Grief took a back seat at an historic theatre on Staten Island when a community gathered to honor a hero. Guests were wiping tears from their eyes, but it was a celebration of life, not loss.
When a soldier loses all four limbs in combat – a 24-year-old coping with the severest of wounds during his prime – wouldn’t you be crying, too? The memories are horrific – the soldier spilling 80 percent of his blood on the desert battlefield; his father crumpled on the kitchen floor at the news; his mother, stunned at not recognizing her stitched-up son in a hospital bed.
But in August, thousands gathered for a benefit concert for the kid in a wheelchair, with no legs, only half of one arm, but a winning smile on a shy boy’s face.
The storyline is almost Biblical. Easter Sunday 2009, U.S. Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco’s patrol was returning to Forward Operating Base Summerall, near Baiji, in northern Iraq. His vehicle hit a trip wire, setting off a lethal explosively formed penetrator (EFP). The blast shredded his armored vehicle and his body, killed one soldier, wounded another, but perversely left the fourth untouched. Such is combat. Marrocco should not have lived, but he did.
Hardened trauma surgeons at nearby Camp Speicher were shocked when he arrived at the base. The body armor and Kevlar had done its job, but the blast had sheared off the unprotected limbs. When doctors tried to pump blood into him, it quickly exited through the countless fragment holes and a severed carotid artery. The skilled miracle workers went to work. A vein was grafted from Marrocco’s leg to reconstruct the carotid artery.
Specialist Marrocco was airlifted to more advanced facilities at Balad, north of Baghdad, and then onto Landstuhl, Germany, and finally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His face was sunken, he had a detached retina, his skin was seared, and he had possibly incurred a brain injury. He had a tube down this throat, drifted in and out of consciousness, couldn’t sleep, experienced real and phantom pain. He learned of the death of his gunner and best friend, Specialist Michael Anaya, and the loss of his own limbs.
Family and doctors worried about how all this would impact the young man.
It wouldn’t take long for all to see that inside the battered body, there was still a spunky young man... And a role model.
Marrocco’s rehabilitation has been an inspiration to the amputees around him on Walter Reed’s Ward 57. Despite the obstacles, the painstaking therapy, the sleepless nights, the needles and tests, and the continuing surgeries, he has been the one to bring a smile and hope to his fellow wounded warriors. Better not be caught complaining if Brendan is within earshot.
As a teenager, it had been obvious to his mother Michelle and father Alex that prep school and college weren't for the head-strong kid from Staten Island. Instead, Brendan found his mission and a sense of duty after enlisting in the Army.
Brendan now has a new mission in life. His first wish would be to return to his Army unit as an infantryman, but since that is improbable with his wounds, he is moving on with a spirit that’s infectious. Along with his older brother, Michael, who left an IT job in New York with Citigroup to move in with Brendan at Walter Reed and help with the daily necessities, Brendan’s new mission is to help his fellow amputees.
That is why 2,000 people – firemen and policemen, teachers and salesmen, plumbers and politicians – crowded into St. George’s Theatre for an evening headlined by actor Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band. Sinise, of course, played the hard-bitten Vietnam War amputee in the movie Forrest Gump as audiences laughed and cried at that happy ending.
The charities Building Homes For Heroes and the Stephen Siller Children’s Foundation raised $150,000 that night to build Brendan a wheelchair accessible home near his old neighborhood on Staten Island.
Brendan also hopes the future holds new human arms – a rare and risky double arm transplant by experts in Pittsburgh – for the important things in life: to better speed shift a 500-horsepower muscle car, a place for a tattoo to pay tribute to his fallen comrade Specialist Anaya, and to hug a future wife.
Watching and listening as 2,000 voices cheered and honored the brave young man, one couldn’t help but think the enemy in Iraq lost that Easter Sunday battle. They thought they were going to leave a broken, battered body in the dirt on a faraway battlefield. They didn’t count on an exceptional American soldier on a mission.
Specialist Brendan Marrocco should not have lived that day, but he did.
His mission was only interrupted.
To learn more about Building Homes for Heroes or to make a donation to help build Specialist Brendan Marrocco’s new home, please visit: www.buildinghomesforheroes.org.
Mike Theiler is a contributing editor to ON★PATROL.