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Wounded Warrior Serves as Inspiring Example to Marines Injured in Action

by on February 17, 2011 6:30 AM

After spending two weeks at Marine base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C, I considered the many things I could write about for this week’s column. The dedication of those who have volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps. The enthusiasm of the Marine Corps Community Service personnel who serve those who serve. Adjusting to life, even temporarily, in a community where “security” means more than locking the front door.   Acronyms. Artillery practice and helicopter training missions overhead at night.  Being the only person in civilian clothes in the long lines of young men and women in uniform at the food court at the MC Exchange. 

In the end, I have decided to introduce you to Corporal Matthew Bradford.

In preparation for our trainings on inclusive service –  programs  and services that are designed, marketed, and held in facilities that are accessible to all – we were asked to provide a Braille translation of our instruction manual.  We were told that one of the participants in the last of three training sessions would require an accommodation for his visual impairment.  Easily done with a call to Susan Hayya at the Penn State libraries. We sent her our document in an e-mail attachment and then she and her staff converted the text to Braille.  It was shipped and in our hands in less than 24 hours.

As we were setting up on the morning of the start of our last of the two-day trainings, in walked Cpl. Bradford with his support personnel, Family Readiness Officer, Amanda Daniels. His hand on Daniels' shoulder, Cpl. Bradford used his prosthetic legs and Daniels’ clear directions to find a seat at the front of the room. Cpl. Bradford was dressed in full Marine utilities – the uniforms of those men and women we saw at Burger King, in training formations and all over Camp Lejeune.

Cpl. Bradford is the first Marine in Marine Corps history to re-enlist after rehabilitating from injuries received in action. In 2007, Cpl. Bradford lost not only his vision, but both of his legs when he stepped on a bomb hidden in a pipe.  He was just 20-years-old. 

Over the course of the next two days, we got to know Cpl. Bradford. 

Cpl. Bradford early enlisted in the Marines in December of his senior year of high school and started basic training that August.  He knew that he wanted to serve his country. He told me: “I joined the Marines because I wanted to go to war for my country.” He had been a typical high school kid – sports, girls and dreams for the future. 

Cpl. Bradford’s plans for his future took a major detour on his first deployment to Iraq while searching for roadside bombs. As he says, “I found one.” The blast resulted in the immediate loss of one eye, retina damage causing blindness in his other eye, amputation to one leg below the knee and amputation to the other leg above the knee.  He fractured his hand and had significant internal injuries. The shrapnel that took out his eye remains lodged in his brain.  

In April of 2010, after years of surgeries, rehabilitation and with a new definition of “self”   Cpl. Bradford made history and re-enlisted.

Over the two days that he was in our class, we learned that he appreciates when people call him a hero, but he prefers to be treated just like everyone else. His easy-going humor and quick wit put those around him immediately at ease.  In our classroom, he opened up about his life, his injuries and his experiences as a wounded Marine so that his MCCS colleagues could learn to help other ill and injured customers, but I also suspect because that’s who he is.   I made a joke in class that my college-aged daughters can type a text message with their thumbs without even looking at the screen. From his seat in the front of the class, Matt piped in  “So can I.”

Since his injury and rehabilitation, Cpl. Bradford has gone surfing, rock climbing and jet skiing. He also hand-cycled the Marine Corps Marathon (all 26-plus miles) and completed 10 miles of the grueling 15-mile Bataan Memorial Death March in the New Mexico desert.   Forced to quit the desert march early because of some discomfort with his prosthetic legs, his goal is to eventually finish all 15 miles. 

What impressed me the most about Cpl. Bradford was that he was just a regular guy. A regular Marine. His interests are pretty typical for 24-year-olds: hanging out with his buddies, going to concerts, and oh yeah—serving his country. About a return to the war zone, he says “I would go back if I could but I can’t see.”  

Cpl. Bradford’s current job with the Marines is to work with other Wounded Warriors to help them transition. He is living proof that their lives don’t have to be over because of injury. He told us about the relationships he made with other wounded warriors at the rehab hospital and how they used humor and “Marine trash talking” to keep each other going.  His ability to relate to the young men and women who are facing so much uncertainty will make him an incredible asset to the Marine Corps.

I think he also has a future in motivational speaking. 

So there we were, talking about how to include people with disabilities in Marine Corps Community Service programs and in our midst was one of our potential customers. We had a “quality assurance” check right there in the room. I’m happy to say that Cpl. Bradford gave us a thumbs-up and suggested that there were other people both on base and in the non-military community who he felt would benefit from our training and some attitude adjustment about people with disabilities. When I asked Matt if he would mind if I wrote about him for this column, his only request was that I not make it about politics.  I’m thinking that his Purple Heart gives him the right to make sure his story is told his way.

It would be too easy to say that the next time I’m having a crappy day or when one of my kids or my students complains about something mundane, I will think about Cpl. Bradford.  Instead, I think I’ll just say that while I was at Camp Lejeune, I saw and experienced some neat things.  I learned some cool things about life on a military base.  I also met some incredible people, including one very inspiring Marine.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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