It had been close to seven years since I had seen my friend Ralph DeQuebec. Ralph had been a powerhouse of a co-worker and friend the last time we worked together in the U.S. Marine Corps. However, on this occasion of our reuniting, Ralph lacked the use of his legs. This is the cost of war.
I met Ralph in California at my first duty station in the Marine Corps. He came from San Pedro, Calif., built like a linebacker, motivated and one of the most squared-away Marines I’d met, all while spreading infectious and constant laughter.
He was an aviation technician, I was an ammunition tech, and we both worked at the central magazine area. We called it the ammo dump. Neither of us liked sorting paper and bullet-pushing jobs and longed to be the high-speed, low-drag Marines you hear about in the Corps, so we pushed ourselves and volunteered for every additional training we could get.
I went on to Marine reconnaissance training where I injured myself and was unable to finish the schooling. Ralph went to Marine explosive ordnance disposal school to learn how to neutralize explosives, and he found his new calling, graduating from the school with the highest grade point average in his class.
During his second deployment to Afghanistan, Ralph, a gunnery sergeant, was attached to various special operations missions where he served as the explosives disposal tech. On one mission Afghan forces located a possible improvised explosive device; Ralph was called to assess the situation.
En route to the IED, he felt he was entering an area that was perfect for placing an additional IED, so he stopped at the choke point — an area you are forced to pass through, not around — and instincts and training took over. He started his search.
While searching, an Afghan soldier located at the other IED site came over to tell Ralph that he wasn’t where they had found the bomb. He put his hand up and told the soldier to stop, but it was too late. The soldier triggered the IED Ralph was attempting to locate, causing a blast that took both of his legs away from him.
The blast, however, could never take away the spirit, work ethic and determination that still is and always will be within him.
That was June 21. On Oct. 9, I flew to Washington, D.C., on other business and then went to see him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He was waiting for me in his wheelchair on the sidewalk. We made eye contact, and as I went in for the first awkward hug since 2005, Ralph started adjusting his new legs. This Marine gunnery sergeant was going to stand to hug me, and he did just that.
“You got shorter,” I said.
“I just got new 4-inch inserts, man, I’m taller!” he replied.
We sat and chatted about old and current times and the important things Marines always talk about. “How’s the chow?” I asked. “Really good,” was his reply.
He showed me his room that he shares with his wonderful and supportive fiancee Katie and the chow hall but kept saying that he wanted to go to the Military Advanced Training Center where he does his training. Lead on, Gunny.
Service members involved in significant IED blasts oftentimes lose limbs. One, two, three or all of their limbs, above the knee, below the knee — the bomb doesn’t really care how much or where it takes your flesh. The training center is 31,000 square feet designed for amputee rehabilitation as well as assisting with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder — common side effects related to war fighting.
Ralph rolled into what I dubbed the “inspiration room.” The blasts of combat could take limbs, but they could not take the fighting spirit of the warriors I found in that room.
“Get some” is a motivating phrase in the service, used when you have to push yourself past the common threshold of pain, endurance or mental anguish associated with military service. Well, these brave souls were getting some and then some. When was the last time you ran around a track, threw a medicine ball back and forth with a buddy or did resistance training? Take a leg out of the equation, or two. Now tell me how hard it would be to train. I was in complete awe.
One Navy Seal was running on two prosthetic blades, hooked up to a harness and track system to catch him if he fell. In front of Ralph and me, he fell, was caught by the harness and was attempting to right himself quickly, carbon fiber blades kicking and churning.
“Where are you going?” the physical therapist asked him in jest. “Forward,” I said. The Seal looked at me, smiled, was picked up and away he went, always looking forward.
I understand parts of war. I understand why we have to fight wars. I have been to war. I do not like war. It is my opinion that every good lawmaker should go to Walter Reed, see and meet these heroes and truly understand the byproducts of war — whether they are physical, mental or financial.
If you are a fan of going to war with Iran, North Korea, Pakistan or any country that is in some way a threat to the United States, but you have never been a part of war, or are completely ignorant of the many factors that lead us to these states of conflict, shame on you. If that Seal, if Ralph, if any of our wounded warriors and fallen comrades were your son, daughter, sister or brother, I suspect you would have a different take.
I left Walter Reed with adoration for our servicemen and women. I left with my spirit lifted and my disdain for war in place. Ralph left Afghanistan, but parts of him — physically and mentally — will never leave there. Let us never forget these warriors or send our countries youth in harm’s way without a morally justifiable reason.
I’m not saying that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were and are not justified. I am saying that those making the decisions and those supporting the decisions need to be completely aware of the costs of war. All of the costs.
Owen Casas, 28, lives in Rockport. He deployed with the Marine Corps to Iraq in 2006-07.