Veterans Day Special: Marine Loses a Leg but Not His Life as an Athlete

Matt Crossman@@MattCrossmanSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 11, 2014

Tilted Head Photography

Ben McCrosky doesn’t remember the explosion or the noise or the smell or the pain or that someone grabbed him and pulled him out of the light armored vehicle he had been riding in just moments before. He was unconscious for a few seconds or maybe a few minutes—he doesn’t know how long. He doesn’t remember waking up or looking down at his mangled left leg or getting the shot of morphine that knocked him into the next week.

A corporal in the Marines, McCrosky’s memories of April 1, 2010, are almost entirely from before his vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device. He remembers his LAV getting stuck in the mud and that the mission that day in Helmand province, Afghanistan, was to rescue soldiers who had been ambushed.

But from the explosion until who knows how many days later, McCrosky’s memory is almost completely and totally gone, mostly because he was almost completely and totally gone due to pain-killers.

He remembers one thing.

And that one thing is the worst part—worse than the pain, worse than having his left leg amputated below the knee, worse than the month after month of surgeries and recovery. He remembers that, as he lay on the ground, waiting for the medevac to lift him away, someone told him that his good friend, Sgt. Frank World, had died in the blast.

Department of Defense photo

Reclaiming His Old Life

Doctors tried for months to save McCrosky’s left leg but eventually decided to remove it below the knee and replace it with a prosthetic leg. Somewhere in there, as he surfaced from the foggy haze of pain medication, McCrosky woke up and asked his sister whether he’d be able to wear flip-flops with his new foot. That’s what she told him, at least. He doesn’t remember that, either.

McCrosky pre-April 1, 2010, was always active—he swam and played baseball in high school, and he grew up surfing. As he first adjusted to his new life post-amputation, he tried to stay in the moment, to live day by day, to not look too far ahead. But as he recovered, he wondered whether he’d be able to return to his active lifestyle.

"The first person I met (at physical therapy) was a sergeant major who was a double-above-the-knee amputee. He was next to me, doing his workout," McCrosky says. "I saw him doing his workout and I thought, This is nothing. If he can do it, I sure as hell can. After meeting him, I had no doubt that I was going to be able to do what I’m doing now."

What he’s doing now is everything he did before, and more, as he has added running marathons to his long list of athletic activities that earned him medals in three events at the 2014 Warriors Games, an annual competition for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans.

More than 200 such athletes participated this year. They comprised five U.S. teams representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and Special Operations and competed in seven sports: archery, cycling, shooting, sitting-volleyball, swimming, track and field and wheelchair basketball.

McCrosky won gold in wheelchair basketball, silver in seated volleyball and silver in cycling.

"Let's Do 10 Miles"

McCrosky wasn’t a runner before losing his leg, and he got into it on a bit of a whim. After months of rehab, he received his running leg at the Military Advanced Training Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. He stayed a few extra days to learn how to use it. He ran a couple laps, maybe a quarter mile, at the track there.

Someone brought up the Army Ten-Miler, an annual race that was coming up in a few days.

"My response was, I hadn’t run more than a quarter mile in like three years, never mind being an amputee," he says.

Running that race made no sense at all. But he said, "Let’s do 10 miles."

As he ran, he wondered why in the world he had subjected himself to such pain. He couldn’t walk for days afterward because his leg swelled. But he started training for long-distance runs, even as he hated it all along.

McCrosky found friendship and inspiration in Scott Rigsby, the first double-leg amputee to finish the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii. Rigsby persuaded McCrosky to complete the running portion of a half-Ironman race in Augusta, Georgia.

A picture of McCrosky taken seconds after he crossed the finish line reveals pain and joy on his face. That picture captures Rigsby’s favorite memory of McCrosky.

Rigsby spent a decade as a "professional patient" before he put his life back together, and now he has dedicated his life to helping amputees. He saw a bit of himself in McCrosky’s determination to overcome his injuries.

"I just love seeing people not having to go through the struggle that I did," he says. "It’s very healing."

It is for McCrosky too.

Even though it hurts to run, he keeps doing it, he says, because so many can’t. He does it to honor World and others who never made it home.

Driven by a Memory

Photo by Jeff Reid

Now it’s mid-October, 2014, a crisp fall day at Camp Lejeune. McCrosky is hiking along a trail on which he trains for his long-distance runs. The path runs parallel to the New River. He stops at a cutout in the trees that overlooks the water, maybe 15 feet above the shore. Pops from the camp’s pistol range punctuate the silence. Sunglasses hide his eyes. His hat is pulled tight over his razor-short blond hair.

Four-and-a-half years after his injuries, McCrosky is recovered. Fresh off his success at the Wounded Warriors Games, he’s thinking about doing an ultramarathon, for which he’d likely train on this trail again. He hopes to participate in the Paralympics in Brazil in 2016, either in swimming or seated volleyball or both.

Typically, athletes are allowed to compete in only one sport. But the memory of World drives him to challenge himself, to not give in when someone says he can’t do something.

"He was the kind of guy, if you messed up, he’d yell at you, whether it was in front of people or not," McCrosky said. "But then he’d pull you aside, talk to you, man to man, tell you why this happened, what you can do to better yourself. He was the type of guy who wanted to prepare you as best you can to go out there and do your job."

As the hike ends, McCrosky arrives at his pickup truck. From the backseat, he pulls out the wheelchair he uses for basketball. Its spokes are red, white and blue. Next, he pulls out one of his prosthetic legs.

The top looks like a cup. Sometimes he fills it with beer. He points to bracelets, one on each of his wrists. The right one says Sgt. Ryan H. Lane. The left one says Sgt. Frank J. World. Both died in Afghanistan. The only time he ever takes the bracelets off is to plop them in the beer that he poured into his prosthetic leg. "That way, we’re drinking with them."

McCrosky has a tattoo on his right leg honoring World, and sometimes he still hears World’s voice in his head. "In the office, at home, on runs. It’s not all the time," he says. "But it’s every now and then. Keep living. Keep fighting. Keep going. Don’t let anybody get to you."

Photo by Jeff Reid

A Return to the Water

As his new life started to become normal, there was one piece of his old life that was missing, that he wanted back for himself. To be the same Ben McCrosky he was before April 1, 2010, he needed to surf again.

The Indo Jax Surf School of Wilmington, North Carolina, won a contract with Camp Lejeune to teach wounded soldiers how to surf at a beach near Camp Lejeune, where McCrosky is stationed. McCrosky enrolled in the class, held every Friday of the summer of 2012, two years after his injuries.

When he arrived at the beach on the first day of lessons, instructor Jessi Nelson of the Indo Jax Surf School approached him. A child of a military family, Nelson was excited to work with the wounded soldiers, but this was unexplored territory for her and for Indo Jax. Most amputees who surf don’t stand up on the board.

The Indo Jax instructors offered McCrosky a giant foam board, which all beginners start on, because it’s easier to use than a smaller board. But that was like offering a bicyclist training wheels.

"He wasn’t having any of this big huge board crap. He would grumble about our stuff, grumble about being pushed in," says Jack Viorel, owner of Indo Jax. "It was all in good fun. But you could tell, deep down, there was a deep-seated I’m-surfing-again thing."

McCrosky paddled out into the water and tried to get up on the board. But that morning, he had attached his swimming foot to his leg. It slid around on the board, so he couldn’t find his balance. He got frustrated and returned to shore. He talked to Nelson there. She was amazed at his resilience and thought to herself, If it was me, I wouldn’t be doing this.

He kept going back out, kept trying. He likes challenges, and this was one of the biggest physical ones he had faced. He had run 10 miles shortly after he got his running leg when he had never been a runner. He wanted to conquer surfing, which he had done all his life.

But that first day, he never got up on the board.

Gaining His Footing

Photo courtesy of Jessica Nelson

Dave Laufer, director of Orthotic and Prosthetic Services at Walter Reed, works with amputees, including McCrosky, who want to return to the active life they enjoyed before their injuries. He says prosthetic legs and feet have been created for runners, bikers, skiers, hockey players and rock climbers, but not surfers.

No such prosthetic foot exists because there’s never been a demand for one. Laufer knows of only one or two other amputees besides McCrosky who wanted to surf. And even if there was demand, building a surfing foot that works would be problematic, if not impossible. It would have to be attached to the board. But there would be no release mechanism, so a wipeout could lead to drowning.

That left McCrosky to experiment with the prosthetic feet he had. On the second day of surf lessons with Indo Jax, he found one that worked—or at least it worked better than the swim foot. Finally, McCrosky got up on the board. He surfed a little. He surfed some more. He rode a three- or four-foot wave all the way in.

"I felt like I could do anything again," he says. "I felt free."

Nelson was behind him, swimming among the other surfing students.

She watched as everybody cheered for McCrosky.

She started crying.

She looked around.

Three other instructors were crying too.

"What Are You Afraid Of?"

Photo courtesy of Jessica Nelson

One wave, or even one day of surfing, was not enough. Every Friday that summer, McCrosky returned to the beach from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. to surf with Indo Jax instructors and the wounded soldiers. He tried different feet. He ultimately decided that his "shower foot"—whose bottom is like the bottom of a crutch—worked best.

On the last Friday of the lessons, Viorel showed up at the beach about an hour early to surf by himself before the session with the wounded soldiers started. As he paddled out, he saw fins everywhere, 50 or 100 sharks, he says, chasing a school of fish. He returned to shore just as the wounded soldiers arrived.

He told them there would be no surfing that day.

McCrosky would not accept that. "He looks at his leg and says, 'What’s the big deal?'" Viorel says. "'One, what are they going to take off of me? Two, what are you afraid of?'"

Viorel thought to himself, Um...those are sharks! But McCrosky was insistent, and soon they paddled into the water.

The sharks, like doubt, disappeared.