Uniontown Marine, 23, pushes past obstacles, plans for future
Marine Corps Cpl. Brandon Rumbaugh had two chances to leave Afghanistan before an improvised explosive device finally took his legs.
The mortar man with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines said he had close calls four times with makeshift bombs, or IEDs, in less than three months while fighting in Helmand province in 2010.
As a rule, Marines with more than two brushes with the deadly devices were sent home because “they didn't want you to lose your mind,” Rumbaugh said.
To stay with his men, Rumbaugh did not report the third and fourth explosions.
“I just couldn't,” said Rumbaugh, 23, of Uniontown. “I was a squad leader. I was in charge. It was my job to stay there.”
Today, Rumbaugh serves as a symbol of hope to the 50,159 wounded veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, many struggling to find their places in civilian life.
“Maybe someone will look at me and say, ‘Hey, this guy got blown up in Afghanistan, and he's doing 10 times more work than I am. What's my excuse?'” Rumbaugh said. “Maybe it will motivate a few people to choose to live their lives for the better.”
Rumbaugh knows the obstacles in his way, including navigating a Department of Veterans Affairs labyrinth overtaxed by the sheer number of veterans returning home.
A recent Pew Research Center study indicates a greater percentage of veterans who served in the years after the 9/11 attacks reported difficulty in returning to civilian life than those who served in the Vietnam era or the Korean War and World War II eras.
“I would say that the latest wars have increased our veteran population, which have different needs in mental health and more injuries than in the past,” Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs spokesman David Cowgill said.
Like Rumbaugh, many wounded veterans survived only because of advances in battlefield treatment techniques, according to Cynthia O. Smith, a Department of Defense spokeswoman.
‘Trying to get shot at'
Rumbaugh went to Afghanistan in September 2010 as part of the 33,000-strong troop surge sent to fight the Taliban.
His 69-member platoon was assigned to a base near the village of Kunder, one of the most hostile regions in the province.
Rumbaugh was responsible for four other Marines on daily patrols.
“We were patrolling and trying to get shot at, so we could draw the Taliban out so we could fight them,” Rumbaugh said.
Taliban fighters were “horrible” shots, Rumbaugh said. They carried decades-old AK-47 rifles and had to wait for days for ammunition from Pakistan, he said.
To compensate, they used IEDs.
Once he stepped on an IED, but it did not explode until a heavier Marine stepped on it.
Then came Nov. 29, 2010.
Rumbaugh's squad had finished a patrol and were at their base when there was an explosion. Lance Cpl. Richie Chavis of Lumberton, N.C., had stepped on an IED.
“I grabbed a stretcher, and we went down,” Rumbaugh said. “I was going to grab him and got about 20 feet away from him when I stepped on one.”
It was the size of an oil can. Ammonium nitrate fueled a blast that rocketed Rumbaugh into the air before he slammed to the ground.
“I couldn't get up, and that's when they started to put tourniquets on me,” Rumbaugh said.
A helicopter carrying surgeons flew him out.
Rumbaugh lay unconscious for at least five days. When he awoke at the former Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., he learned Chavis had survived but lost his legs.
‘A long road of recovery'
Rumbaugh spent two years recovering at military medical facilities.
His left leg was severed below the knee.
His right leg, “broken in every possible place,” was still attached as he was loaded onto the helicopter, he said. He still doesn't know if it was amputated in Afghanistan, at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, or at Bethesda.
When she first saw her injured son at Bethesda, Louise Rumbaugh said she was thankful that he was alive.
“I knew he was going to have a long road of recovery ahead of him, but I knew he would be able to do it,” she said, near tears.
During his recovery, Rumbaugh made plans while others complained.
“I didn't want to be like that,” he said. “I can't forget what happened, but I need to continue on with what I want to do in life.”
Wheelchair games competitor
Eight months after the IED destroyed his legs, Rumbaugh competed in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Pittsburgh. He bench-pressed 280 pounds to take a gold medal.
Then he set a new goal: to qualify for the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
After the explosion, Rumbaugh planned to stay in the Marine Corps, possibly as an infantry school instructor. He still had part of his right leg, and he could walk with a cane and prosthetic legs. When surgeons told him that a complication meant he would lose the rest of his right leg to the hip, he chose not to re-enlist.
“Once they took that leg, and I realized I could not walk for more than three to four hours a day, I got out,” Rumbaugh said. “I did not want to sit at a desk all day.”
Driving, lifting weights
Rumbaugh's hands still carry bits of shrapnel as he alternates between using a wheelchair and crutches with a prosthetic leg.
A business major at Penn State Fayette, he drives himself to class in a hand-controlled van that was donated by Help Our Military Heroes.
He lifts weights in the school gym as he prepares for an internship with defense contractor BAE Systems.
Tattoos spark romance
His love of tattoos was the spark that led to a relationship with girlfriend Charlin Foster, 20.
Foster, a criminal justice major, said she first noticed Rumbaugh's tattoos when she saw him in a campus hallway.
Romance soon followed, she said.
“He's one of the strongest people I've ever met,” Foster said. “He doesn't really ever think of himself. He wants to do everything for everyone else and doesn't make (his disability) an issue.”
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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