By Mark Walker | North County Times | NCTimes.com | October 21, 2011
Camp Pendleton, CA - A half-dozen amputees from a Camp Pendleton unit that suffered more casualties than any other in the war in Afghanistan will be in the nation's capital next week to compete as hand cyclists in the 36th annual Marine Corps Marathon.
"We're going to do it for all the friends we lost," said Lt. Cameron West, who lost his right leg and two fingers and suffered other injuries in a roadside bomb explosion in Helmand province in October 2010. "It's going to be good for the soul."
West, an Oceanside resident, was a platoon leader in Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which had 25 of its troops killed and more than 140 wounded during its seven-month deployment.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Marine Corps officials paid special tribute to the unit, pointing out that it had more casualties than any similarly sized unit in the war.
The more than 900-member battalion was assigned to bring security to the violent Sangin district of Helmand province, an area that U.S. and NATO forces had not been active in until those Marines arrived.
West's injuries occurred less than two weeks after he and his platoon began patrolling the area. His radio operator, Lance Cpl. James Boelk, was killed when the bomb exploded; several other Marines suffered minor injuries.
By the time the deployment ended, more than a dozen members of the unit had been rendered amputees by roadside bombs.
In the year since he was injured, West has been fitted with a prosthetic leg and undergone extensive therapy at Naval Medical Center San Diego, where a recreational therapist encouraged him and other amputees to take up hand cycling.
Hand cycles have two rear wheels and a seat, with the rider using his or her hands to turn the pedals connected to the bike's single front wheel.
"It's really a great workout for the upper body and for camaraderie with all the guys," said West, 31, who was on his first combat assignment when he was wounded. "We're really looking forward to it."
West and other amputees from the unit have been practicing a couple of times each week for the 26.2-mile event, which takes place Oct. 30. It starts near the Pentagon and winds through Arlington, Va., and Washington before ending in front of the Marine Corps Memorial.
More than 30,000 people are registered to take part in marathon, including more than 120 wheelchair and hand cycle competitors.
"The marathon supports all their efforts," said event spokeswoman Tami Faram. "It's a great opportunity for them to reach their goals and fitness expectations and learn from each other."
West and several of the Camp Pendleton Marines took part in the Long Beach Marathon earlier this month as a trial run. It went well, he said, except for when he was going too fast at a corner and nearly rolled over.
His war injuries included taking shrapnel in his head and up and down his legs and arms. The head wounds have left him with virtually no vision in his right eye. A surgery planned in November aims to restore full sight.
As for the marathon and pedaling and maneuvering the bike, West said his biggest problem is nerve damage and missing two fingers on his right hand.
"But everybody has their own little issue," he said. "There's one guy who just has one finger and a thumb. We all try not to complain because there's always someone out there worse off than us."
The bikes they will ride and their trips to Washington are paid for by the Oceanside-based nonprofit Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
While in Washington, West said he and the men from his unit plan to visit Arlington National Cemetery, where several battalion members are buried.
"We'll go pay our respects," he said.