Sergeant Winder Perez, USMC

The New York Daily News called it a “miracle recovery.” That’s probably an understatement … but we’re getting ahead of the story.

Winder Perez was born on January 16, 1989, in the Dominican Republic. When he was eight years old, his mother left her life and career as a doctor behind and brought Winder to the U.S. so they could live with his father in the Bronx, New York.

It didn’t take long for Winder to pick up English, and he quickly made friends and got good grades in school. He graduated high school early, and when he turned 18 he decided he wanted to pursue what he calls “my passion for tactics, technique and weapons” by joining the military.

Sgt. Perez in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Perez in Afghanistan.

A picture of the RPG round lodged in Sgt. Perez's leg.
A picture of the RPG round lodged in Sgt. Perez’s leg.

Sgt. Perez in the hospital with President Obama.
Sgt. Perez in the hospital with President Obama.

Sgt. Perez in the hospital with family and President Obama.
Sgt. Perez in the hospital with family and President Obama.

“Picking a branch was easy,” Winder says. “All I did was find out who were the best and the baddest, so in June 2007 I joined the Marines.”

Winder was deployed for the first time in 2009, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In August 2011, he deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan as part of the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines.

On January 12, 2012, Winder miraculously survived one of the most unique and horrific injuries imaginable.

“I was in the district of Musa Qal’ah,” Winder recalls, “and we received information that there was an improvised explosive device (IED) buried near our post. Our mission was to confirm or deny that there was an IED.”

“On our way back to base,” Winder continues, “we went through an alley. As we were entering our base, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG)—a 14-plus-inch rocket designed to penetrate steel and destroy tanks, helicopters and heavy vehicles and equipment— was shot in our direction. It was poorly aimed, bounced in front of me and, all in fractions of a second, penetrated my left leg and got stuck there.”

“The fact that the RPG bounce messed up the sensor that detonates it is one of the main reasons I am alive today,” Winder says. “If the RPG had detonated, I would’ve been in a million pieces.” The tip of the rocket that hit Winder was embedded in his left buttock with the rest of the device laying along the length of his thigh.

Winder tried to call in that he was hit, but the radio was destroyed by the RPG. One of his fellow Marines ran to base to grab a radio, but fortunately for Winder another squad was 200 meters away and a helicopter was already en route to their location to assist a little girl who was injured.

The helicopter crew picked up Winder and flew him to forward operating base Camp Edinburgh, also in the northern portion of Helmand province. It was the closest location that provided both explosive ordnance disposal support as well as surgeons who could tend to Winder after the explosive was removed.

Doctors first thought that they would, as Winder describes it, “filet my leg layer by layer” until the RPG was easy to remove, but it was decided that this would cause too much damage to the leg. A Navy nurse gave Winder pain medication, kept his airway open and held his hand while an Army Staff Sergeant and explosives ordinance expert took a decidedly low-tech approach to the situation: He would tug the RPG out the same way it went in.

Three long, hard and tension-filled pulls later, the RPG came loose.
“Well, the truth of it is, I said a prayer and I thanked God for everything I had,” Gennari told CNN. “Whether or not the grenade was gonna blow up, I left it to Him, and I just worried about keeping [his] airway open.”

Doctors rushed to treat Winder’s wounds, which included severe burns. “I found out many months later that one of the reasons I survived was because the RPG missed my femoral artery,” Winder said, “and even though I was severely bleeding for a while, I didn’t bleed out because the primer that ignited the explosive was so hot it cauterized my skin.”

In April 2012, USA Today reported on Winder’s story and noted that “research published in 1999 documented 36 such operations since the beginning of World War II. None of the explosives have gone off.”

Incredibly, the miracle of Winder’s recovery was only beginning: After he was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he underwent more than 30 surgeries. He suffered a heart attack from an infection caused by the RPG, and suffered an aneurysm that nearly cost him his life.

Throughout Winder’s ordeal, the Semper Fi Fund has assisted his family with a variety of support grants so that family members could remain at his bedside during his recovery, plus lodging and airfare to help defray family travel and lodging costs. We’ve also assisted Winder with an iPad and, most recently, with a laptop that he’s using while taking courses at Georgetown University.

Today, in addition to his continuing military service and his studies at Georgetown, Winder plans to one day fulfill a childhood dream and open his own restaurant.