“This taught me not to complain:” Wounded Marine fights through pain, prepares for future

They never saw it coming.

They never do. They never hear the bullet or see the explosion or feel the white-hot blast of C-4. They never know.

It was their job to see it, though, Darnell Rias and the three other Marines lumbering down a dirt highway in Helmand Province in their M-ATV, an armored all-terrain vehicle that makes a Humvee look like a Tonka toy. They were in the lead of a column rolling down the road, trolling along at about 5 mph, scanning the roadside for signs of IEDs and the horizon for trouble.

Rias, a lance corporal on his first deployment, with just three months in country, was driving. The commander occupied the seat next to him. The GIB, the guy in back, would leap out of the truck now and then and sweep something that looked suspicious. They all kept their eyes on hilltops and huts, anticipating an ambush that could erupt at any time.

It was a routine patrol. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Darnell Rias catches his breath after swimming laps at L.A. Fitness in Manchester Township, Pa., Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Rias was on his first tour as a Marine in Afghanistan when his vehicle was hit by an IED. The explosion shattered his vertebra and left him with a traumatic brain injury. Swimming is one of the cardiovascular exercises Rias can still do to maintain his fitness. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - KATE PENN

Until it hit.

One moment he was driving; the next, dust was everywhere.

He remembers the dust. And the pain. And his rifle, snapped in half.

He couldn’t move his legs. He doesn’t remember being scared. He doesn’t remember much. It was hard to think; the pain short-circuiting everything.

The next M-ATV in the column was about 30 meters behind them, the spacing maintained precisely because of situations like this. It remained there for a long time. It’s SOP, standard operating procedure, for the next truck in line to remain back when an IED goes off. Sometimes, there are secondary IEDs, detonated after another truck or medics come to help. Sometimes, the bad guys lay in wait and spring an ambush as aid is delivered to the wounded.

A tattoo derived from a poem by Charles M. Province runs the length of Darnell Rias' left side. Rias got the tattoo after he was sent back to the United States to recover from surgery for a shattered vertebra caused by an IED in Afghanistan. Rias says he read the poem in a book and couldn't agree more with it, so he knew he wanted to get it. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - KATE PENN

A couple of Explosive Ordinance Disposal guys approached Rias’ truck and pulled him from the driver’s seat, laying him face-down in the dirt. It seemed to take forever for the chopper to arrive and the medics to load him up. It was maybe 20 minutes, but the pain did strange things to time.

He didn’t think about the guys he left behind. He didn’t think about what lay ahead for him. He didn’t think about much of anything.

Except the pain. 

He’s learning to live with it, the pain.

Rias wakes just about every morning with it, a constant reminder of what happened that October afternoon in Helmand Province, as if he needs any reminder of the moment that changed the course of his life. He still gets headaches, residual effects from the trauma inflicted on his brain. He has a foot-long scar running along his spine.

Had it never happened, he would probably be over there, deployed with the rest of his unit, the Two-Nine — Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, infantry, grunts. He’d be sleeping in his truck, or on the ground, eating bad food and enduring hours of boredom punctuated by moments that jack enough adrenaline into your system to revive the dead.

His days are quieter now. He lives with his mother in West York. He’s looking for a place of his own. He’s getting ready to start college to study biology and, and one day, become a physical therapist. He spends a lot of time at the gym. He reads, getting his mind in shape for the rigors he’ll face when he begins school. Recently, he was reading “Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller,” a biography of one of the most legendary Marines to ever put on the uniform.

He’s only 22 years old, but he seems older, more mature.

“Things that would have bothered me before don’t seem as important,” he said, sitting in the living room of his mother’s house. “There are a lot of people going through a lot worse things than I am. This taught me not to complain about anything. My situation could be a lot worse.” 

It was probably inevitable that Rias would go into the service. His maternal grandfather, George Chantiles, who had a hat shop in downtown York for years, served in the Navy during World War II. His mother, Athena, was in the Army. His father, Athena’s ex, Darnell Sr., was a Marine. His brother, Aaron, is in the Air Force, stationed in Montana.

He signed up for the Corps right after graduating from West York Area High School in 2009. He said he chose the Marines because he wanted a challenge, because he wanted to be the best. His mother recalls, though, that he picked the Marines because “they were the first ones who called (him) back.”

Athena was concerned about him joining the Marines. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “if everything goes to pot, I would want the Marines around me. But I knew if he joined the Marines, he’d be going to war.”

He shipped out to Parris Island for boot camp. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the Two-Nine at Camp Lejeune. In July 2010, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan.

His training included instruction from Marines who had served deployments. But nothing could prepare him for the culture shock of being dropped into a country where, it appears sometimes, time has stood still for decades, if not centuries.

Darnell Rias, 22, of West York, Pa., works out on a stair machine at L.A. Fitness in Manchester Township, York County, Pa Friday, May 4, 2012. Rias works out four times a week to regain some of the physical strength he had before he was injured by an IED while serving in Afghanistan Oct. 8, 2010. Rias remembers waking up after the explosion and being in extreme pain. "I knew something wasn't right and it was just pain. I couldn't move my legs at all, I was just thinking about the pain mostly." After back surgery he spent months in recovery, learning to walk again. He can't run like he used to and instead uses machines that alleviate impact to maintain cardiovascular fitness. DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - KATE PENN

“I looked around and thought, ‘It’s going to be a long several months,’” he said.

His deployment didn’t last very long.

On Oct. 8, his war was over. 

He had emergency surgery in Afghanistan. He had a shattered vertebra, the shards pressing against his spinal column. Had the bone pierced his spinal cord, he would have been paralyzed. He flew to Germany, and after a brief stay, he was shipped to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

It was a long, tough recovery. At first, he was confined to bed. Then, to a large wheelchair. Then, he was able to take a few steps as he learned to walk again. His mother took leave from her job and was by his side through the entire process.

He didn’t complain about his rehab and his physical therapy. There were a lot of other guys on the ward who had it a lot worse than him — guys who lost limbs or were paralyzed.

His mother puts it this way: “In his unit, there are 18 mothers who will never be able to hug their kids. As of his unit’s last deployment, they’ve had 133 Marines severely injured. One guy is in a vegetative state from shrapnel from a grenade.”

Rias knows that. And he knows he is lucky. Even with the back he cannot bend and the headaches.

He has just one regret.

“I feel bad that I’m back in the states and all my buddies are still sleeping in the desert,” he said, “and here I am, sleeping in a bed.” 

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About Lee Ann Colacioppo

I am the Senior Editor/News at the Denver Post. I have been at The Post sincd 1999 in a variety of positions, including city editor and investigations editor. I previously worked at The Des Moines Register, Greenville, S.C., News and Kingsport, Tenn., Times-News. I'am a Denver native and graduate of Drake University in Des Moines. View all posts by Lee Ann Colacioppo →
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  • Carmelita

     God spared my Son, a Marine, who was in Afghanistan.I worried  because he is my only son,but God spared him the pain of going through healing of wounds,but I know there is alot  of pain all our troops have gone through and,I thank God everyday my son came home safe,I know he has the scars of the fighting and killings over there that will be forever in his head,I Pray for this young man and all the parents who lost thier loved ones over there each and everyday.

  • runnernut

    Once a Marine, always a Marine.. Semper Fi hero and God Bless you..

  • AmericanBlues

    Why did he leave out the first line of that poem on his tatotte? – “It is the Soldier, not the minister

    Who has given us freedom of religion”. Leaving out God has done nothing but harm to this country.

  • oldkirck@yahoo.com

    I served in Vietnam 67-68.God bless you and heal your wounds.My son is in the “Special OPS”in the Air Force and we never know where he will be sent..All the forces do their job ,we need to always show them the respect we never got from Nam…

  • Bill McGuirk

    I just wanted to say Semper Fi Marine.1979-1985 Cpl Bill McGuirk.