--THE REFLECTOR, STARKVILLE, MISS., APRIL 1, 2005
The black dog bit Aaron Rice seven weeks after the mine blast tore through his Humvee's left wheel. One article of faith in amputee treatment is that depression is a predictable, even necessary part of healing; when a piece of you dies, it's only human to mourn. But Rice's grief came at him sideways. He seemed fine until the phone rang in his room at Walter Reed's outpatient apartment building, the Mologne House, but as soon as he heard Staff Sgt. Michael Brady's voice, Rice knew that MAP-7, his 20-man mobile assault platoon in Iraq, had been hit. Ambushed on May 7 near Haditha. Seven wounded, three of his buddies dead: Sgt. Michael Marzano, with whom Rice had spent his last morning in Iraq, trading tales at the shooting range; Sgt. Aaron Cepeda, who had tried to pull Rice out of his wrecked Humvee as mortar shells rained down; Lcpl. Lance Graham, who scribbled memorials to U.S. casualties on the 40-mm grenade rounds he fired at the enemy, one of which read in memory of lance corporal rice's leg.
Rice, then 21, broke down before he could hang up. He stayed in most of the day, weeping until the tears wouldn't come. Guilt, and a sense of his uselessness, overwhelmed him: What was he doing in bed? "I know it's irrational, but hell had broken loose on them for four hours, and I'd told them, 'I'll be there to watch your back.' And I couldn't pull a trigger. Guys were bleeding out and still shooting, bleeding to death and shooting, but I couldn't be there."
Rice had been in Iraq only 14 days when he hit the mine, but by then all his senses--all six of them--were sending out alarms. The evening before, he and his best friend there, Cpl. Stan Mayer, had been talking about all the men who'd been blown apart. Rice had enlisted in his home state of Mississippi, eager for action, and found it after becoming attached to the Ohio-based 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, a unit that has suffered more deaths than almost any other in Iraq. "I can't go home missing a leg," he told Mayer that night. "I just cannot do that."
On the afternoon of March 18 Rice's Humvee was trailing Mayer's on patrol when Rice saw a group of kids playing soccer. He wondered why they weren't swarming the unit begging for candy. "Something's not right," Rice said, and 30 seconds later the three-ton vehicle seemed to leap in the air. He felt excruciating pain everywhere: fingers, ears, teeth. Rice looked at his lap and found himself studying the sole of his left boot. It's gone, he thought. Mortar shells dropped all around as two Marines pried away the curled metal that had pinned Rice's right foot. A corpsman pumped Rice full of morphine and scrawled an M on his forehead with a black Sharpie, and Rice was dragged into a nearby school. Later, after a Blackhawk helicopter lifted him away and darkness fell, a group of Iraqis was spotted near Rice's gutted Humvee, setting land mines. Mayer says his unit opened fire and "took some of those guys out." Other insurgents ran into a cluster of shacks. The Marines called in an airstrike, and soon a 500-pound bomb fell on the huts.
On the helicopter out, Rice showed the crew a picture of his wife, Kelly; they'd married a month before he was deployed. A medic said, "She's beautiful, man." Then Rice passed out for three days.
Aaron and Kelly had begun dating five years earlier as teenagers in Mississippi. Aaron ran track and played recreational soccer at Oak Grove High in Hattiesburg, and, as a senior, after years of pumping weights with his twin brother, Ryan, made the football team. Aaron and Kelly went on to Mississippi State, where he majored in political science. As a sophomore he left school to work on Haley Barbour's 2003 gubernatorial campaign, then joined the Marine reserves with every hope of going to Iraq. His mom didn't like it, but what could she do? Ryan joined the Marines exactly one year later.
Kelly was nervous until the day Aaron got hurt, but that afternoon she told herself, Everything's going to be O.K. The next morning she answered a knock at her door, found two Marines there and collapsed, sure that Aaron was dead. Who ever heard of a doorstep notification for a lost limb?
Aaron woke up at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to the sight of Kelly's face. The next two months involved a half-dozen surgeries to remove dead skin and debris from the jagged wound where his leg had been severed, four inches below the knee; to take skin from his thigh for skin grafts; to build up the sound flesh around the ends of his bones and then stretch it for a strong, tight seal over the stump. Every step involved pain. Two weeks after arriving at the hospital, Rice slipped while hopping out of the shower. As he fell, all his weight drove the butt end of the stump into the floor. "Feels like getting run over by a train," Rice says.
In late May a group called Creative Mobility visited Walter Reed with custom-made bicycles, and Rice rode one-legged in D.C.'s Rock Creek Park. A month later he went mountain biking in Colorado and fell again, slamming his stump into the asphalt. In late July he took part in the D.C.-Baltimore stretch of Soldier Ride, a cross-country biking fund-raiser for disabled vets, and fell--but bent his knee this time and spared the stump. The skin grafts took a long time to heal, delaying the fitting of his first prosthesis until Aug. 1. Everyone at Reed talked up October's Ten-Miler, but staffers weren't sure Rice was ready for it. He had never run 10 miles in his life. He signed on anyway.