Shots - Health News
3:12 pm
Fri May 3, 2013

From Battlefield To Boston: Marine Comforts Bombing Survivors

Originally published on Mon May 6, 2013 11:17 am

Editor's note: In a story earlier this week, we met Celeste Corcoran, one of nearly two dozen people who lost limbs in the April 15 Boston bombing. Corcoran told NPR's Richard Knox that a hospital visit from two Marines who lost legs in Afghanistan had given her hope. "After I met them, it was like this little spark, this little light," she told Knox, "[that] it's really going to be OK."

One of those Marines was Cam West, a young captain whom NPR listeners first met in 2011 in a profile by Tom Bowman. This week Bowman checked in with West again for NPR's All Things Considered; he shares this update with Shots.

In a video taken just days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Cam West breezes into the hospital room like a coach, trying to inspire the team at halftime. Celeste Corcoran sits in a chair, the stubs of her legs wrapped in gauze. She's holding hands with her daughter, Sydney, who was also injured.

West leans over Celeste and grips the arms of her chair. She dabs away tears. She can barely speak.

He moves in close, and waves a hand above her stubs. "This doesn't matter," he tells Corcoran. "It's just a change of scenery. It really is."

West knows what it feels like to wake up groggy and confused in a hospital bed, his parents at the foot of his bed. He was just starting on the road to recovery when we first met him and told his story on NPR.

Even then, West was telling himself that he could once again lead Marines in combat, though "shooting, running and gunning," would be trickier, he knew, after losing a leg. And, as he told us then, he had a fallback plan — to be a rancher in Colorado. "If I don't do the Marine Corps thing," he said in 2011, "look for me poking cows. Longhorns."

Today West is still a Marine. But he helps civilians cope with the loss of a limb, through the Semper Fi Fund, which supports critically injured Marines and their families. West and a handful of other Marines have visited 14 amputees at four Boston hospitals.

For Marines in Afghanistan, losing a limb is too common. West's unit was 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine regiment — or "Darkhorse," as they called themselves. It had the highest casualty rate for Marines in the past decade, because its mission took it to a nest of Taliban fighters and roadside bombs. It was so bad, some Marines strapped on loose tourniquets before heading out on patrol.

But no one expects middle-aged Americans and their children who are watching a road race on a city street to suddenly and violently suffer such injuries. Which makes the adjustment that much harder.

Some of those injured had no idea they had lost a limb until they awoke from sedation two or three days after the explosion, West notes. "[You're] missing a limb you had 48 hours prior, and [don't] know what occurred or how, it occurred. Yeah, it's a pretty big shock."

During their hospital visit, the Marines told the Boston amputees about rehabilitation, and about prosthetics. They told them there would be good days and bad. But West can say from experience that even more than the conversation, just standing there likely provided the strongest reassurance.

"The mobility that we had, the positive spirit that we had, and the motivation that we had" were most important, West says. "I think that does more than anything you can actually tell them."

West and his fellow Marines say they're planning a third trip to Boston, and they plan to go back again and again to encourage those who lost a limb that day.

And how did his ambitions turn out?

West has decided for personal reasons that combat's no longer for him. So he's going with that fallback plan: a ranch, although not in Colorado. Instead, it will be along the Georgia-Alabama border where he was born. He already has eight cowboy hats and still watches John Wayne movies almost daily.

"I've got a nice piece of property and I'm going to raise beef cattle," he says, "and live the Southern solitude life."

Well, not that secluded. West is planning to get married at the end of the year. His fiancee, he says, is a cowgirl at heart.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

More than a dozen people lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing. We heard about one of them, Celeste Corcoran, this week on MORNING EDITION. And she talked about how a visit by two Marines, who had lost legs in Afghanistan, gave her hope.

CELESTE CORCORAN: After I met them, it was like this - you know, this little spark, this little light was sort of like, you know, it's really going to be OK.

BLOCK: One of those Marines was a young captain named Cam West. NPR's Tom Bowman profiled Capt. West a year and a half ago, when he was just out of the hospital and learning how to get around on a prosthetic limb. This week, Tom spoke with him again; and reports on how he's doing, and how he came to help victims of the Boston bombing.

CAM WEST: Obviously, she got her pretty looks from you, huh?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: In a video taken just days after the marathon bombing, Cam West breezes into the hospital room like a coach trying to inspire the team at halftime. Celeste Corcoran sits in a chair, the stubs of her leg wrapped in gauze. She's holding hands with her daughter, Sydney, who was also injured.

West leans over Celeste and grips the arms of her chair. She dabs away tears, can barely speak. He moves in close, and waves a hand above what remains of her legs.

WEST: This doesn't matter. This is just a change of scenery. It really is.

BOWMAN: Next to Cam West in the hospital video is Sgt. Gabe Martinez. A bomb took both his legs. West tells her, Gabe now competes in the Paralympics, in track and field. Celeste starts to brighten.

CORCORAN: Really?

WEST: And you may want to do that one day.

BOWMAN: Cam West knows what it feels like to wake up groggy and confused in a hospital, his parents at the foot of his bed. It was the fall of 2011; he was just starting on the road to recovery. Even then, he was telling himself he could once again lead Marines in combat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WEST: Shooting, running and gunning - like I did before. It's just going to be a little trickier now. Definitely possible but, you know, I'm not going to blow smoke.

BOWMAN: And he told us about his fallback plan.

WEST: Be a rancher in Colorado. If I don't do the Marine Corps thing, look for me poking cows, longhorns.

BOWMAN: Today, he's still a Marine, but he helps civilians cope with the loss of a limb through the Semper Fi Fund, which supports critically injured Marines and their families. West and a handful of other Marines have visited 14 amputees at four Boston hospitals.

For Marines in Afghanistan, losing a limb is too common. West's unit had the highest casualty rate for Marines, in the past decade. Its mission took it to a nest of Taliban fighters and roadside bombs. It was so bad, some Marines strapped on loose tourniquets before heading out on patrol.

Losing a leg is not supposed to happen here; to middle-aged Americans and their children, watching a road race on a city street - which makes their adjustment that much harder.

WEST: And some of them not waking up till two or three days later, missing a limb that they had 48 hours prior; and not knowing exactly what occurred, or how it occurred. Yeah, it's a pretty big shock.

BOWMAN: The Marines told the Boston amputees about rehabilitation, about prosthetics; that there would be good days and bad. But Cam West says just standing there maybe helped more.

WEST: The mobility that we had, the positive spirits that we had and the motivation that we had, I think that does more than anything you can actually really tell them.

BOWMAN: Cam West and his fellow Marines say they're planning to go back to Boston again and again, to encourage those who lost a limb that day. And what about Cam West? He's decided that combat's no longer for him. So he's going with that fallback plan - a ranch, but not in Colorado. It will be along the Georgia-Alabama border, where he was born. He already has eight cowboy hats, and still watches John Wayne movies almost daily.

WEST: I've got a nice piece of property. I'm going to raise beef cattle and live the Southern solitude life.

BOWMAN: Well, not that secluded. He'll get married at the end of the year. His fiancee, he says, is a cowgirl at heart.

Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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