Wounded warrior triumphs after loss of legs
About this story: Public Opinion reporter Jim Hook and photographers Markell DeLoatch and Ryan Blackwell visited Zachary and Tesa Stinson several times in the past two months.
The couple opened up their lives because Zach, a wounded warrior, wanted to tell his story to his hometown.
At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, they were excited and anxious to get home. They also were anxious about leaving the company of Marines, soldiers and their spouses.
“This is a bubble,” Zach said as he worked out in the hospital gym with other amputees. “You’re with your people. It’s easy to make jokes and not offend somebody. When you get in the public, you’re in the minority.”
“It’s normal around here,” Tesa said. “I can talk to wives who get it. He can talk to guys who get it. Everybody knows everybody and helps each other every day.” It was also normal for their 1-year-old daughter, Olivia, to be around amputees. Zach wondered if back home she would ask her friends, “Why does your Daddy have his legs?”
“It’s almost as if you put your life on hold for two years,” Tesa said. “(I want to) get back and live life. It’s bittersweet. It’s kind of scary to go into the real world. You’re on your own.”
Zach capped his feelings with a bit of wounded warrior humor: “If I end up homeless in the gutter, you’ll know I didn’t do too well. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m pretty confident in my plan.” His long stay at Walter Reed helped him make the adjustment from the
Marine Corps to civilian life, he said.
“Our family is amazing,” Tesa said. “They offer to help all the time.” The sun was out on his first day back to stay in Franklin County. A bird sang in the tree in the front yard. Zach and Tesa were going to the mall.
“It’s awesome,” Zach said. “I’m just glad to be back home.” “Even on the drive up it was more relaxing,” Tesa said.
Her window in Bethesda had looked out onto another apartment building.
“Parking spaces are smaller in D.C.,” Zach said. “If I didn’t get a handicapped parking spot, I was stuck in the truck.” In Bethesda, Md., Zach had resisted her insistence to put on his legs and walk to the gym.
“I was never in my legs as much as I am here,” Zach said. “Everybody was in a hurry to get somewhere. It’s more on my time.”
Marine Sgt. Zachary Stinson is walking back into civilian life in Chambersburg, the small town where he grew up. The 23-year-old lost his dream, a promising career and both his legs in Afghanistan.
“I figured I was going home in a box or whole, complete,” Stinson said. “Obviously there’s an in-between.”
Stinson was one of 202 U.S. combat troops to have at least one limb amputated in 2010, according to data from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. Their number increased to 248 in 2011. The increasing popularity of cheap, homemade improvised explosive devices is to blame. Stinson stepped on a pressure-plate IED on Nov. 9, 2010, less than three weeks before his first wedding anniversary. More than two dozen surgeries followed.
“People don’t realize there are veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs,” Stinson said. “Since I live around here it’s nice for people to know I’m here.”
More than 1,900 troops from Pennsylvania have been wounded since October 2001 in the Global War on Terrorism, according to military casualty data this week.
Zach’s stainless steel legs stand out when he walks the Chambersburg Mall with his wife, Tesa, and their 19-month-old daughter, Olivia, or when he shoots pool with his friends from high school. He and Tesa say they are getting used to the looks.
“I get stared at all the time,” Stinson said. “A little kid doesn’t know any better. They just stare. When adults do it, it’s annoying.” Sometimes they stare, then look away when they make eye contact.
“They think you’re a freak,” Zach said.
One man asked Zach if he had been in a car crash. Others thank Zach for his service to the country, and that’s OK, Zach said.
“I’m more than happy to share my story,” Zach said.
Zach has accepted his duty as a wounded warrior with the determination to better himself and with a ready responsibility to help others. It’s the same leadership he showed during his two-year recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he was promoted to sergeant. Sgt. Stinson visited fellow wounded Marines “who didn’t get it,” Staff Sgt. Paul Valentin said. Largely through the example of his own perseverance, Sgt. Stinson explained to them that “it’s going to be OK.”
“Marine sergeants have a responsibility, and their senior leaders depend on them,” said Valentin, protocol chief for Wounded Warrior Battalion East at Walter Reed. “They have a lot on their shoulders. Just because you got ‘blowed up’ doesn’t mean you’re not a leader of Marines. You’re still a leader in the Marine Corps.”
“Our mission is to adapt and overcome,” he said.
Life is divided for soldiers who lose limbs to IEDs, according to Zach. There is life pre-blast, and life post-blast.
“I got ‘blowed up’ in November 2010,” Zach said. “I got sergeant in February from a meritorious board. You don’t get sergeant in three-and-a-half years without being good. It typically takes six or seven years. I was planning on doing 20 years. Being injured I couldn’t do the job. I couldn’t be in the infantry. I like being where the action is. (The front line) It had its days.”
Zach was speechless at his retirement ceremony Nov. 1 at Walter Reed. He becomes a civilian at the end of the month.
“In the infantry the only thing I learned to do is to fight,” he said. “I have to pick up other skills. I don’t have any.” He recently started an internship at the Defense Logistics Agency, New Cumberland.
“With a government job there’s still a chain of command,” Zach said. “It’s not completely foreign. That, I can understand.”
It’s also a job at a computer keyboard. Zach lost his right thumb to the blast and parts of his left thumb and two fingers.
“I surprised myself,” Zach said. “I can type as good as before. As long as I’m busy, time flies.”
Zach had always wanted to be in the infantry, and within days of his 18th birthday he left for boot camp. Less than two years later he married Tesa, a schoolmate at Chambersburg Area Senior High School.
Zach was wounded when she was five months pregnant. The family got word on her cousin’s birthday.
“I have my right boot and clothing in the garage,” he said. “A chunk is missing from the leg.”
He plans to hang them on the wall as a reminder – “I survived that.” “Better me than someone else,” he said. “The IED was meant for two or three people. If I was any smaller, I’d have died. Because of my size and health I was able to survive.”
His squad members said he was blown 10 to 20 feet. They found the aluminum shell of his compass 200 meters away. The barrel of his rifle was bent into a “U”. Zach at 5-10 and 185 pounds was in charge of a squad checking for civilian causalities after a firefight in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
“We were pushing out,” he said. “There was a break in the wall. It was clear.” Ten yards from the wall Zach stopped the lead man. Zach had previous experience on point before becoming a squad leader.
“I like being out front,” Zach said. “I knew exactly where we were going. I trust myself.” Zach describes the blast as being on a pogo stick.
“I was stepping with my left foot,” he said. “My ears were ringing. I was flying through the air. I knew what was happening. I could see my hands in front of my face. I still had all my fingers at the time.”
His feet seemed to be behind his head.
“My guys thought I was dead,” he said. “They couldn’t see anything.” The dust cleared, and a corpsman started working on him.
Under fire, they moved him behind the wall. He told them to tell his wife that he loved her.
“I said a quick prayer in my head,” Zach said. “I figured: I’m going to die; I’m losing a lot of blood.”
He drank two or three bottles of water while waiting for the Medivac. It seemed to take forever. His vision went nearly white. Figures took on dark outlines.
“I knew something had happened with my legs,” Zach said. “They wouldn’t tell me or let me see them.”
On the helicopter he kept asking the medic, “Am I going to die?” He got no answer. The medic may not have heard him above the noise.
Zach remained conscious all the way to the operating room where nurses starting to cut off his clothes and put a mask on him. He dreamed he was back home at his dad’s friend’s house in winter.
Tesa rushed to meet him at Walter Reed. She kissed him when he came in on the stretcher.
Pain, surgeries and medication went on for months.
“After the first surgery I thought I ran and jumped on the stretcher in the OR,” Zach said. “It took forever to get comfortable because my legs felt like fire.”
He dreamed he was walking barefoot on broken glass in Alaska. “That’s why it hurts.”
“If I dream now, I don’t have legs anymore,” he said.
He did not understand that he did not have his legs until after a week at Walter Reed.
Nurses told him nicely that he didn’t have any legs, Tesa said. “I don’t remember that one,” Zach said.
The time he remembers: Tesa told him she was going for a snack: “I want to get up and walk with you.” “You can’t. You don’t have legs.” “Fine. You just effing go.”
“We’d told him many, many times,” Tesa said. “We’d already told him dozens of times. He was very, very medicated.” “Initially I couldn’t roll over,” Zach said. “My pelvis was smashed, I couldn’t really even move.”
Zach also complained that his legs hurt. Tesa and his mother would rub his nubs, but it did not help. The medical staff encouraged them to massage where his legs should have been.
“It worked,” Zach said. “I don’t have the problem any more.”
One day a Red Cross package arrived. It held Zach’s dirty, bloody watch, his dog tags, but no wedding ring. Tesa opened a plastic bag. The smell was horrific.
“The clothing was still damp,” she said.
It wasn’t until his mother soaked the bloody clothing that they found his wedding band. By then they had bought another.
“It just felt weird without the wedding ring,” Zach said. His wife has become his coach. She listens patiently when Zach complains about the time he fell at home and Tesa refused to help him. She counters: He’s getting practice at home; what would he do if he was out by himself and fell?
She’s accepted his mandate of pro football on TV Sunday and Monday and Thursday nights.
They banter with easy humor:
“My goal is basic: Get a job; Continue to see how things work out,” Zach said. “If I was single, I wouldn’t worry at all.” Tesa answers on cue, “You fought for our freedom, and now you don’t have it.”
Tesa was a teacher in child day care before Zach was wounded. While in Bethesda, she took classes at Montgomery County Community College toward a degree in human services. “I feel there’s so much of our story that could help somebody,” Tesa said. “Otherwise I feel like this is somewhat of a waste.”
Surgeries interrupted Zach’s physical therapy. His pelvis was screwed together for three months. Then came a colostomy and the removal of more bone from a leg.
“I had a screw in my tailbone,” he said. “Eight months after I got blowed up, I couldn’t sit in that wheel chair. You kind of get used to it. My back still kills me now and then. After my ear surgery I’ve been rolling. It could be so much worse. I figure they’re ways around it.”
Dignitaries often visited Walter Reed, and he sought them out. They were always happy to get a tour of Walter Reed, he said. He met President Obama three times.
“At first it was really awesome, and the drugs were messing with my head. I’ve kind of calmed down,” Zach said. “When I first got to the hospital, I used to chase people to find out where they were. I got over that.”
He does not hesitate to represent wounded warriors at public events. He sat courtside during an Olympics U.S.-Brazil exhibition basketball game and was photographed next to Kobe Bryant.
Zach will represent the Marines during a brief ceremony Monday during a break in the action at the Steelers game.
He’s met several players from the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite football team, and hopes someday to meet quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Zach has directed much of his drive into sports and exercise.
Zach has learned to ride a handcycle. He finished first for his team in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 28 and 13th among 150 handcycles.
“I see it as competition,” Zach said. “I take my bike riding very seriously.”
“He’s pretty strong,” said Marshall Kennedy, a lanky 27-year-old Marine from Arkansas.
“I try to be competitive. You’d think long arms would be an advantage.”
Marshall beat Zach in their early races. He finished 36th in the crank marathon.
The two would crank their handcycles through Rock Creek Park when Zach was still at Walter Reed. Marshall, 27, also lost his legs to a pressure-plate IED in Afghanistan in June. He has a wife and two boys in Searcy, Ark. He and Zach plan to keep in touch.
The therapist told him Zach could eventually run a marathon if he wanted. “I didn’t want to do a marathon when I had legs,” Zach said. “I’m not going to run in fake legs.”
A weight lifter since high school, Zach has a renewed purpose in weight training.
“You either try to work out, or sit around and get fat,” he said. “I don’t do caffeine. I rarely drink soda or energy drinks.”
He avoids desserts and eats smaller portions.
“I work out so I can eat snacks at football season,” he said. “I feel I don’t have the metabolism I used to have.”
A stronger body core makes you less wobbly when you walk, he said. He’s learning to control his stainless steel legs with one of his own thighs longer than the other. Gel inserts ease the pressure of the prostheses.
Zach said wearing legs is better for him than getting around in a wheelchair. At least it looks more normal.
“It’s just like working out,” said Zach, who wears a hat to absorb his sweat when in his legs. “It helps when I’m walking.”
His pickup truck is outfitted with hand controls so he can drive. By himself he can load and unload his wheelchair with the crane in the bed, but Tesa helps. Tesa was happy to have him in his legs for her birthday dinner.
“It was nice not to do labor to go out,” she said.
It’s been two years since Zach was in Afghanistan, but he thinks about it sometimes.
Tesa was driving when a dump truck ahead had a blow out.
“He was as silent as can be,” she said. “You could tell he was taken back.”
“Where there’s a pop or something, you’re going to get my attention,” Zach said.
He was treated two weeks for post traumatic syndrome while at Walter Reed. Zach has revisited the moment before the blast.
“I did something stupid,” he said.
He goes over the area again and again. He can’t detect anything out of place. He recently got together with the Marine from whom he took the lead on the battle damage assessment. The two men said what they needed to say to each other and ate barbecue together.
“I don’t regret anything,” Zach said. “If I had the chance I’d do it again.”
Veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq have been getting a lot of support, he said.
“They kind of really made a mistake with Vietnam vets – spitting on them and such,” Zach said. “They don’t want to make that mistake again. That’s why we’re getting so much.”
The Homes for Our Troops campaign will be building a home for the Stinsons. The nonprofit group, founded in 2004, is dedicated to helping severely injured veterans to live more independently. Through donations and volunteers, Homes for Our Troops has built nearly 100 houses across the U.S.
“We’re still in the land search phase,” Zach said.
The house will have a specially designed shower and counters. He and Tesa are renting a townhouse near Shippensburg made for the elderly. Hunting is high on Zach’s to-do list. After pheasant hunting on Oct. 26, he quickly changed out of his camo gear into his street clothes in the Chambersburg Area Senior High School parking lot for the football game and its halftime salute to veterans. He was surprised to be given a special honor along with Stephanie Freeman, the widow of Marine Lance Cpl. Michael L. Freeman of Fayetteville. Freeman died from injuries suffered in an IED explosion on Feb. 1, 2010, in Afghanistan.
“I thought it was really nice,” Stinson said. “It was kind of overwhelming. I don’t really feel like I need the parades. That’s me personally. The only thing I’d like to do is to get my story out there. I think it’s important to let people know there are wounded warriors coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.”