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Injured Marine inspires at Wheelchair Games

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011

Cpl. Brandon Rumbaugh isn't bothered by being bound to a wheelchair, knowing that his instantaneous reaction to an improvised explosive device might have saved another Marine's life.

When Lance Cpl. Richie Chavis stepped on an IED in late November in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Rumbaugh grabbed a stretcher and rushed toward him. Then, Rumbaugh stepped on another, causing a blast that blew him into a back flip. His left foot was blown off. His right leg was intact, but its femoral artery was "so destroyed that they had to take it."

"I don't know how to explain it," Rumbaugh said. "I guess it was for the right reasons. Both of us lived. I did it serving my country. Who knows• If I had hesitated, my friend might have died. I wouldn't take any of it back."

What aggravated the Uniontown native Tuesday at the 31st National Veterans Wheelchair Games was when another competitor suggested that Rumbaugh should compete in a heavier weight class in Wednesday's weightlifting contest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The inference was that, as a double amputee, Rumbaugh has an unfair advantage because he now weighs only 135 pounds, down from 167. What the competitor didn't know is that even though Rumbaugh hopes to bench-press 300 pounds, it's nowhere near his pre-injury, maximum-best of 450.

Eight months after losing one leg below his right hip and the other below his left knee, Rumbaugh is learning to walk again with prostheses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

And at 22 years old, the first-time Wheelchair Games participant is the third-youngest of the 630 athletes.

"I definitely want to encourage other Marines from Walter Reed to come here and compete," Rumbaugh said, "and give the older guys a run for their money."

Sgt. Eric Wheeling, Rumbaugh's Wounded Warrior section leader at Walter Reed, called Rumbaugh's injuries the rule, not the exception and said the Wheelchair Games are "extraordinarily therapeutic."

"I'm planning on going back and selling these games to my guys," he said. "It's just a matter of getting the word out for these games to get more people to try it."

Rumbaugh was a three-sport athlete at Waynesburg and Uniontown high schools, playing receiver in football, point guard in basketball and center fielder and pitcher in baseball despite standing only 5-foot-5.

If anyone was equipped to handle a catastrophic injury, Steven O'Neal believes it was his best friend since the third grade. O'Neal, an Army Reservist possibly headed to Afghanistan this fall, moved this summer to Silver Spring, Md., to live with Rumbaugh and has been inspired by his friend's rehabilitation.

"He accepted it, and he's not looking for sympathy from anyone. He joined and knew what he was getting into," O'Neal said. "That's everyone's thought: He was the star athlete in every sport he played. He was always the smallest, but his work ethic was always the best."

Rumbaugh is recovering from surgery on his left leg, to remove bone growth that was poking through the skin. He knows that, sooner or later, he's going to have to rely on the prostheses if he wants to serve as an instructor at Camp Geiger, N.C.

Rumbaugh, however, plans to put aside his prostheses and make an annual pilgrimage to the Wheelchair Games.

"It's a lot harder now, but it's better to be alive like this than dead," he said. "It's not that bad. It's just that there's a lot of things I can't do now, like getting food out of the cabinets. It's still pretty painful because I'm fresh from my injuries. Sooner or later, I'm going to have to get out of this wheelchair and start walking every day.

"Being around other guys going through the same thing inspires me to give up this wheelchair and get back to a normal life. It's good motivation."

Photo Galleries

National Wheelchair Games

National Wheelchair Games

The 31st National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Downtown.

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