Wounded Juneau Marine learning to walk again

Sgt. Thomas McRae once stood 5 foot, 9 1/2 inches. Soon, his mother says, he will standing 6 feet tall.


The 30-year-old U.S. Marine Corps explosive ordnance disposal technician lost both his legs and left arm in a roadside blast in Afghanistan about five months ago.

He went through extensive surgeries and rehab, but now, his mother says, he is learning to walk again.

"It's amazing," McRae's mother Carolee Ryan told the Empire in a phone interview Tuesday. "He's my hero."

McRae practices walking every day on prosthetic legs, commonly referred to as "shorties," Ryan said. They are straight metal rods that double amputees above the knees use to practice their balance and gait, she said.

After the shorties are mastered, 10 more inches are added to them. The last step is to add enough inches to reach his full height, which was five feet and nine and a half inches, Ryan said.

"But he's requested to be 6 feet tall," Ryan added with a smile that could be heard over the phone.

McRae has been walking on the shorties using parallel bars for about a month now with his physical and occupational therapist, Ryan said. He was transferred back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, about a month ago, after he completed therapy at the Richmond Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Richmond, Virginia.

He is also using a "crutch" arm for standing and walking, as well as a mechanical arm, which has a gripper, for every day usage, Ryan said.

Using biceps and triceps is something that occurs naturally when reaching for something, but amputees have to think about and learn which muscles to use for what, Ryan explained.

McRae, who was born and raised in Juneau, was wounded on Jan. 16, 2012, when he was investigating an explosive threat on a Marine base in the Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. An improvised explosive device exploded under him.

He sustained eye injuries, but Ryan says his vision in his left eye is slowly improving. A prosthetic for his right eye will be made, she said.

Ryan, who is staying with her son in military housing in Bethesda with other family, says her son's spirits were raised recently when she drove him from Bethesda to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to greet his unit, as they returned home on May 1.

"It was a very tearful moment and a healing process for them all," Ryan wrote in an earlier email to the Empire. "The EOD Community in North Carolina is a blessing. ... They have a wonderful bond that you cannot explain at all."

Ryan also wanted to make sure to thank the Juneau community for all their support, as well as her family members.

It's too soon to tell at this point when McRae will be affixed with permanent prosthetics, but his progress has been remarkable, Ryan said.

"He's done amazing strides from the very, very beginning of this thing, when it all started," she said.

McRae has a new goal in mind though, she said. His sister, Jessica, is getting married in August.

Ryan said, "She wants her dad and brother to walk her down the aisle."