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Marine who lost leg returns to combat in Iraq

Sniper’s bullet destroyed gunnery sergeant’s knee, but not his will to serve

If you’ve ever wondered what the Marines have in mind when they advertise for “a few good men,” look no further than Gunnery Sgt. William “Spanky” Gibson.


By Mike Celizic
TODAYShow.com contributor
updated 7:59 a.m. CT, Thurs., April. 10, 2008

Two years ago, he lost a leg to a sniper’s bullet in Iraq. Today, he’s back in the combat zone — by his own choice.

If you notice an unusual spring in his step as he goes about his duties at Camp Fallujah in Iraq, mark it down to the wonders of the modern technology that went into the carbon-fiber prosthetic leg Gibson wears. He may have surrendered a leg in serving his country, but he’s far from handicapped.

“As soon as a person says disabled, and they think they're disabled, they might as well keep their butt in a chair and not do anything the rest of their life,” the 37-year-old career Marine said in a story reported for TODAY by NBC News correspondent Ned Colt in Iraq.

As he goes about his duties for the 1st Marine Expeditionary force as a weapons coordinator in operations command, Gibson is an inspiration to his fellow soldiers and even to the commander in chief.

"When Americans like Spanky Gibson serve on our side, the enemy in Iraq doesn't got a chance,” President Bush said in a recent appearance in the Pentagon to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

In May 2006, Gibson was on foot patrol in Ramadi in Iraq when a sniper’s bullet tore through his left knee. “Basically, the bullet disintegrated my kneecap, completely,” he said.

Being a Marine, his first instinct wasn’t to call for help but to try to get back up and return to the fight. That was impossible with the damage his knee had sustained. Besides the damage to the bone and connective tissue, the bullet that hit him also severed a major nerve and his femoral artery.

In the hospital, doctors tried to save his leg, but Gibson knew it wasn’t going to heal.

“Every day I’d beg the surgeons — I'd beg ’em, ‘Just cut it off, close me up. Get me out of here,’ ” he said, actually laughing at the memory.

Within two months of being wounded, Gibson, who makes his home in Pryor, Okla., with his wife and young daughter, was back at work at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

As he learned to navigate on his new leg, he dove back into sports, relearning how to ski and run.

Encouraged by his progress, he started training for triathlons and last year completed the “Escape from Alcatraz” race, which included a swim from the legendary prison island in San Francisco Bay to the mainland.

Marine Gen. James Mathis was at the swim and while congratulating Gibson for his achievement, asked him if there was anything he could do for the 19-year Marine veteran. Just one thing, said Gibson — get him back to Iraq.

Just two other soldiers have returned to Iraq after amputations, and navigating bureaucratic hurdles wasn’t easy, but with friends like Mathis on his side, Gibson got his wish in February, deploying to his backline job in Fallujah just 21 months after he was wounded.

To Gibson, there wasn’t any question about going back. “It's my life,” he said. “It's what I love. For me at least, being a Marine means being prepared to go into conflict.”

On the base, he’s an inspiration to other Marines, who see what he’s done and find it easier to shoulder their own loads.

“You may be down sometimes, but you look at him and say, ‘This is what it's all about,’ ” said Master Sgt. Solomon Reed. “It's inspirational to the Marines."

Gibson sees it as just doing his job. He’s seen progress in Iraq in the past two years and compares where that country is to where the United States was when it set out on the road to independence.

“This is where we were 232 years ago as a new nation,” he once said. “Now they're starting a new nation, and that's one of my big reasons for coming back here.”