U.S. Marine Loses Two Legs in Afghanistan But Comes Back Strong with Six New Ones

Photograph by Stephen Wallace

The day was August 26, 2011. Marine Justin Crabbe was patrolling near a dam in Afghanistan after a bomb-sniffing dog had gone through. Bomb-sniffing dogs are able to find and point out improvised explosive devices unless the IED is in water. Justin took one more step into a puddle and his legs were blown off above the knees. Justin was not rendered unconscious from the blast. He could smell his own flesh burning. The pain was tremendous. Justin wanted to die to make the agony stop.

The blast left Justin face down in the same pool of fetid water he had just stepped in. Justin gasped for air pulling infected water deep down into his lungs. Fellow Marines applied tourniquets and administered morphine after rolling Justin over and out of the water.

Photograph by Stephen Wallace

Justin immediately asked whether any other Marines were hurt. None were. Justin's friend ran to his side. Justin made him promise to call his mom and tell her he was sorry for stepping on the IED and that he loved her. Then he passed out from blood loss.

Justin's next memory was in a hospital bed in Bethesda Naval Medical Center. A machine was breathing for him, his legs were gone, and he was missing fingers from both hands. Justin had a life threatening pneumonia.

His family had arrived from California and stayed by his side. His parents were told Justin could die at any moment on three occasions. Justin did not die. He grew stronger. He got off the breathing machine and out of the ICU after thirteen weeks. He was visited in the hospital by President Obama and presented the Purple Heart. He had many operations on what remained of his upper legs and his hands. He spent months in rehabilitation. He learned to walk on two prosthetic legs, not an easy task for someone with high-level amputations.

Photograph by Stephen Wallace

While still in the hospital Justin spoke to other Marines that had lost limbs. He was told of an organization that provided trained dogs that could help him with the tasks of daily living and make his life better.

Justin was finally sent home to California. Justin and his family found the name of the organization that provided service dogs to injured military veterans. The name of the organization was Canine Companions for Independence. Justin completed the application process and was invited to be matched with a service dog. Justin received that dog forty-five days ago.

Canine Companions for Independence was established in 1975 to provide highly trained assistance dogs to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. The organization is headquartered in Santa Rosa, California. In 40 years over 4,600 dogs have been placed with people who have disabilities including military and civilians, adults, and children.

The recipients are not charged for their dogs, training, or ongoing follow-up support. It costs approximately $50,000 to breed, raise, and train one assistance dog.

The dogs are specially bred Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, or crosses between the two breeds. Training starts when they are puppies until they are two years old at which time the dog graduates alongside its new partner. The dogs work an average of eight years. Often, they are then retired to live out the remaining years as a pet.

Photograph by Stephen Wallace

Justin received a yellow Labrador named Gnome. Gnome was presented to Justin in a ceremony at the Canine Companions office in Oceanside, California. Gnome is responsible for picking up any objects that fall to the floor because Justin cannot bend down. Justin has missing fingers so Gnome helps carry things with his mouth. Gnome also opens doors as well other tasks.

Just as important, Gnome provides mental support. Justin says, "He just makes me happy. Gnome makes a good day better. I am never alone. He is always beside me."

Before Justin received Gnome people would stare at his prosthetic legs, feel uncomfortable, and walk on by. Now, with Gnome, people approach Justin and ask about his dog and thank him for his service. Gnome is the icebreaker that allows Justin to become engaged with strangers rather than feel isolated. When I spoke with Justin on this issue I sensed that if Gnome provided no other support than Gnome's ability to make Justin feel like a person, rather than a specimen, Gnome was a Godsend.

Photograph by Stephen Wallace

Our military men and women are underpaid. Our military men and women are not always cared for appropriately at V.A. hospitals. No other group of individuals risk more for you. The rate of suicide for veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unacceptably high. It is the responsibility of all Americans to say thank you to those Americans that have served our country and returned disabled.

Canine Companions for Independence has harnessed the special bond humans have with dogs. It is a wonderful organization doing important work for the men and women that have paid a horrible price for protecting our country.

Canine Companions for Independence relies on private contributions. It is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. All contributions are tax deductible. Canine Companions needs your help. Please visit their web site at www.cci.org. Please make a donation in Justin Crabbe's name.

By the way, Justin got married two weeks ago.

Photograph by Stephen Wallace