[Editor's note] This article first appeared on Nov. 4. The Huffington Post has since selected it to run as part of its ongoing, nationwide series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream." Patch is running Collin Raaz' impressive story again in honor of Veterans Day.
Life as Collin Raaz knew it changed in moments earlier this year.
The U.S. Marine sergeant from Iowa City was in Afghanistan, on his third deployment, leading a nine-man sniper squad in volatile Helmand Province in the southwest of the country. Raaz took the brunt of an improvised explosive device that detinated when he stepped on it on June 15, 2011.
The blast cost the 2004 graduate, now 25, both legs and a fractured pelvis. Now, months later, Raaz continues to undergo intense therapy and rehabilitation, but he still finds joy in life as he relearns one of its most fundamental parts: walking.
Recovering from injuries of war, while not always as severe as those of Raaz and sometimes more so, are all too common. According to the Wounded Warrior Project, there have been nearly 32,000 soldiers injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom and nearly 10,000 in Operation Enduring Freedom. That doesn't count the one in five soldiers -- nearly 300,000 -- who suffer symptoms of post tramatic stress disorder, according to Rand Corp.
Raaz, though, is lucky not to be among the 1,830 U.S. soldiers, who have died since 2001 in combat during Operation Enduring Freedom, including 1,680 in Afghanistan. IEDs have been responsible for more than 1,100 coalition force deaths, including 219 in 2011.
"I'm happy to be alive. I'm still here doing stuff I love, but, yeah, I don't think too much about it. I don't dwell on it," Raaz said, in a telephone interview with Patch.
Take a look at video (to the right) of Collin's first steps with full length prosthetic legs.
After more than 30 surgeries, Raaz is relearning to walk with prosthetics and participates in six to seven hours of therapy per day at the Wounded Warriors Unit in the Naval Medical Center Hospital in San Diego.
Somehow, through it all, he maintains a positive attitude.
"Everything is going great. Recovery is going awesome," Raaz said. "I would say it is physically difficult enough, and I don't need to add to it by creating mental or emotional problems on top of that."
Raaz recently got full length prosthetic legs, with knees, that elevate him to nearly his natural 6-foot-1 height, and on Nov. 1 he took his first steps. He playfully kicked his therapist as he reached the end of the training ramp.
Before, Raaz was using prosthetics called "stubbies," which are generally for initial stages of recovery. A family friend shared pictures of Raaz scaling a rock climbing wall with his prosthetic legs.
"I just live my life. Nothing really is different. I just walk a little different," Raaz said.
Back home in Iowa City, his parents Julie and Jerry Raaz and family friends such as the Mullins family have been doing what they can. The Raaz parents alternate traveling out to San Diego to be with Collin.
Sue Mullins, whose two sons grew up along side the three Raaz boys, has been reaching out to share Collin's story. Here are details of what she is doing.
"He is like my third kid," Mullins said. "When you have something happen like that, you want to do what ever you can."
Mullins said Collin will be recognized with photos and video during a Veteran's Day Concert on Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. In San Deigo, he also has been invited to attend the Carrier Classic, a basketball game on Veteran's Day on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, which is the aircraft carrier that buried Osama bin Laden at sea. There, Collin may get to meet, President Barack Obama, who, according to the White House last month, has accepted an invitation to attend the matchup between North Carolina and Michigan State.
Others from back home have also reached out.
Collin has connected with Nate Kaeding, who is a and alumnus, and is currently an NFL kicker for the San Diego Chargers. Kaeding got him tickets for a Chargers game and they have visited on a few occasions, Raaz said.