Injured veteran goes back to Lejeune for a special reunion
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.— The announcement came at 11:05 p.m.
“Your Marines are on the base,” the captain said over the P.A. system.
The crowd had been gathered for hours. The Second Battalion, Ninth Marines
— the Two-Nine — was coming home from Afghanistan.
They had originally been scheduled to arrive at 6:30 p.m. June 28, a Thursday.
But delays are common, the Marines say, and the homecoming was pushed
back to 10:30 p.m. Some hadn’t gotten the word, having been on the base since
early evening, waiting.
There were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and girlfriends,
all waiting, seated on steel folding chairs under four blue-and-white-striped
canopies set up along the road in front of the large red-brick barracks.
Marines milled about. Children ran around, playing with glow sticks.
Music — mostly heavy rock and metal — played over the P.A. Volunteers
served soft drinks and snacks. A group sold T-shirts commemorating the
deployment. Families held homemade signs, like the ones that lined the fence
along Route 24 by the main entrance to the base, welcoming the Marines
Some women wore skimpy outfits; one, wearing a skin-tight leopard-print
mini-dress and six-inch heels, prompted a lot of leering and comments from
the Marines, speculating that, perhaps, a pole down at the Driftwood,
a gentlemen’s club not far from the base’s main gate, was going un-womaned.
At one point, the captain approached the mic and told the crowd that he had
noticed some had chosen to celebrate the homecoming with adult beverages.
“I can’t tell you not to drink,” he said, “but there are children around
so I’d ask you to take it across the street to the parking lot.”
Darnell Rias was taking it all in.
It was his first time back on the base since his discharge, one that came after
his back was broken in an IED blast in Helmand Province on Oct. 8, 2010
during his first, and last, deployment to Afghanistan. It felt strange, he said,
being a civilian on the base, seeing it through civilian eyes. He felt he
still was, and always would be, a Marine.
He greeted some old friends, men he had served with as a member of the
Two-Nine. One of his brothers in arms gave him a bear hug and said,
“Good to see you, bro.”
They talked. They hugged.
Rias never had a homecoming like this. He came home from Afghanistan
on a gurney.
He was here for a couple of reasons — to welcome his old unit home from the
war zone and to greet one of his best friends on this planet, Lance Cpl.
Harley Philhower, coming home from his second deployment.
He and Philhower are bonded by more than their service.
If not for simple luck, fate, coincidence or whatever you’d like to call it,
it might have been Philhower waiting in the humid North Carolina night for
Rias to return from war.
Hours earlier, Rias had gone to the beach.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and hot, in the 90s even though it was well
before noon when he and his friends arrived at Emerald Isle. He was with
Ryan Ferland, a 24-year-old Navy Corpsman from Pawtucket, R.I., and
Arsenio “Ace” and Kristen Sousa, from Hudson, Mass., about 30 miles west
of Boston. Rias served with Ferland in Afghanistan, and he also served
with the Sousas’ son, Justin, who was coming home from his second
Rias and Ferland tossed a Nerf football in the surf. They caught waves
and checked out the girls in bikinis. Rias caught a big wave and it flipped him,
leaving the backs of his shoulders scraped and bloody. But it was no big deal.
He had been through a lot worse.
They talked with the Sousas about the homecoming. They had no idea what to expect. Like Rias, Ferland left Afghanistan on a stretcher.
Kristen said it was very emotional. “You know your son is OK and coming home in one piece,” she said, “but it isn’t real until you can touch them, until you can put your arms around them.”
It was a relaxing few hours.
Just like that summer afternoon back in July 2010.
It was two or three days before his unit shipped out for his first deployment to Afghanistan. Rias and three buddies, Ferland, Phil Evans and Will Elmgren — went to this very beach, on Emerald Isle, just by the Bogue Inlet pier. They spent the day lounging and goofing around in the surf. It was a good day. “One last send-off,” is how Ferland described it.
A few days later, all four were inAfghanistan.
A few months later, Rias and Ferland were wounded.
On this day, Rias and Ferland were in the surf when they heard a familiar noise. A chopper — a Huey — flew by, on its way to Lejeune. They watched it for a moment, later recalling that when you get hurt in battle, that’s what they use to medevac you.
At about 11:30 p.m., Rias, Ferland and their buddy Tom Coggins killed time while waiting for the Two-Nine’s homecoming by tossing a football around the parking lot in front of the barracks. Coggins was in Rias’ unit in Afghanistan. Three days after Rias’ back was broken, he was hit by an IED while on foot patrol. Shrapnel ripped open his right leg, severing his sciatic nerve and femoral artery. Another Marine, Sgt. Frank Zaehringer, 23, of Reno, Nev., was killed in the blast. Coggins wears a steel bracelet bearing his sergeant’s name.
Another Marine came by and asked Ferland how he was doing. He said he felt OK, but his shoulder was still messed up. “When it rains, I can really feel it,” he said.
He turned to Rias and asked, “How about you? Your back hurt when it rains?”
Rias said, “No, only when it gets cold.”
“Not when it rains?” Ferland asked.
“If it’s cold too,” Rias said.
It’s not just the cold that bothers, he said. Heat does too. When it’s hot, he said, he gets debilitating headaches, residue of his traumatic brain injury.
At 12:15 a.m., the captain approached the mic again.
“Your Marines will be here in about 45 minutes to an hour,” he announced.
Rias found Philhower’s wife, Brittany, and daughter, Brighten, in the crowd. He’s been in
touch with them since he’s been home, checking up on them, asking whether they
need anything. Brittany gave him a hug. He knelt by Brighten’s stroller and said, “Hi.”
Then, he went to the side of the road to wait, saving a space for his buddy’s wife and
The roles could have been reversed.
He and Philhower were M-ATV drivers and Philhower taught him a lot; Rias credits his friend with getting him through the few months he was in Afghanistan.
They became quick friends — Rias, the single kid from West York, and Philhower, the married father of a young daughter from Cliffwood Beach, N.J. Rias always felt for Philhower. “He missed all of the big moments in his daughter’s life,” he said.
“He missed her birth, her first birthday, Christmases, so many holidays and big moments. That had to be tough.”
On Oct. 8, 2010, the day Rias was hurt, there was some confusion when the unit ssembled to go outside the wire of their Forward Operations Base.
Rias always drove for the unit leader in the lead truck. But the vehicle had been fitted
with a mine roller and he had little experience driving the large truck with the device mounted on its front. A mine roller is just what it sounds like — a large roller that extends from the front of the vehicle to set off mines and IEDs before they can cause damage to the M-ATV or its occupants. Philhower had much more experience with it than Rias.
They were going to switch places — Philhower driving the lead vehicle and Rias following — but at the last minute, they switched back. Rias had volunteered to take Philhower’s place to allow his friend to watch the birth of his daughter on Skype. Philhower missed it anyway because his unit was ordered to join the patrol.
The Taliban is smart. They set up the IED to explode under the M-ATV, the pressure plate
buried several yards ahead of the bomb so when the mine roller hit it, the vehicle was over the bomb.
Rias wound up with a broken back.
Philhower was among the Marines who helped get him out of there. He was about 100 meters away when the IED exploded. He saw the dust clouds. He knew what it was. His unit approached the site, quickly, but cautiously, looking out for other IEDs and wary of any fire that may come. When he arrived, Rias was out of the truck and lying on the ground, being treated by a corpsman. It was clear he was hurt badly.
In the heat of the moment, Philhower didn’t think about the twist of fate much. Now, he chokes up about it. “I am very grateful.”
Rias doesn’t think much of it. In fact, he said he was glad he got hurt instead of Philhower.
“He has a daughter,” Rias said. “If this happened to him, he wouldn’t be able to get down on the floor and play with her.”
At 1 a.m., the captain announced, “Your Marines have left the armory.”
The Marines, he said, would be getting off the buses around the corner and marching to the street in front of the barracks. There, they would stand in formation and be dismissed.
“Then,” the captain said, “you can do whatever you want.”
At 1:11 a.m., the Marines marched around the corner.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the captain said, “the Marines of the Two-Nine.”
They were dismissed and it was chaos. Marines ran into the crowd. The crowd rushed toward the Marines.
Within seconds, Rias found Philhower. He threw his arm around his buddy’s shoulders and said, “How’s it going, bro? Home for good.”
Philhower smiled broadly and asked, “Where’s Brittany?”
Rias led him to his wife. He hugged her and gave her a kiss, one that he had been thinking
about for the past 18 months. He knelt by his daughter’s stroller and picked her up, holding her in his arms. The tough Marine, hardened by fire, melted.
Rias helped Philhower find his bags, lined up in an adjacent parking lot. He found one of
them and when Philhower approached, Rias said, “You have to pick it up. You know, my back.”
Philhower smiled and said, “Don’t get me started.”
They walked to Philhower’s car. After Philhower stowed his bags in the trunk, he turned to
Rias and embraced him.
He whispered, “Thanks for everything.”