Originally published in the Northwest Florida Daily News Sunday Edition, April 4th, 2012
Everyone gets hurt on their last mission, runs the proverb.
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Corbin of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) thinks it and it passes from his mind. He has been on last missions before. He is not a man to be held up by the voice in the back of his head.
It is Feb. 22, 2011. Corbin and his team have progressed along the Helmand River to a point just south of Forward Operating Base Robinson, near the sleepy town of Heydarabad.
Corbin knows the place. He has been to this part of Afghanistan before. IEDs removed here will often return and have to be removed again.
Ghosts of lost Americans linger here, deep in the Sangin District. “Fobrob,” as the base is known, is named for Special Forces soldier Christopher Robinson, who was killed nearby five years past. It is a place where silence from enemy gunfire makes Corbin nervous, wondering what is to come.
They move up the banks between the desert and the water. Rotting buildings with blown-off doors appear to be melting in the sunlight. Within a two square kilometer area his team has discovered four suspicious structures. Bombs are found in one of them. Corbin is called over to search for more.
He quickly finds an IED, reports it and continues to proceed around the building. Ahead of Corbin, another soldier works to clear the ground.
“I got wires coming out of the building,” the soldier says. “Don’t touch anything.”
Corbin moves to the corner of the building, an area which already has been cleared.
“Pull back,” Corbin says. “Give him some room to … ”
The ensuing explosion rips him off his feet and launches him across the desert. The world is a haze of sun and sand and he tries to scramble to his feet. His instinct is to stand and run. He is sure they are under mortar fire and that more will follow. With mortars, he knows that you must run or be hit again. Before he can scramble up he is tackled by a friend.
“Hey Corb,” he says. “Just stay down.”
Corbin struggles. It seems impossible that his friend cannot know of the accuracy of mortars. They cannot stay down. They cannot stay.
He looks around. His vision is bad and he struggles against his friend. He should be standing. Standing and running. It should not be so hard to stand.
“Man down, man down,” echoes over the squawk box. Surely the next mortar will be coming.
He struggles again. When he does he looks down, instead of legs there is a nothingness. A space in the sand where legs should be that is now nothingness. Leaning back now, immersed in furious calm. No pain, only a stinging feeling. A slight warm sensation.
In the chaos of the wake of the explosion ringing about him, medics begin to apply tourniquets to the stubs of his legs.
He describes it as like having ringside seats to his own boxing match. He spars with words that hardly seem his own, helpless to control them under the heavy blanket of anesthesia.
“Where’s my goddamn feet at?” he asks an attending medic.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the medic says. “We had to amputate. The right leg was completely blown off to the length it’s at now. The left we had to amputate ourselves.”
He tells Corbin that they had met with prosthetic surgeons and that based on his injury, he needed to be “evened off.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Corbin says. “But where are my feet?”
“Hundred and ninety dollar Merrell boots,” he says. “I want ’em back.”
The world comes to him in mottled colors. His cornea has been damaged. He demands to be let outside to call his friend. Medics refuse. He keeps thinking, $190 Merrell boots.
“There’s no reception in here,” he says, fiddling with a satellite phone. “Take me outside.”
“We can’t do that, sir.”
In rueful desperation the future flashes forward. A life with no legs. Wheelchairs. Prosthetics. Treated as disabled.
Time wanes. His father, on the other side of Afghanistan, is notified of his son’s injury. When he arrives he whirls open the curtains to an empty bed.
“Where is Sgt. Corbin?” he asks a nearby medic.
“I don’t know, sir,” the medic answers.
“Well, from what I understand, he didn’t just walk out of here.”
On the ground there are extension cords. Master Sgt. Nelson Corbin follows them down the hallway and outside into the Afghan sunlight. His son, legless, sits hooked up to wires, sporting sunglasses and sipping a Dr. Pepper.
“I asked for a Coke,” Corbin says, smiling at his father.
Doctor vs. Soldier
To walk through the gym at Walter Reed Army Medical Center is to take a tour of the absurd. Crowds of the limbless rally at improbable tasks. Weightlifting and calisthenics go on side by side with men and women learning to walk again.
Corbin thinks how to outsiders it should serve as a wakeup call. How impossible it should be to feel bad about your life. How pathetic it should be to lack motivation.
It is here where Corbin, his father at his side, begins his recovery. But although he respects the drive of the other injured warriors, he does not like the crowds. The collision of so many unfamiliar forces makes him uneasy. He is reminded of crowds in Afghanistan. Such crowds anticipate explosions, firefights.
Doctors say that it will take a year just to walk. He decides he wants to be back at work in six months. Other soldiers warn him that it’s impossible and try to cajole him into more reasonable expectations.
“Well, I will absolutely remember that you told me that,” he says. “Now, while you’re telling me that I can’t do something, will you please step aside while I’m doing it?”
As a child, Corbin painted and drywalled on stilts. When after six weeks he stands on his new legs, he finds that although it is painful, the balance and the coordination are still there. He begins to walk.
“What the hell are you doing?” the doctor cries, rushing to his side.
“Walking,” he says.
“Have you ever done this before?”
“Yeah, when my legs got blown off the first time, I used to do this all time.”
Doctors don’t speak Corbin’s language, nor he theirs. He needs no nursing or micromanaged care. He is unconcerned with safety or ease or convenience or “what makes sense.” He is an anomaly in the world of the wounded, and civilian physicians are ill-equipped for his spit and fire.
“You could be the finest walker that Walter Reed has ever had,” says his therapist, six months into her job, concerned he is moving too quickly. “If only you follow my schedule.”
“I don’t give a damn about your resume,” he says.
He knows he is tougher on himself than he needs to be. He knows she has his best interests in mind. He knows he is too stupid to know when to quit. But that is who he is. And his spirit has emerged from trauma distilled to its rawest form. All he asks now is to be left alone to roar back from hell on his own terms. He fires her.
There are nine flights of stairs in the new amputee wing at Walter Reed. His new therapist sets Corbin loose on them. The trick is in where he bears his weight. Now it is the sides of his shins. Long hours are spent in grinding ups and downs, the click of his prosthetics pounding the linoleum with a heavy thud and echoing through the staircase.
The new therapist understands him.
“What do you need?” he asks Corbin.
“I want to push,” Corbin says.
“You wanna push? Roger that. Go over and get designers to build you running feet.”
Within three days he has his running feet and he is running around the gym. In his sweat he tastes a common denominator. There are things in him which physical injury cannot touch.
When he leaves the hospital for the final time, he packs his truck himself.
Running and jumping
Thirteen months have passed since the explosion. Eight have passed since he returned to active duty. Corbin sits in the kennel at the 7th Special Forces Group’s cantonment on Eglin Air Force Base. He is serving again before many expected he would walk.
His prosthetics are casually crossed over one another.
“One thing about guys that work over here,” he says. “We push ourselves pretty hard. And when you don’t push yourself pretty hard: quit. That’s my mentality.”
Corbin’s life is organized around pushing hard. He runs several times a week now, whenever he can between the physically numbing workload of a Special Forces day. He has dropped his mile time to 5:00, a time he recognizes he could not have reached even before the accident. He doesn’t drink.
“I didn’t ever want to feel like the invalid. I don’t want to feel like you have to stop what you’re doing to take care of me because I can’t do it on my own. I refuse to have that feeling.”
He points to certain restrictions. The prosthetics must be removed before bed each night, screw by screw. The special attachments he needs for activities like running and swimming. The thick mud of marshes and swamps that can pull his leg from its socket.
Yet he can still leap from planes.
Outside, the wind is whistling across the sandy lot beside the kennels. Corbin tips down his shades and walks into the sun.
“Should I have stayed up there longer? Maybe. But I wasn’t gonna test that. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get back to work. So that’s what I did.”
One of his proudest possessions is a huge black pickup truck, which he says he has no problems driving. When he opens the back, a pair of Merrells spill from the bed. He picks them up and laughs. He says, deadpan, that he doesn’t have to worry about athlete’s foot anymore.
He also rides a motorcycle.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “it sucks. I mean, wake up tomorrow and you have no legs. There’s no other way to describe it … But it’s not that it happened that really bothers me. I knew this could happen. It’s that I can’t do anything about it.”
From here he is not sure where he will go. He could be deployed to South America on a foreign internal defense mission to instruct others on IEDs. He says he won’t tell his students what happened to him. They will not know what hells he has been to.
To them, he may seem just another soldier, just as on the street he may seem just another man. He isn’t. But that’s exactly how he wants it.