Wounded Marine (and parents) still stand tall

July 1st, 2011

By E. J. Montini | Arizona republic | Azcentral.com | July 1, 2011

Charlene Bruce had a dream earlier this year in which her mother promised from heaven to watch over Charlene's son, Robert.

He is a Marine who at the time was serving in Afghanistan.

"That is exactly where he wanted to be," Charlene told me.

She said that Robert planned for a military life from the time was 10 years old, at first thinking that he would become a Navy SEAL and then choosing the Marine Corps after his three years in high-school ROTC.

He was 15 years old when terrorists attacked on 9/11.

"He really couldn't wait to go into the service," Charlene said. "He was a decent student, but always it was the military with him. And he just seemed to fit right in with the Marines."

He served in a number of countries, including Iraq. Last year, Robert volunteered to help train Afghan police as part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, known as "Dark Horse."

"There were a lot of casualties taken by the Three-Five Dark Horse," Charlene said. "They were pushing into a real dangerous area, and we would hear reports of deaths and injuries all the time."

Her mother had promised in the dream to look over Robert, however, and Charlene took solace in that. At least until Charlene and her husband, George, got a phone call in March saying that Robert had been wounded.

"His squad was sent up this hill to make sure it was clear, to look for IEDs and such," Charlene said.

Another member of the squad triggered the first explosive device. While going to the aid of his injured comrade, Robert triggered another.

Both Marines were airlifted out of the area with severe injuries.

"You go through a lot of emotions all at once," Charlene said. "You keep wanting to know more, but it takes a while before you can get all the information you want."

Her son was flown to Germany, where Charlene had her first opportunity to speak with him.

"By then we knew that he would lose both legs below the knee," she said. "You wonder how he was going to deal with that. But he was always a positive kid. He was always strong, always looking ahead. And in our family, the way we deal with things is by trying to find the humor, no matter how bad things are."

She says that when she finally got her son on the phone, he told her he was OK but that German nurses didn't have much of a sense of humor.

"When I asked what he meant, he said that he asked this one nurse where a Marine in his condition would go for breakfast," Charlene says. "When he said 'IHOP,' the nurse didn't laugh."

She knew then that her son would be fine. It would take a while before she got to see him, however.

"We met up in Bethesda (at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland)," she said. "In my head I was telling my mother, 'I thought you were going to protect him.' Then I saw how much worse other kids had it and I told her, 'Thank you.'"

The Marine injured with Robert lost one leg. Charlene tells me that her son is on his second set of prosthetics and plans to remain in the Marine Corps, something that will require him to pass a physical-fitness test after his rehabilitation. His injuries will not prevent him from standing tall.

Robert grew up in Mesa, and his parents are throwing a party for him Saturday at the Rockin' R Ranch. He would go along with the event only if it were used to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, which assists injured Marines and their families. (Donate through semperfifund.org.)

"We want to celebrate him," Charlene said. "He's our hero."

Ours, too. About that there is no doubt.

But each member of the military who goes into hostile territory is accompanied by two other people in ways that most of us will never understand or fully appreciate.

We should celebrate them, too. And thank them. The parents.

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