JUNEAU (AP) — When U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Thomas Howard McRae rolled into a Juneau pizza parlor earlier this week, people couldn’t help but stare.
The two missing legs. The prosthetic arm. The wheelchair.
Then, the grey T-shirt that says, “If you keep staring, they may grow back.”
“You may as well have fun,” McRae said with a sly grin.
The 30-year-old Explosive Ordnance Technician returned to Juneau this week to visit his parents and the place where he was born and raised. It was his first time back since he was wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Jan. 16.
McRae was greeted by friends and family, and was feted at a local high school football game held in his honor Sept. 1.
“It was good, although from the bleachers to the field, I can’t really see that far, but I had commentators,” he said, nodding to his father, Tim Ryan, and one of his sisters, Jessica Ryan. “But yeah, it was fun, it was nice. Everybody came out for the most part and said hi.”
From watching the ease with which McRae plays with his 4-year-old daughter, Aidan, and jokes with his family at the restaurant table, it’s hard to imagine that his parents once worried their son would never talk again.
“The scariest part of the whole thing for me was the brain injury,” says Tim. “... It’s scary — when you have a brain injury, they don’t even talk to him, they talk to us, and that’s what I wanted to get rid of.”
Tim elaborated, “They cut a hole in his head and stuck a straw down into his brain, and then they put an instrument down inside the straw and grabbed the (bone) fragment and pulled it out.”
“Yeah,” McRae added, “and then they left the rest. They only pulled out the one.”
“What the blast did was it took the bone structure behind his right eye, and blew it like a shotgun blast into his brain,” Tim explained. “So somewhere on his head, they took part of his skull and replaced the structure behind his eye so his brain didn’t fall down into the eye socket.”
“Because that would have been creepy,” McRae said.
“That would have been a little creepy,” his dad agreed.
When McRae woke up at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., he couldn’t speak. He communicated by squeezing hands for ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’
“That’s the first thing I remember coming to,” McRae recalled.
Waking up, he said he remembers just generally being uncomfortable. His right hand hurt from a badly broken thumb, and he was unhappy about having to wear a visor to protect the right side of his face. The right side of his face was cut up, and the optic nerve in his right eye was severed. The vision in his left eye was damaged badly, too.
“I was not comfortable,” he said.
McRae says he has no memory of the blast, nor, in fact, anything two weeks prior to the blast. Another Marine who was there flew to Bethesda to help fill in the missing pieces.
McRae said he was on foot on a Marine patrol base, Patrol Base Chakaw, working on an improvised explosive device (IED) outside an abandoned compound with 10 to 15 feet high walls, probably once used for farming. All of a sudden, he stepped on another IED.
“I got blown up outside one of those areas,” he said. “They pulled me into one, which they weren’t supposed to do because it was abandoned, and abandoned compounds have bombs all over so you’re supposed to stay out of it. But they pulled me in one because I was pretty messed up, and I guess I was pretty angry about the whole thing, is what they said.”
He paused, then said, “I didn’t expect it, I guess.”
A medevac helicopter picked him up, and trauma surgeons on board immediately began cleaning out his wounds and pumping him with antibiotics. When they landed at the British outpost Camp Bastion, northwest of the capital of the Helmand Province, doctors performed the initial amputations. He was badly in need of blood, which wasn’t in high supply, so they “pretty much pumped it out of one person and pumped it into me,” McRae said.
“But it kept me alive,” he said.
In Kandahar, doctors essentially cut open his skull, from his right eyebrow to the back of his head to let his swelling brain breathe. Later, when he awoke at the hospital, he said he could still see the slight crack on his skull.
“That was kind of a really — wow, there’s my brain,” he said.
McRae was flown back to the United States once he was deemed stable, and was then treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where his parents flew from Juneau to be by his side.
He underwent several more surgeries, including have a small piece of his brain — about the size of the tip of a pinky finger — removed from his brain.
At first he was heavily medicated, but was able to go off the medicine when he was transferred to a military medical hospital in Richmond, Va., called Richmond Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, which specializes in traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“They took me off those drugs, and I immediately started gaining leaps and bounds, which was nice,” McRae said. “So while we were there, my entire day was chock full of therapies, then we started actually to go places (and were able to) leave the hospital.”
He added, “The first thing I wanted was a good steak — the hospital food is crap.”
For the month McRae was at the Richmond facility, he was surrounded by familiar faces. He knew many of the other recovering Marines there from his previous tours, and EOD training.
“It makes it easier having people that you recognize and get to hang out with,” McRae said, “and for the most part, everybody there is just sarcastic about it, and you don’t see too many people down on themselves.”
McRae was affixed with a prosthetic arm, and is learning to walk on prosthetic legs. He will receive his full-height prosthetic legs once he can walk up a flight of stairs, a goal his physical therapist set, he said. He will also have a prosthetic eye made for his right eye, and a special contact lens made for his left eye. Vision in is left eye is improving every day, although until the contact lens is made, he’s stuck wearing thick reading glasses.
“These glasses, I’m pretty sure that they took the lenses off the telescope,” he said, shaking his head.
He said originally his vision test was, ‘Are we holding something in front of your face?’ Now, he can see about 10 to 15 feet with the glasses.
“That’s a huge increase from what it was,” he said.
His vision is expected to be even better six months to a year from now.
Going forward, the only surgeries McRae has left is what he calls the “beautification,” procedures to be done by a plastic surgeon. That includes fixing a scar on his face and more work on his hand.
McRae was serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was injured. He had already served three tours of duty in Iraq.
When asked how he copes with the trauma he’s endured, McRae says he tries not to get stressed out about it.
“It was — I guess you’d call it an understood possibility, well before I left,” he said. “I think kind of just accepting that it could happen made it much easier when it did happen.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Marine Corps said 19 EOD Technician Marines were wounded in Afghanistan last year. Three were killed.
McRae says he doesn’t know what the future holds for him. He might be medically retired, or he might stay in the Marine Corps. He said he might like to be an EOD training instructor.
“I have rest of life to choose,” he said. “If I do get medically retired, it won’t be where I’ll have to get out and have a job like next week. I’ll be able to get out and kind of find what I want to do.”
McRae noted he was especially appreciative of the support from Juneauites. He also noted the money raised at a Saturday night football game will go to benefit the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. That’s a nonprofit organization, made famous by Gary Sinise, that constructs “smart homes” for military personnel returning home with severe injuries.
“They’re going to do one for me in 2013 sometime,” McRae said, adding the work will be done to his home in North Carolina where he will be flying home with his daughter. “But instead of having it just donated to me, it’s going to be donated to the organization, so it’s going to get used well.