen to him because I don't feel he deserves it. He was just trying to defend his country but at least he was alive."
The family was reunited a few days later, after Justin was flown to Bethesda Naval hospital in Maryland. He had lost both legs and his left arm but not his spirit.
"He told me I wasn't allowed to cry, so I didn't cry," said Amber.
"I knew if I would take it bad," says Justin, "my family would take it bad so I took it the best I could."
After several surgeries, he was finally released and sent back to his house in San Diego near his base at Camp Pendleton. Justin now has a new full-time job - to recover.
"I feel I have more bad days than he does," Amber laughs. "He pulls me out of my bad days."
Cpl. McLoud now comes to the Naval Medical Center almost every day fighting a new battle: to get out of the wheel chair. He recently got his "shorties," the first level of prosthetic legs.
"Everyday I'm like wow," says Amber. "I can't believe you're doing this already."
"I mean some days I'll be sore and some days I'm hurting more than other days but for the most part I'm getting better every time, " says McLoud.
Eventually, he will graduate to more advanced equipment. Then he has a different kind of graduation in mind.
"I want to go to college and get a degree in history and be a history teacher for a high school," says McLoud.
The road to recovery is a long one and it has many tempting exit ramps, but Cpl. Justin McLoud plans to keep going forward one step at a time. He'll give his future the same thing he gave his country, everything he's got.
"You just can't help but just feel proud," Amber says.
There will be a benefit for Cpl. McLoud and his family at the VFW Post on Church Road in Arnold on July 2. For more information, call Brad Denny 314-630-4789.