Darnell Rias vital signs in doctor's office
Darnell Rias has his vital signs checked before a doctor's appointment at the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Springettsbury Township, Pa. At 23, Rias is retired from the Marine Corps, the result of injuries he suffered when an IED blew up his truck while on patrol in Afghanistan in October 2010.

Wounded Pa. Marine’s life on track: ‘I have a pretty good sense of where it’s going’

 

 


 

Now and then, Darnell Rias finds himself thinking about what he’d be doing if his life hadn’t been changed on Oct. 8, 2010.

Right about now, he’d be thinking about re-enlisting, and probably would have by now. He loved the Marine Corps and loved serving.

On this day, a weekday, he’d probably be training, or cleaning his barracks, or attending a class. Or he could be deployed. Half of his old unit, the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines — the Two-Nine — is in Afghanistan, still working and fighting as military operations there wind down and the U.S. prepares to withdraw all combat troops by next year.

He still keeps in touch with some of the guys from his unit. One of best friends, Cpl. Harley Philhower, just re-enlisted. Others, like Ryan Ferland, a 24-year-old Navy Corpsman from Pawtucket, R.I., and Cpl. Tom Coggins, from Georgia, left the service the same way he did, by being wounded in action. They share a bond, one forged with blood.

“We’ve been through a lot,” he said. “After going through what we’ve been through, we can’t not talk about it.”

He misses the Marine Corps. He misses the military lifestyle. He misses the guys in his unit.

Technically, at 23, he’s retired, the injuries he suffered when his M-ATV struck an IED having left him with little choice. He could have stayed in the Marines, but would have been restricted to administrative duties, a desk job, in the rear with the gear.

Darnell Rias pictures

Darnell Rias’ Purple Heart sits on his TV stand, along with formal photos taken during his time in the Marines, in his West Manchester Township, Pa. apartment.

That wasn’t what he signed up for. He signed up to be a warfighter and he had his chance, albeit not for as long as he hoped.

Still, he said, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“No regrets,” he said. “I had a good run in the Marine Corps.”

***

His life is lot different now than it was when he was in the Corps, and it’s even a lot different than what it was like just last year.

Then, he was kind of in a holding pattern, waiting for his G.I. Bill to come through to start school, going to the Veterans Affairs clinic for ongoing treatment, living in his mother’s West York home. It was a frustrating time for him; he wanted the latest chapter of his life to begin.

But he was still halfway between separating from the Marine Corps and joining the real world.

Now, about a year later, he has made the jump. He is going to school — taking classes at the York campus of Harrisburg Area Community College — and he has his own apartment in West Manchester Township. It feels as if his life is on track and things are happening.

Things still aren’t completely settled. He is thinking about moving to Virginia or West Virginia and transferring his credits to a college or university there. (His girlfriend lives in Virginia.) And he still has to get through this first year of college and decide what he wants to do with his life.

He pretty much takes it as it comes, he said. He’s not big on planning or plotting. “I play it by ear and see how it goes,” he said.

After all, he said, his time in the Marines “didn’t go according to plan.”

Darnell Rias meets with medical team

Darnell Rias meets with a group of specialists at the VA Medical Center in Lebanon County, Pa. to assess his health care needs as he makes the transition to civilian life. The specialists, from left, are neuropsychiatrist Aida Rjepaj, speech-language pathologist Pete Brown, physiatrist Duc Kim Hoang, traumatic brain injury point of contact Sandy Jones and Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom program manager Katie Reesor.

***

The plan was derailed on that October day.

He spent a couple of months in the hospital and months after that in physical therapy and exercising to keep his back as flexible as it could be. Still, he has limited motion with his back. And he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and headaches brought on by a traumatic brain injury.

He sometimes has trouble sleeping. When that happens, he either lies in bed or gets up and watches TV or studies.

During a recent visit to the VA clinic in Springettsbury Township, he had a brief checkup and then met with a doctor. Mostly, it was just a visit to check in.

Darnell Rias confers with a medical team member

Katie Reesor, Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom program manager, outlines health care options for Darnell Rias.

His health seemed to be on track.

He doesn’t have any more appointments scheduled.

But the VA is there if he needs it.

“The VA has been very helpful,” he said. “They’re always there.”

***

His classes this semester are harder than the last term. He has a lot of work to do, tests to study for, papers to write.

He laments that he procrastinates when it comes to doing his schoolwork sometimes — typical college student.

He sometimes struggles with the work; his traumatic brain injury makes it difficult to remember things or concentrate. He’s getting better at it, though. The work is hard, but he’s getting used to it and getting used to what’s expected.

Still, he feels stress.

“I’ll have two papers due and a midterm coming up,” he said. “So there’s some stress.”

Darnell Rias studies

Darnell Rias studies in the living room of his West Manchester Township, Pa. apartment. He went into the Marine Corps straight from high school and moved back into his mother’s house after his retirement. It’s the first time he has had a place of his own. A San Francisco 49ers fan, he has a Fathead of star linebacker Patrick Willis on his wall.

But compared to the stress of preparing to go on patrol or being in a war zone, he said, “it’s very minor.

“The worst-case scenario is maybe I miss an assignment. Nobody’s going to get hurt.”

***

He is majoring in criminal justice and hasn’t decided what he plans to do. Obviously, he said, his back limits what jobs he may qualify for. Patrol officers, for instance, have to meet certain physical standards and his back may disqualify him from that.

“I’ll find something or other,” he said. “I have a pretty good sense of where it’s going.”

He may not know what he’ll become.

But he knows what he is.

A Marine.

“It’s a source of pride,” he said. “Not everybody gets to do it.

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing.”

Darnell Rias waits

Darnell Rias waits to be seen by doctors. As a Marine, he was injured in Afghanistan while on patrol. But he says he has no regrets.

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