News: Hawthorne Marine's recovery becomes his main focus
Story by Lance Cpl. Ashton Buckingham
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - Hector Perez, 30, is on-hand at the 2014 Marine Corps Trials aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif. He’s not competing. Instead, he’s on the sidelines cheering for his fellow wounded Marines, and finding a motivation he was searching for.
Perez, from Hawthorne, Calif., with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion at the time of the incident, was riding in the lead vehicle on a route-clearing convoy in Afghanistan in March 2011, when it struck an improvised explosive device.
He was medically evacuated and later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, a dislocated shoulder, strained knee, and sprained ankle. He wanted to get back to his unit as soon as possible.
“We wanted to get back in the fight,” said Perez, who was on his fifth deployment. “Even though there was not a lot going on at the time, it was just being with the boys, being out there.”
He made it back to his unit, but was not allowed to participate in any combat operations. Perez’s reenlistment was later denied due to damage to his optic nerve and a pinched nerve in his back, which caused chronic numbness in one leg and possible vision loss in one eye.
When the Wounded Warrior Regiment discovered the effects of the IED blast on Perez, they placed him in contact with the recovery care coordinator at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. He was assigned a medical case manager who helped with paperwork and coordination with his command.
Perez’s command submitted a package to send him to the Wounded Warrior Regiment because he was not able to focus on himself while in Twentynine Palms. He was often guilty of rescheduling his doctor appointments so he could go out in the field with his company.
“He would deploy tomorrow if he could,” said Breanna Perez, his wife.
“It gives me crazy anxiety when he calls me and is like ‘Oh, they are calling me. They want me to deploy again,’ and he is all for it. But in my head it’s all about, ‘You’re hurt. You’re injured. What are you thinking? Why would you do that?’ But in his mind it’s not about him at all. It’s completely about what he does, and he puts that first in life.”
He checked into Wounded Warrior Battalion West, Camp Pendleton, Calif., three weeks after receiving orders and immediately noticed a change in care.
“It was really demotivating because you can’t go to the gym, you can’t do anything,” Perez said. “But here they have a pool where you can run with no gravity. It’s good for my back and I still get my exercise. It’s great.”
Perez learned to focus on his recovery and future, which he would not allow himself to do while stationed in Twentynine Palms.
“Wow, things have changed so much in my perspective,” Breanna said. “It’s all about his health. They are so worried about him getting better, that he comes home and he is like, ‘what do I do? I’m just focusing on myself. Basically, what is my job?’”
I’m so grateful,” Breanna said. “He looks like he is 100 percent fine, but anyone who knows him knows that he isn’t. As much as I know, I’m so grateful that it is all about him right now.”
Everything is turning around for the couple. Perez is learning to cope with stress and spends a lot of his time with his daughter.
“Before this, he would come home, eat dinner and go to bed, maybe watch TV,” Breanna said. “That was his schedule. He had to be rested for his next day at work. Now he can come home, relax and enjoy his daughter again. I haven’t ever been able to see him enjoy his daughter, ever. We can actually go out now. We have been able to go out again, and it’s like we are dating again. He has no stress.”
Although he isn’t competing at the Trials, he finds solace and comfort by watching the athletes, many of who are recovering from severe wounds and injuries far worse than his.
“It’s motivating seeing these guys, seeing how competitive they are,” Perez said. “You have guys running nine-minute miles that are double amputees. It looked so hopeless coming from the transition from two-nine, to here,” Perez said. “But now, actually checking in and being re-evaluated by the doctors, it’s kind of looking up now.”