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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 16, 2010

Wounded in Afghanistan, Marine McDermott learns to walk again

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — Marine Luke McDermott is returning home to Westerlo this week, with no legs, but a strong heart.

After two tours in Afghanistan, losing his right leg in a roadside explosion and having the other amputated, 22-year-old McDermott still smiles and says he’ll never give up.

McDermott told The Enterprise this week about why he decided to join the Marine Corps, what happened the day he was injured, and being on the road to recovery.

“Family and friends, their support has been one of the biggest reasons for my success,” McDermott said. “With something like this, the support means more than anybody would ever know without going through something like this.”

The last time he was home was July 2009. His parents, Jerry and Darlene McDermott, visited him in Maryland and Texas hospitals as often as they could; they last saw him in early September. For them, the excitement about his return is paired closely with a sense of pride, which was present from the moment he joined the Marines.

“But immediately after that is the fear that anything can happen in a conflict like this,” said Mr. McDermott this week. “We were fortunate in that Luke did come home to us. I’m still going to be able to hold my son and tell him how much we care, unlike some parents, who have lost people over there, and I don’t even want to think about what that would be like.”

Mrs. McDermott remembers how hard it was to avoid watching the news, even though her son asked her not to watch.

“Sometimes, the media doesn’t tell the true story, and he said I’d only sit home and worry about it,” she said. “It just tears you apart inside every time you do see it. I feel for the ones that are still over there, and I’m thankful my son’s home and alive.”

Signing up

For Luke McDermott, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were reason enough to join the military. He was entering his teens at the time.

“Obviously, I was too young then to join, so I went on and did the college thing like most others,” said McDermott. He was studying criminal justice at the University at Albany when he made the decision to enlist in 2006.

“He’d gone there for a year,” his father said of UAlbany. “When he came home and talked to us about joining the military, I convinced him to stay in college. I said, ‘I’ll take you to any military recruiter you want when you’re done with college.’”

Mrs. McDermott remembers the night he told them of his decision.

“He came home Sunday night and said, ‘I’ve got something I want to tell you, and you’re not going to be happy,’” his mother said. “So, it kind of took us by surprise.”

Said his father, “Knowing the Marines are the first ones in and the last ones out; they can be deployed at any time; I was nervous. But, when I resigned myself to the fact that he was going to join, I was as proud as any parent could be, and it’s remained that way ever since.”

“I knew the risk going in,” Luke said. “I always wanted to do something to help out and give back.”

In September 2006, he went to boot camp. Throughout his term of service, McDermott was part of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines out of Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, N.C.

After his training, he was assigned to a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, which are stationed in the oceans and seas to allow for quick response to crises around the world. McDermott’s unit was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea.

Roadside bomb

In January 2008, McDermott found out that his MEU would be flying to Afghanistan. He landed at Kandahar Airfield in March.

“I just look down from the plane, and all you could see at the time was the base, and then you saw the mountains off in the distance,” he said. “When we actually started doing operations, it was crazy to see all that stuff; life over there is so much different. They live in mud huts, no electricity. They’re lucky to have roofs over their heads. So, it’s a pretty crazy experience.”

McDermott was able to return from Afghanistan in October 2008, but was sent back on Dec. 15, 2009.

“I can’t get too specific,” he said of his missions there, “but it was combat operations.”

The events of June 9, 2010, would leave McDermott changed.

“It started out like a typical day,” he said. “We had the chaplains with us. We were looking around to see the platoons so you could say ‘hi’ and do your thing. The first sergeant was with us, too. He had to do some administrative stuff.”

McDermott’s unit was on its way to seek out an improvised explosive device, or IED; these bombs have taken the lives of soldiers since the outset of the war. But a second IED was lying in wait.

“The one I hit, we didn’t know about, and it was before the one we were looking for,” said McDermott.

When his vehicle struck the IED, his right leg was completely blown off, and caused severe injury to the bones and major arteries in his left.

“I got knocked out for about a minute or two, once the IED went off,” McDermott said. “Then, I woke up, so I remember everything after that until I got in the medevac helicopter. They shot me up with morphine, and then the next thing I remember is coming off the helicopter into the field hospital. They put me on their surgical tables, and I don’t remember anything after that till I got to Germany.”

After less than a week at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, McDermott was transported to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Once in Bethesda, he had a choice to make: Have his left leg amputated, or live with excruciating pain, while getting very little use out of the leg. He went ahead with the amputation.

His parents suffered with him.

“The night that my wife and I got the call, it was a night she and I will never forget,” said Jerry McDermott. “They told us his injuries, and our immediate concern was, ‘Is he going to be all right? Is this a survivable injury?’”

Mrs. McDermott shared that sentiment with her husband.

“It was like somebody just ripped my heart out, and I felt nauseated, and I had to sit down,” she said. “After I got thinking about it, all I was focused on was that he was alive, and he was going to make it, and he was coming home. He was injured, yes, but he was alive, and that’s all that mattered to my husband and I, and we could deal with anything that came our way.”

Walking again

In July, Luke McDermott was transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he was fitted for his new prosthetic legs, and has been doing physical therapy.

“It’s a long road,” said Luke McDermott, and one that has been particularly frustrating for him.

“It took so long for me to even get my legs, because they were taking forever to heal, and the doctors couldn’t figure out why,” he said. “Other than the legs, I was completely healthy; I don’t smoke, don’t dip, none of that stuff, because that slows down healing. They didn’t think I was getting as good blood flow to the legs as I could have been.”

He saw other wounded solders transferred to the hospital after him, and leaving with their new legs before him. Now, he’s on his way to being able to walk again, and there have been a number of challenges.

“Figuring out your balance is kind of tricky,” said McDermott. “Another thing is, the ankles on the prosthetics don’t bend like a normal ankle. So, going up and down inclines is kind of difficult. I’m obviously still trying to do that, and you’ve got to learn to walk over different surfaces, like grass and rocks.”

And there is a level of uncertainty in taking each step, he went on.

“Every time I walk,” he said, “I’m thinking, ‘Am I bending my knee enough? Am I taking big enough steps? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?’ It was a long process getting here, and it’s going to be even longer getting it down as far as what to do, how much pressure to put where. It’s a conscious thing all the time.”

While he looks forward to making full use of his new legs, his reunion with his friends and family lies in his immediate future.

“Anyone that knows him knows that this will be just a minor glitch in his life’s plans,” Jerry McDermott said. “Every picture you see of him, in the hospital, or having gone through rehabilitation, he’s smiling.”

Darlene McDermott says that, even to this day, her son has never regretted joining the Marine Corps.

“All I can say for parents is, be thankful your child’s alive, and give them all the support they need,” she said. “Everyone keeps saying he’s a hero, but he says, ‘I’m not a hero; I just did what I’m supposed to do. It’s my job.’ Sometimes, I feel sorry for myself, and what happened to my son, and then I look at him, and he’s smiling. I say, ‘How can I feel sorry for myself, when he’s smiling?’ He’s an inspiration.”

Now, Luke just wants to get home and thank everyone for their support during his recovery.

“My parents,” he concluded, “they came down when I first left; for some guys, it’s the last memory they’ll ever have of being home, and the last thing they ever saw was Afghanistan. So, it’s good having those memories, and having those people back home to think about…It can pretty much be applied to any situation — don’t give up, no matter how hard, or how much of a struggle things may be, because it’s always going to get better.”

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