In 2010, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment deployed to the most dangerous district of Afghanistan — Sangin. By the end of their deployment, the “Darkhorse Battalion” had lost more Marines than any other unit in Iraq or Afghanistan.
While the tragedies of 3/5 are unspeakable, people often only see a number — killed in action. Less well known are the Marines who make up that number, and the Marines who went through the hardships and tragedy, but lived on, often with amputations or other critical injuries.
This is one of their stories.
Cpl. Sebastian Gallagos was on a routine mission with his fire team in Sangin, Oct. 16, 2010. Gallagos had just begun to cross a canal when the Marine behind him, Sgt. Ian Tawney, stepped on an improvised explosive device Gallagos had somehow managed to avoid. The IED detonated; the blast took Gallagos’ right arm and knocked him into the water. Still conscious, Gallagos fought for his life — one arm fighting against the waters of the canal. He managed to swim to shore and was medically evacuated to safety on a helicopter. His squad leader, Tawney, didn’t make it. He died, leaving behind a wife and an unborn baby girl.
Even though Gallagos was severely injured, his own well-being was far from his mind.
“I was thinking mostly about my squad leader and my friends,” Gallagos said. “I didn’t really realize I was injured until a couple months afterward when s— calmed down. Then I realized I got blown up, too.”
But this type of selfless commitment to their brothers seems to be a common thread among the Marines of 3/5. Since they lost so many of their comrades, those who were given the chance to live another day are changed forever.
Learning to adjust to life without one of his arms wasn’t easy for Gallagos. Things that had once seemed so simple were now nearly impossible.
“It was frustrating, but when I got down, I thought of all the Marines who had passed away,” Gallagos said. “It’s the mentality 3/5 had. It’s your life for the rest of your life anyways. You can look at it negatively, but it’s still your life. You can make the best of it or the worst of it.”
Gallagos chose to live the new life he’d been given positively.. After about seven months, and a few skin graft complications and surgeries later, he got outfitted with a prosthetic arm. A few more surgeries followed to enhance his prosthetic, but Gallagos was determined to stick with it.
“The difference between arms and legs is all mental,” Gallagos said. “It’s frustrating to go out there everyday and relearn to do something over and over and over — little things like dexterity. It’s easy to give up.”
| More: Fellow 3/5 Marine overcomes his amputation on the basketball court |
Gaining proficiency with his new prosthetic allowed Gallagos to do many tasks more easily than he could following his injury. .Gallagos was now able to do things like use zippers, button buttons, tie shoes, open bottles and hold a door open without much difficulty.
Gallagos has close to seven different arms, each for a different function and purpose. Although the arms make things easier, they do have their limitations. The claw on the end doesn’t have the dexterity of fingers and his arm must be locked into set positions, unable to move freely.
Even so, Gallagos found that the arm is more of a blessing than a curse. This is especially true when it comes to athletic feats like those he will be performing during the 2013 Marine Corps Trials, March 1-6. Gallagos will be joining other wounded Marines, veterans and allies to compete in various sports, such as wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and Gallagos’ favorite — track and field.
Although Gallagos is unable to pump the prosthetic arm to assist in his running, he has noticed many advantages to wearing it while competing.
“It really helps my back out,” Gallagos said. “I did a half marathon without my arm on and my back hurt so much the next day. I’ve done half marathons since then with my arm on and it’s way different.”
In addition to competing in the Marine Corps Trials for the first time, Gallagos has stayed very active since his injury. The toughest physical feat he’s completed is a 13.2-mile Spartan Race. Mentally, though, the most challenging thing was getting back to his favorite activity — kayaking.
“I got blown up in a canal, so I had issues with water and drowning,” Gallagos said. “I avoided any kind of water. So to get in a river that looked so much like a canal, that was a huge thing for me.”
The physical and mental part of his recovery isn’t the only important aspect for Gallagos. While at the Trials this year, Gallagos is building camaraderie with other wounded warriors and a few of his fellow 3/5 Marines from the past. Their shared experiences help them to get the most from the competition and their recovery.
“This is a chance to meet other wounded warriors,” Gallagos said. “That’s how you learn. It’s better than therapy. Talking to people with similar injuries and similar situations and seeing what they do to get past things is the best way to learn.”
But even with other wounded warriors around to share his struggles, there are times when Gallagos’ limitations seem difficult to overcome. These moments bring Gallagos back to the day his life changed forever.
“Every single time I struggle or feel weak and want to give up, I think about my squad leader,” Gallagos said. “I repeat the KIA names in my head and I get mad when I can’t remember them all. The people who are living are their memory — what they taught you and what they instilled in you lives on in you.”
And so the memory of the 3/5 Marines who gave their lives in the toughest part of Afghanistan lives on in Gallagos and the other Marines who carry on. Who knows what they will accomplish next?
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