MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – -- Since opening during November 2005, the II Marine Expeditionary Force Wounded Warrior Barracks has seen many Marines and sailors live at its facility, recuperate and return to the fight. To some, this meant going back to their unit and active duty. To others, getting back in the battle is illustrated with beginning a new life outside of the Corps.
Lance Cpl. Justin Reynolds, an infantryman with 3rd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, is one of 46 service members who are part of the newly established Injured Support Unit. His interest in the Marine Corps is rooted from his childhood.
“My life’s dream,” is how the Lima, Ohio, native described his desire to be a Marine. “I’ve always wanted to serve my country.”
Reynolds got his chance three years ago when a Marine recruiter in Ohio gave him the opportunity to go to the soul of the Marine Corps – Parris Island, S.C.
Fast forward to December 2005, Hit, Iraq.
As part of a Quick Reaction Force, Reynolds and the rest of 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, had been assigned to serve hot food to all forward combat bases. Reynolds was driving a high-back humvee.
“We hit a pothole just outside the front gate,” recalled Reynolds.
There were two anti-tank mines inside the pothole and out of the four vehicles in the convoy, Reynolds’ vehicle was the only to hit the mines.
“I remember going up and the windows were covered in mud,” Reynolds said. “The first thing I did was look down; okay my legs are still there … I’m good.”
So was everyone in the vehicle, but his problems were not over.
Reynolds’ initial injuries were a dislocated left toe, soft tissue damage in his left knee and a fractured bone in his right ankle. He was medically evacuated and each time he woke up, he was in a different hospital.
By Feb. 9, he was at his home in Swansboro, N.C., and said he felt fine.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 22, Reynolds woke up with discomfort, but thought little of it.
“We kind of brushed it off at first,” said his wife, Jami Reynolds. “He just wanted to take a nap and thought it would go away.”
The pain never went away, in fact, it got worse. That evening, Reynolds could barely speak and was paralyzed on the left side of his body.
“It was the same symptoms of a stroke,” Reynolds said.
He was taken by paramedics to Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital. There, the doctors tried to decipher if his illness was the result of a tumor or a stroke. Three hours and two Computerized Axial Tomography scans later Reynolds was transferred to a regional hospital better equipped to evaluate and diagnose the disorder.
“It was a big mystery,” Jamie said.
For the next seven weeks, she never left his side. She moved from their home in Swansboro to the hospital room.
“He didn’t want to be there alone,” Jami said. “There wasn’t an option to go home. I couldn’t imagine being two hours away from him.”
The doctors at Pitt County Memorial Hospital diagnosed Reynolds with Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system.
He made headway and was released in April, returning to his parent’s house in Lima.
Jami said this time was filled with ups and downs. Reynolds was, for the most part, confined to a wheelchair. He could walk with a cane, but only for a short distance.
“He needed a lot of help,” she said. “He was kind of depressed and frustrated because he had to wait as the world went by. He couldn’t do the things he used to enjoy.”
His days of disappointment were numbered. Reynolds arrived at Camp Lejeune’s Injured Support Unit and returned to the Marine lifestyle on Memorial Day weekend. Most of his peers at his new unit were on vacation, but this time he did not mind being alone.
“For the first time since my injury, I got do things on my own,” Reynolds said. “You don’t know how good that feels.”
As fellow wounded warriors started returning to the barracks they wasted no time helping him back into normal life.
“There was a Marine with one arm,” he said. “He showed me how to do a lot of things one-handed.”
With Reynolds at Camp Lejeune, Jami stayed in Ohio and did not see her husband until two weeks later. When she finally saw him, she couldn’t believe how happy he was.
“His mood was so much better,” she said. “He was walking a lot better and faster. It was amazing to see him back on his feet.”
The wheelchair, Jami said, is in their garage “collecting dust” and Reynolds no longer uses the cane.
“I still have to wear a brace because my left foot doesn’t quite work yet,” he said. “It (the brace) keeps the toes pointed up.”
Although Reynolds cannot run or type on a keyboard yet, he is back to joking around and being a Marine. He believes his time in the ISU barracks has made the difference in his recovery.
“The Wounded Warrior Barracks is wonderful,” he said. “I’ve made more progress here than all the time I was home. Just because of being around a bunch of Marines … a bunch of guys sharing the same problem. They’ve helped a lot.”
His wife agreed.
“Everyone there has gone through the same thing he has,” she said. “He gets to see others recover from their injuries.”
Reynolds said he is not going to stay in the Corps, but he believes he has the control and direction to succeed in whatever he chooses in life. His wife credits his might with the traits the Marine Corps has taught him.
“The military was the best thing that happened to him,” Jami said. “It gave him direction. I am very proud of him.”
The barracks have sent more than 15 Marines back into the fight, many returning to units back in Iraq. Whatever they are doing, playing video games, making fun of each other, telling war stories or chasing each other down the hall, the Marines at the Wounded Warrior Barracks have figured out a unique, special medicine that not only makes them feel better, but heals them.