Life shattered in Iraq pieced back together

05/21/2008 4:19 AM

05/21/2008 8:12 AM

A newborn cried in the night. Before mom could stir, Derek McGinnis swung out of bed. When his only leg touched the floor, he let it bend until he lowered himself to the floor in a sitting position.

Using his arms and rear end, he scooted to his son Sean's crib, pulled himself up and balanced on his leg. He gently picked up his child and then carefully bent his leg until he sat again. Dad cradled and comforted his son while mom rested.

In that moment three years ago, McGinnis triumphed over near death and a traumatic injury because he did what dads do.

In November 2004, McGinnis was serving as a Navy corpsman working with a Marine combat unit near Fallujah, Iraq. A suicide driver in a car laden with explosives hit McGinnis' ambulance as it rushed to the aid of two wounded Marines.

His life would hang by a thread. He had a severe brain injury. Shrapnel pierced him all over, including one eye. His left leg was doomed. He was in danger of losing both hands.

Six weeks after the bombing, McGinnis awoke at the Palo Alto Veterans Hospital. The issue wasn't his missing limb. "It never was," said the 30-year-old veteran from Waterford.

"I couldn't speak or feed myself," he said.

McGinnis didn't know who or where he was. His wife, Andrea, and parents David and Barbara stayed by his side.

"My wife was (seven months) pregnant," McGinnis said. "I just wanted to be conscious."

That was all his wife and parents had hoped for, too. They joined McGinnis earlier, in Bethesda, Md., four days after he was wounded, when the future was uncertain.

When Andrea McGinnis learned her husband had been hit, she called on a friend in Army intelligence to get a full accounting of his injuries. She wrote that first information down in a scrapbook:

"Breathing machine, homemade bomb, hit in head, eye surgery, monitoring pressure in brain, lower arms, lower leg amputation, one hand severely fractured, good foot severely fractured, burns."

She soon learned what her husband's first words had been while he was in a German hospital. "The doctor said he kept asking, 'Will they spit on me?' "

The doctor reported that she tearfully reassured the medic, "No, son, you're a hero."

Because McGinnis had one bad eye from birth, his parents' first concern after his survival was his good eye, the one with the shrapnel wound. And Pop, as Derek calls his dad, was equally anxious about his son's hands.

"I knew he could overcome his leg," said Pop. "But both hands ... that would have been it."

The family arrived in the Washington, D.C., area about midnight. David McGinnis accompanied his daughter-in-law into the hospital room because Andrea McGinnis didn't want to be alone.

About 80 gurneys were stacked in the lobby. Helicopters seemed to arrive around the clock, each with a fresh group of wounded Marines from the battle for Fallujah.

"I was relieved," Andrea McGinnis said of her first peek behind her husband's curtain. "He didn't look as bad as I thought. I was expecting his face to be burned. His leg freaked me out. It was a foot wide. It was weird. It was still cut and stitched but it wasn't shut. He was not bathed, but he was clean.

"It was a rough first couple months. I'm glad he can't remember it."

There were moments of poignant patriotism with a dash of humor in Maryland.

When President Bush came to award McGinnis' Purple Heart, it triggered panic in the young medic.

"Derek was a nervous wreck," his wife said. "A nurse called me at 5 that morning and told me to 'get over here now.' He wouldn't let anyone else touch him and he was driving them crazy. He was so anxious. He was so worried that he smelled. He had me buy this aftershave. He smelled so strong the other patients wanted him out of there."

What he was most anxious about was sitting when the president walked into the room. With his wife's help, he stood and remained standing for his commander in chief.

Of course, the memory of duty and honor wouldn't last

24 hours for McGinnis. Brain injury meant he lived only in the moment. Sometimes the memory of what happened in Fallujah disappeared, too.

But McGinnis had help. During their eight-hour shifts at his bedside, his parents would quietly tell him that he had to be strong. He had to get better, for his family, for his wife, for his son.

McGinnis remembers some of it today, but only secondhand. "My father would whisper in my ear. He'd tell me about the baby and told me about my leg so I wouldn't freak out. I'm sure it pulled me through."

When McGinnis' successful eye surgery replaced his damaged lens, his parents went home in early December 2004, confident of an eventual recovery. Andrea and Derek McGinnis would come west a couple of weeks later.

In Palo Alto, the VA therapists started putting McGinnis and his life back together again. The family was told that it was as if he had spilled the memory files from his brain all over the floor. Now he had to learn to pick them up and use them.

The first emotional landmark on McGinnis' road back was when he was able to tell his wife and parents how much he loved and appreciated them. But what is one memory for McGinnis happened repeatedly for his wife and parents. Sometimes his short-term memory was an hour or less.

As McGinnis' memory slowly returned, he set a goal. He desperately wanted to be a father, like his father had been to him. "To be able to read books to my son and spend time with him."

In late January, he was transferred back to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where he learned about prosthetics. But by the time his son Sean Patrick was born there Feb. 15, 2005, he was still in a wheelchair.

Even when he couldn't walk, his wife remembers McGinnis tending to Sean in the wee hours.

The one thing he couldn't overcome was the loneliness when he was separated from his family in the summer of 2005.

When Andrea McGinnis and Sean went back to her post as a logistics officer with the Seabees in Hawaii, Derek McGinnis went into depression. Andrea McGinnis recognized the problem. She asked for and received a hardship discharge from the Navy.

With his family reunited for a move to Texas in October 2005, McGinnis was ready for the next phase of his recovery.

Men from the Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund had visited him while he was in the Bethesda hospital. They challenged McGinnis to run with them in the November 2005 Marine Marathon in Washington, which included a 10-kilometer run.

But McGinnis' leg required another operation in Texas. A calcium growth had to be cut out so he could more comfortably wear a prosthetic.

"I was really disappointed when I couldn't keep my word," he said.

Therapists from Brooke Army Medical Center worked to help him reach his goal. "It took me a month just to figure out how to run," said McGinnis.

One lap was all he could manage at first. Again and again, his leg was rubbed raw by his obsession to run. The former high school football, track and soccer player in Fremont vowed to keep his word to Semper Fi. He said the Marine Marathon in November 2006, his first athletic event after Fallujah, will always be his favorite.

The run ends in Arlington, Va., at the National Cemetery. McGinnis finished his course going uphill to the base of the Marine Corps monument depicting the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II.

"Looking up at that statue ... they had a Navy corpsman with them, too," he said. "I could never compare what I did with those men and what they did and inspired. But it was so emotional. I felt like they were there with me."

In July 2007, McGinnis said farewell to his last hospital, Texas and the Navy. He and his family moved to Waterford to take a job at the Modesto veterans office and to be near family.

Running and competing opened another world for McGinnis. He still is running and competing as part of Semper Fi. And he visits wounded soldiers to challenge them to challenge themselves and compete. "We all bled red," he said.

"It's such a privilege to help an organization that helps the families of wounded Marines," McGinnis said. "They helped my family."

McGinnis went on to participate in a triathlon (swimming, biking, running) in San Francisco, surfed at Pismo Beach and played in numerous pickup soccer games.

Each activity takes a slightly different prosthetic. The leg for snowboarding has a second joint at midcalf for absorbing shock and giving leverage. The running leg is an upside-down bicycle fender.

McGinnis considers himself fortunate and blessed. But he misses the Marines "every day."

"I really love the Marine Corps," he said. "You bond with the men you take care of. The Marines saved my life."

During his recovery and long road back, sports had been part of his fondest wish as a father. "My highest ambition was to be my son's assistant soccer coach."

The reality that it was reachable set in when he could wear his artificial limb for a whole day and discard his cane. He could help coach.

And to complete the miracle, a little more than a year after Sean was born, son Ryan joined the family. They are now 3 and 17 months, respectively.

Whatever the boys want to do, dad pledged he'll be there for them. He calls his sons his "little motivators." He is certain one day they will sweep his legs with a sliding tackle when he teaches them to play soccer. But even then, he said, "It's all good."

McGinnis' motivators were in a stroller this spring at the Stanislaus County Peace Officers Memorial Group Foot Pursuit. They did the 5K race with their grandparents pushing them. Never mind that they finished last. They finished. Like their father and mother before them, who ran in the 10K race the same day.

McGinnis waves off all praise as undeserved.

"I'm very fortunate," he said. "I've been given so much. I got a second chance at life and I'm here for my boys. God played a role. Now I have to find a way to give back."

Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at or 578-2311.

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