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W.Va. Marine fighting back after losing legs in IED blast

Cpl. Chris Santiago spent last week in the Cayman Islands.


by Kris Wise Daily Mail staff

The tropical vacation was a far cry from what the 22-year-old Parkersburg Marine was doing just four months ago, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Iraq and his whole life changed.

After being treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Santiago has been recovering since November at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and he's doing well.

The Parkersburg High School graduate lost both his legs below the knees after the Sept. 16 bombing in Baghdad.

But he's walking. Often, he's walking without even a cane.

Today, Santiago will get a new set of legs, his second pair since beginning physical therapy with the use of prosthetics.

"I took to it pretty easily," Santiago said Tuesday.

So well, in fact, he's about six weeks ahead of his therapy schedule.

Santiago was supposed to start out his rehabilitation on a pair of legs commonly referred to by patients as "stubbies." They're short -- about 6 inches to 12 inches off the ground -- and they don't have knees.

"I skipped that part," Santiago said.

He went straight to a pair of computerized legs with bendable knees. He's spent about five or six hours a day, every day, for the past three months working out.

He was supposed to go from walking with his new legs on a set of parallel bars -- which provides maximum support -- to using two canes to help him maneuver.

"I skipped that, too," Santiago said.

He went straight to walking with the aid of just one cane, and sometimes he doesn't use that.

"The cane helps me with stairs, uneven surfaces, so I still rely on it a bit," he said. "But I can walk a pretty good distance without a cane. I get a little tired, but I do it."

Last week's vacation in the Caymans was a sort of spur-of-the-moment thing. A lieutenant colonel in the Marines was being treated at Walter Reed for cancer. He owns a timeshare in the islands, and was scheduled for a vacation last week. He couldn't go because of his chemotherapy, Santiago said. The man donated his time at the vacation home, and Santiago and three other Marines staying at the medical facility jetted off for a much-needed vacation.

It wasn't the only traveling he's done recently.

His mother, former teacher Terri Santiago, said Tuesday that Chris has made one return trip home to Parkersburg. He didn't tell anybody but family and close friends he was heading to the Mountain State, because he wanted it to be private, family affair, his mother said.

"He's doing tremendously," Terri Santiago said. "He came home, and he walked in the door."

Santiago still has a long road ahead of him.

In addition to the more than 15 surgeries he had on his legs this fall, he's also had several reconstructive procedures on his left arm, which was severely injured in the explosion.

Santiago estimates he has three to four more arm surgeries to go, and the limb has to have time to heal in between each one. The next is scheduled for March.

Already, though, he's making progress there, too.

"It's not as good as it was before the accident, but right after I could barely move my fingers at all," Santiago said. "Now, I can pick things up. I can open bottles. I wasn't even able to open things before. I can bear weight on it now."

Santiago said he expects to be "really far along" with therapy on his legs by early summer. The surgeries on his arm might keep him at Walter Reed as long as August, he said.

The former Marshall University business major had been talking after his accident about attending West Virginia University to major in biochemistry once his therapy is complete.