‘You need people’ — young Marine rebuilds his life after blast in Afghanistan
NORTH COVENTRY, Pa. — An IED blast in Afghanistan left Marine Cpl. Grant Cantrell III with a traumatic brain injury and a choice: Would he have his severely injured legs amputated, or endure intense physical therapy to save them?
Blisters from burns covered his feet and lower legs. They looked “disgusting,” Cantrell remembers thinking at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
He waited out the pain while some of his wounds from the Sept. 28, 2011, explosion healed. When he was able to begin physical therapy, he tried baby steps, feeling like a young horse unsure whether his wobbly legs would hold him.
Cantrell’s mother, Sandra Cantrell-Edwards, was at his side when President Barack Obama pinned a Purple Heart to his shirt at Walter Reed. But he asked her to leave near the end of his seven-month stay, so he could surprise her with his progress.
At his May homecoming celebration in Chester County, Cantrell took his first steps before his mother — with about 200 other people cheering him on.
Today, at 22, he is adjusting to a life back home in southeastern Pennsylvania, catching up with friends and family as he continues the rehabilitation likely to have a place in his life for a long time to come.
“I was big into running and swimming” before going off to war, he said. He’d like to run a 5K and swim again, but he has a long way to go. For now, “I’m trying to get rid of [that,]” he said, nodding toward the cane he still uses when he walks.
‘A very difficult thing.’ Cantrell didn’t need an IED blast to remind him of the preciousness of life.
As he prepared for his first deployment, his father was fighting cancer. Aldo Magazzeni, a friend of the family, had lunch with the pair before Cantrell left, and he told the story to the crowd that welcomed Cantrell home from Walter Reed.
Magazzeni, who has helped impoverished people around the world with his organization, Traveling Mercies, felt a sense of mortality as he watched how the two men looked upon one another. Each was acutely aware they might not survive their respective battles, Magazzeni said.
“They wanted nothing but the best for each other,” Magazzeni said, “because they were both facing a very difficult thing.”
On Feb. 22, 2010, Cantrell’s father passed away. He didn’t get a chance to say a final goodbye. “Time just doesn’t stop because you’re over there,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell said his father and family members of his family were among the influences he considered when he joined the Marines. His grandfather served in the Army. Cantrell wanted more out of life than a standard 9 to 5 job would give him, he said, and “the challenge” of the Marines was part of its allure.
While he attended Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown and after his 2008 graduation, Cantrell worked at Pence Construction. Owner Tom Pence described him as “like a little redheaded kid” among the older workers.
Cantrell said he was like most of his peers. “I was a little immature kid,” he said.
Cantrell-Edwards said her father was in the Army, and she knew what her son stood to risk and gain through serving his country.
“That was one of the things I explained to him at graduation” from basic training, she said.
“When you go home, you will notice that what you found funny before, you won’t anymore. You’ve grown in a way no one else in your shoes has grown.”
At Cantrell’s homecoming celebration, Pence marveled as he saw Cantrell in full dress blues, walking with the cane.
“He’s really matured into a man,” Pence said.
‘We’ll deal with it.’ During Cantrell’s first deployment, he was involved in a February 2010 push through Marjah, a city in southern Afghanistan that was a key Taliban stronghold.
Slight anxiety mixed with excitement surged through him as he and the others with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment descended on the city after nightfall.
“We jumped out in the dark in the middle of a field,” he said. Expecting to get shot at and facing the uncertainty of what was ahead, “you get a lot of adrenaline.”
But it was routine work during his second deployment that almost took his life. He was riding in the front seat of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected all-terrain vehicle in the Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan.
The M-ATV, designed to limit injuries to occupants during an IED strike, “didn’t do the job it was supposed to do,” Cantrell said. There is an ongoing investigation into why he and others were badly injured, he said.
His mother remembers his call. “He said, ‘Mom, are you sitting down? Mom, I’ve got some bad news.’ And then the phone went dead.”
She didn’t know what had happened, but she knew he was alive. “Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it,” she said.
She was standing at the gate at Andrews Air Force Base when he arrived from Afghanistan.
‘Working on my recovery.’ When Cantrell first arrived home from Walter Reed, he had to take naps because he became easily exhausted.
He was also recovering from the psychological impact. Hitting a pothole in the road during a car ride would send him into a frantic rage, Cantrell-Edwards said.
He still hears things differently. On a recent day, the repeating “pop” of a nail gun used by neighbors near his rural home echoed like enemy gunfire in Afghanistan. Cantrell said it didn’t bother him much, but as he stared off, one had to wonder what that noise might be triggering for him.
Not a veteran yet, Cantrell is now with the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East and his main focus is to get better.
“I’m still active duty,” he said. “At the same time, I’m more just working on my recovery.”
Cantrell is continuing his physical therapy and his walking is still improving. He is also doing occupational therapy for his traumatic brain injury. It takes him longer to process thoughts than it did prior to his injury, and he still has issues with short-term memory, but he is getting better, he said.
Asked whether he is concerned about his future, given so little is known about the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury and the still-fragile state of his legs, Cantrell paused.
“No,” he said, adding he feels he will be able to deal with issues as they arise, and he has gotten good care at Walter Reed.
It will be at least November before he can start running again, his mother said, and he has a year before he will get his gait back.
‘Never over.’ Cantrell emphasizes that he is just one of many living with the lasting effects of war, and said he knows how lucky he is to have supporters.
“You need people,” he said. “You need people to come see you (when you’re in the hospital.) You need someone to talk to you.”
And you need people to know that the war isn’t over.
“You have to go to Walter Reed and then you will see the war is not over,” he said.
Gunnery Sgt. Robert Smith, one of Cantrell’s brothers in arms, was at the celebration to welcome him back to Chester County.
“He’s one of my kids and I get to see him come home,” Smith said, beaming with pride and relief.
Sometimes the sacrifices people make while serving their country “get forgotten,” Smith said, and it was important for Cantrell to see no one had forgotten him. But that support needs to go beyond a hospital visit or a welcome home party, Smith said.
“He’s never gonna be the same guy,” Smith said. “The war is never over, whether it’s the true fighting, or the inner fighting.”