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Marine's Life Forever Altered By War


Next month, some American military families will have something besides the holidays to celebrate. President Obama's decision to bring all U.S. forces home from Iraq by the end of December means many of those soldiers will join their families for the holidays. But after all the homecomings and festivities, the reality of a life altered by war sets in. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler reports on one family's journey to live a new normal.

ELIZABETH FIELDER, BYLINE: When the September 11th terrorist attacks happened, Andrew Robinson was already on his way to becoming a Marine. Sitting in his home in a quiet New Jersey neighborhood, the 28-year-old retired Marine Corps Staff Sergeant remembers that day at Parris Island, South Carolina.

STAFF SGT. ANDREW ROBINSON: They told us to all come, you know, sit in the room and watch it on TV. But at that point, like, having eight weeks of basic training, like, all the emotions are, like, you know, pretty much trained out of you at that point. So for me, September 11th, I remember it happening. But then right after it happened, we went right back to continue our training.

FIELDER: After his first deployment to Iraq in 2004, Robinson got married to a girl he met in high school. Then came his second deployment.

ROBINSON: It was a little town outside of Fallujah. I was there for like six months. We did interrogations and also human intelligence collection. So like, people would call us and tell us when they saw, like, a roadside bomb or stuff like that.

FIELDER: He remembers the day that altered his life forever.

ROBINSON: The day I got hurt, it was June 20th of 2006. It was a really big roadside bomb. It ripped the front half of the truck off.

FIELDER: Three Marines died, but Robinson and another Marine in the back seat survived, but not without injury.

ROBINSON: Seven months in the hospital. You know, I broke my legs really bad when I got hurt. Broke some ribs, too, and collapsed lungs. But the biggest thing was I broke my vertebrae, C5, and that injured my spinal cord. So that's why I'm paralyzed now from the chest down and also in my arms.

FIELDER: Robinson says when he first got injured, one of his first thoughts was whether he and his wife would be able to have children. Five years later, the couple is expecting twins around Christmas. Robinson is excited about the birth of his children, but he worries about the challenges he will face as a father because of his injury.

ROBINSON: Like, how will you be able to hold a baby safely? How will you be able to give a baby a bottle or you going to be able to change diapers or change the kid or, you know, there's lots of stuff. And it stinks because you're a guy, and your wife is supposed to say, honey, can you grab that? It's too heavy for me.

FIELDER: Robinson says he's learning about what he can do in his life going forward from other friends with disabilities, including some he's played with on a local wheelchair rugby team.

A.J. NANAYAKKARA: Andy's a Marine. And you don't stop being a Marine just because you broke your neck.

FIELDER: That's A.J. Nanayakkara. He says Robinson brings a hardcore attitude.

NANAYAKKARA: There's a certain person that enlists in the military, becomes an officer. Usually, they're outgoing or they want to serve the country. So I think a big part of how do you get them to adjust to living with the disability is to connect with that person that he or she was before he got hurt.

FIELDER: Dr. Guy Fried agrees. He's the chief medical officer at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, which runs a wheelchair sports program that includes the rugby team. He says wounded troops will push society to adapt.

DR. GUY FRIED: These are young people in their 20s, in their 30s coming back. They want to reintegrate. They want to get back with their families. They want to get back to work. They want to get back to a life. And they need help doing this.

FIELDER: Back in his New Jersey home, Andrew Robinson says he's trying to regain as much of his independence as he can.

ROBINSON: Everything with spinal cord injury, it's just - it takes a while to learn things. It takes a while to figure out how you can drive, how you can write again, how you can use the computer, how you can cook. You know, once you figure it out, it's easy after that. The twins are going to be interesting.

FIELDER: Robinson says he has a pretty fulfilling life. He's going to college online and hopes to find a job working in intelligence. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Fiedler