Last of two parts
Part one may be found here:
SAN ANTONIO – Marine Cpl. Eric Morante's face darkens with effort, his mouth compressed in a tight line as he struggles for balance while doing abdominal crunches on a big blue exercise ball.
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12:26 PM CST on Sunday, December 23, 2007
By DAVID McLEMORE / The Dallas Morning News
Eight, nine, 10 ... halfway through the third repetition. Sweat drains down his face, pooling into a dark circle on the front of his T-shirt, covering the Marine insignia. Eleven, 12, 13 ... he wobbles, then straightens to finish out the rep.
It's a challenge with two feet on the ground. And Eric's right leg ends in a smooth stump just above where his knee should be.
He wipes his face with a towel, hops up on one leg into his wheelchair and peels off the foam-and-rubber prosthetic liner covering this stump, pouring out a thin stream of sweat onto the towel.
The legend on his shirt reads, "Pain is weakness leaving the body."
He moves on to the weight machine, attacking it with intensity. "I exhaust myself. Some days, my muscles just shake," he says. "It's my choice."
On April 20, Eric and seven other members of the Marine squad he led were seriously injured when a suicide bomber set off a dump truck filled with 3,000 pounds of explosives under a highway bridge checkpoint at Saqlawiya in Anbar province, roughly 50 miles west of Baghdad.
All survived, though all but two were seriously injured and sent to military hospitals across the country.
On that day, Eric and his squad members entered life among the wounded and became a statistic in a war that has claimed 4,200 lives and resulted in more than 30,000 injured in nearly five years of combat. On that day, Eric began his long journey toward recovery and a new life. A hero on the battlefield, he worked with quiet courage back home to re-establish his identity and sense of purpose, which until now had been inextricably linked to his status as a Marine.
His left cheek was crushed by debris and his front teeth cracked. His left wrist was shattered and is now held together with 10 titanium pins. A thin scar runs along his forearm, leading down to fingers that can only partially curl closed.
On May 26, Eric arrives at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio on a stretcher to begin his recovery at the new Center for the Intrepid, a four-story drum of a building that houses what the Army proudly calls a $50 million rehabilitation center for wounded warriors.
It's July 2. Eric works out three times a day at the center – on isometric and weight machines. He undergoes long, grueling sessions of floor exercises that not only retrain muscles in the remainder of his right leg but also strengthen the chest and abdomen to help his body adjust for the missing limb.
It's all preparation for his prosthetic leg.
That's what Eric has been waiting for impatiently. He works with a purpose.
"When I got here, I made a vow to be up on both feet when my guys come home," he says.
It's going to be a tight squeeze. It's early July, and Fox Company, 2/7 Marines is scheduled to return to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., at the end of August.
Putting away the crutches
"Eric's at the stage where he's adapting to the new normal," says his center therapist, Fred Jesse. "His only limitations will depend solely on what he thinks he can't do."
Typically, above-the-knee amputees start with a limb that has a mechanical knee moved by a hydraulic system. The patient steps down, pushing a piston that allows the knee joint to move. The patient kicks out, stepping forward.
It's good for a slow, steady pace but gets balky when the pace speeds up.
Sometimes Eric pushes too hard with his new leg.
He limps a little now, having rubbed a sore spot on his thigh. The prosthetic also needs to be adjusted frequently because of shrinking tissue in the residual leg.
"I was focused on getting the leg," Eric said. "I want to get one I can run with. They even have ones for use at the beach and water. I have to keep focused on the next step."
He can still feel sensation in his missing leg, a phenomenon called phantom pain, resulting from messages that damaged nerves in the thigh send to the brain.
"At first, I felt the sensation down the whole leg, like I still had it. It was just THERE," Eric says. "Now, it's like my foot is where my knee used to be."
In mid-July, Eric gets his permanent leg – all black plastic and metals polished to a high shine.
Three weeks later, he can stand and walk straight and true. After only a few days, he puts away the crutches.
"That first day, I saw myself in the mirror and I was up. It was great," he recalls. "It's been a long time, and I felt like I was back. I wanted this so badly."
He maneuvers up a small set of stairs at the center to a platform and walks – without holding on to the parallel bars. The smile doesn't leave his face. It means he no longer has to rely on his wheelchair to get around.
"I really don't like that thing," he says. People stare.
"It really pisses off Gabby, my sister," he says. "She'll ask them what they're staring at. People always want to help push. I don't let anyone push me."
Gabriela "Gabby" Villalobos, 18, is spending the summer with her brother in San Antonio before returning to Houston for her senior year at Spring Woods High School.
Gabby doesn't take her eyes off her brother as he walks slowly across the Brooke lunchroom.
"He just wants to get better. He wants to walk out of here," she says. "We're here to give him what he needs. And get him away from the hospital. He really gets bored."
That evening, Eric walks from the center toward the Soldier & Family Assistance Center, where the family has a room at the guesthouse. He's pushing Gabby, who sits in the wheelchair, grinning.
Trying to keep in touch
Eric has made some friends among the other soldiers and Marines at Brooke Army Medical Center. But these are not his Marines. And he's not in charge.
"I wish we could go through rehab together. I could lead by example," he says. "Here, I don't have anyone to be responsible for. That's what I've done for four years, and it's just hard, you know."
Parents ask him to talk to their kids, and he goes through the motions, "joking and smiling." But his heart's not in it.
"I can't go see my guys, make sure they're OK," he says. "It's just a matter of coming in every day, doing the same thing over and over. It bores you after a while."
He stays in touch with the other wounded members of his squad. And he frequently calls Ivonne Thompson, the wife of Navy Corpsman Anthony "Doc" Thompson, who suffered the most severe injury, major head trauma.
But he's worried about her.
"She's pregnant, and she has Doc to worry about," Eric says. "I just try to make her laugh a little."
It works, Ms. Thompson says.
She and Eric talk by phone once a week, from the Veterans Affairs Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Tampa, Fla., where her husband is being treated.
"We were friends with Eric before Iraq, but now, he's part of the family," she says.
Two weeks later, in early August, Eric is spending a few days at home near Houston before flying out to California for his company's homecoming.
This is the home he grew up in – a modest frame house in a quiet neighborhood in Spring Branch, not far from Interstate 10.
The home is a shrine to family. And his mother, Maria Espinoza, is the center of gravity. Photographs of Eric and Gabby, as well as Eric's two older sisters and older brothers, cover virtually every wall, dresser and table.
Small albums hold snapshots of family gatherings and photos Eric sent from Iraq.
The refrigerator is a collage of pictures that track Eric from serious-faced first-grader to smiling, chunky football player in middle school.
Cousins and friends drop by, and no one leaves the house hungry as Mrs. Espinoza piles plates with what appears to be bottomless supply of milanesa, rice, beans and tortillas.
Everyone eventually gathers in the kitchen to talk.
A different Eric
"Joining the Marines was Eric's idea, not mine," said Mrs. Espinoza, who retired from her job of 34 years so she could take care of Eric. "He was 'bout 8 or 9 years old, standing in this very kitchen, and told me, 'Mom, I'm going to be a Marine.'
"I don't know where that came from," she adds. "No one in our family has even been in the military. Eric's the first."
Eric's father left when he was 9 months old, and the two didn't reconnect until Eric contacted his dad during his first tour in Iraq and they became close again, his mother says. His father died in March, just a month before Eric was injured.
Eric brought up the Marines again in high school. Though she initially said no, she eventually gave in.
"It's something he really wanted to do," Mrs. Espinoza says. "When he went to Iraq, I prayed to God every day to bring my son home safe. Three times, he went. And I got him back. A lot of moms didn't."
But the Eric who came back this last time is not the same.
"He was always joking, always making me laugh. He loved to surprise us. Many times, he'd call me and ask what was for dinner – then walk into the house. He'd drive all that way from California on a weekend, just to be home," she says.
"Now, he's quiet; something is bothering him. He misses his friends. He takes pills to get to sleep. He wakes up startled," she says. "We used to talk. Now, he's more distant, like he's moving away from us."
He worries more, she says.
"He worries about whether girls will like him now, want to be with him," she says. "In high school, he was a playboy. He was bright and funny. All the girls knew Eric. People liked to be with him.
"Now, he says to me, 'Will girls like me like this? I don't think so.' It's not something a young man should worry about."
Even before the Marines, her son felt responsibility for other people, Mrs. Espinoza says. "He was so protective of Gabby and me. The Marines gave him more people to take care of."
'Welcome home, son'
It's Aug. 25 and Eric is giddy with excitement. He's trimmed his hair Marine-style in readiness for the reunion with Fox Company.
At Houston Intercontinental for an early morning flight, a malfunction in his prosthesis makes it painful to use.
So he zips down an incline in the hated wheelchair, his leg on his lap.
At Phoenix, Eric has to wheel out to a smaller plane, give up his chair to ground crew, put on his leg and climb painfully up a steep stairway.
A burly man asks Eric if he needs help.
No, sir, he says, and continues up the stairway. The flight's jammed.
At the burly man's insistence, flight attendants move Eric toward the front of the plane.
At Palm Springs, the main commercial airport serving the Marine Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, 60 miles away, the burly man walks up to Eric at the luggage carousel.
"Welcome home, son," he tells Eric as he stretches out his hand and introduces himself as Col. Wes Westin, acting deputy commander at Twentynine Palms.
He gives Eric his phone number and offers to clear any bumps in getting to the homecoming. Marines take care of their own.
On the hour's drive from Palm Springs to Twentynine Palms, Eric's cellphone rings constantly. A reggatone melody by Don Omar signals yet another text message from someone in Fox Company: They've landed at March Air Force Base. They're loading up on the bus. They're heading out to Twentynine Palms.
By 3 p.m., he's on base, wheeling across a ball field toward a crowd of hundreds of people waiting for the return of Fox Company. The sun beats down like a hammer, and volunteers dispense water and energy drinks as a Marine band practices.
Young men in civilian clothes – the few squad members who were with Eric on Bridge 286 who made it back for the homecoming – whoop in delight when they see him.
There's Lance Cpl. Steven May, wearing a neck-to-waist hard plastic brace; Lance Cpl. Brandon "Little" Mendez, with a Marine Globe and Eagle decal fixed to his prosthetic arm; Cpl. John "Big" Mendez, on crutches with his smashed shins.
Suddenly, a voice shouts over a loudspeaker: "Here they come!"
Surrounded by other wounded 3rd Platoon members, Eric has positioned himself near a chain-link fence.
"Morante!" a voice screams out from one of the buses. "Dude!"
Don Omar again rings feebly and Eric shouts into the phone: "I'm over here by the [expletive] fence."
Eric is on his feet, engulfed in a sea of desert tan. He's swallowed by bear hugs from Marines that threaten to knock him to the ground.
The air is filled with shouts and curses of such joyfully rich complexity; it is no longer offensive. It takes on the rhythms of poetry.
"Cox came over to see you before he saw his wife and mom," one Marine tells him. Eric's smile would shame the sun.
Later, over dinner, and later still, during a long night of drinks at a favorite hangout called Bomba's in Palm Springs, Eric reminisces with a steady stream of Marine buddies. The conversation alternates between giddy celebration and more somber reflections.
Many of his friends are opting out of the battalion, seeking different schools or assignments that will eliminate – or at least postpone – another quick turnaround to Iraq. Heads nod in agreement.
The cost for some has become too great.
Lance Cpl. Steven May calls it a friends and family war.
"If you do not have a family member or friend that has been put in harm's way or injured, then it doesn't affect people's lives the same way," he says later. "Most people go on without a second thought."
Back at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio on Monday, Eric returns to the demanding routine of recovery.
These are not good days. His insomnia has worsened. He frequently sleeps through his physical therapy sessions and has to struggle to make up lost time.
"I'm used to getting up and going, find out what needs to get done and do it," he says. "Now ..." The words drift off into the air.
He's not sure what to do next.
It's early September and he's deep into his new normal.
The young Marine who worked out in the gym every day finds he can't easily lift weights with his maimed left arm. Synching the prosthetic leg with the rest of his body makes the simplest movements seem awkward and unnatural.
"You start thinking, 'Why should I do it at all?' " he says.
Iraq is never far away: the sharp, concussive blasts of IEDs, the grinding reality of patrols and house-to-house searches.
After his second tour, in Fallujah, Eric reconsidered his options. He wanted to stay in the Marines, but two trips to Iraq were plenty. He thought about seeking reassignment to another unit or additional training to help advancement.
In late fall, as the battalion prepared for a third trip to Anbar, he was reassigned to a new squad that needed some help.
"We all knew we'd be going to Iraq again, and those guys really needed to get their act together. We worked on it," he recalls. "I got my squad straight and got them ready to survive."
When the deployment order came down, he re-enlisted for another four years in order to go with the squad.
"I wanted to take care of my guys," he says. "I felt like I had to be there to watch over them."
Now, late at night in his room, one of the thoughts that keeps sleep at bay is the terrible geometry of his decision. It placed him in Iraq, atop Bridge 286 at the moment the suicide bomber set off a truckload of explosives.
"That really messes with my head," he says. "I keep thinking I could still be the same person I was before."
And there are the questions he can't answer: "Like what's going to happen to me after I get out here? How will I protect my home or defend my family when I'm like this?"
Army doctors had set up a group counseling session so Eric and other wounded warriors could talk – about the war, about their wounds and this new reality they find themselves in.
Eric found the experience of opening up to strangers too uncomfortable. He went once and never returned.
"I'm getting to know other wounded guys in the barracks, and we get together at night. We talk and we drink," he says. "Sometimes I drink enough to pass out, and then I can get some sleep."
He pauses. "I know it's not good," he says. "But sometimes, it's all you can do."
There is good news.
Ivonne Thompson gives birth to a 6-pound, 13-ounce son, named Anthony C. Thompson Jr. – A.J., for short. He is born Sept. 12 – four days after Eric's birthday. Eric keeps the photo on his cellphone, which he shows off like a proud uncle.
Later, when Ms. Thompson brings A.J. home to visit her parents in Conroe, Texas, Eric is there.
"Are you ready to see Uncle Eric?" Ms. Thompson says, then hands him the baby. "Holy crap," Eric says, patting the baby's back with a tentative hand.
Ms. Thompson fills Eric in on Doc's progress.
"When I lay A.J. next to him, he moves his head right to him," she says. "If A.J. cries, he makes a face. I know he's in there, and he knows what's going on."
In October, Eric opts to take a month of convalescent leave.
He has his permanent leg fitted with the final socket, which alleviates most of the pinching and rubbing. He's decorated the prosthesis with a huge scarlet-and-gold Marine insignia. He feels stronger and is walking better. He just needed a break, he says.
"I had to get away from BAMC for a while," he says. "I needed to be with friends and family and play with my dog."
His sister Gabby is a finalist for homecoming queen and wants him to escort her during a halftime ceremony. And she wants him in his Marine dress blues.
It's the first time he's worn the uniform since just before his last trip to Iraq, and he has to have it altered. He's put on a few pounds, he says, smiling.
The afternoon of the game, Eric gets ready with studied attention to detail.
He puts on the pants, the prosthesis sliding smoothly into the deep blue material. He then fits the silicon foot, carefully sculpted with toenails and veins, into a black sock, and then into an immaculately shined shoe.
Next, he carefully arranges the medals he'll wear on the breast of the jacket, especially the Purple Heart ribbon. He slips on the jacket, fastens the gold eagle, globe and anchor buttons and stands almost involuntarily at attention.
Surrounded by old sports trophies and the mounted head of his first deer hunt in his old bedroom, Eric again transforms into a Marine. Gabby fusses over his buttons and picks nonexistent lint from the blue jacket.
That evening, at Tully Stadium, the field is lighted like an outtake from Friday Night Lights. The Spring Woods High Tigers band plays energetically, stoking up the enthusiasm of several hundred fans wearing yellow and black.
Principal Wayne Schaper Jr. greets Gabby and Eric with a handshake. He tells them where they'll need to be just before halftime. In the stands, brother and sister are swarmed by well-wishers and friends. Eric's former football coach rushes over and gives him a bear hug.
At the appointed time, Eric and Gabby join the other hopefuls and their escorts on the opposite side of the field at the 50-yard line. As each name is called, they walk across to loud cheers. The volume rises when the PA system booms, "and senior Gabriela Villalobos, escorted by her brother ..."
Gabby takes Eric's arm and they walk, straight and true, across the field – the slight catch in the Marine's right leg is hardly noticeable.
A minute later, Gabby is crowned homecoming queen and pandemonium erupts in the stands.
Eric smiles, slips away, trades his uniform for civilian clothes and walks up into the stands to watch the rest of the game.
This is, after all, his sister's night.