"I don't think it's unusual."
A few of his friends had joined the Marines. Rob read Brotherhood of Heroes by Bill Sloan, about the Battle at Peleliu in World War II, and he decided, That's it, the Marines. He was not especially political. He had no strong feelings about the right or wrong, or even the why, of his country's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; he just wanted to live through the what of them.
An Air Force recruiter tried to sign Rob up, but he was only interested in the Marines. ("I wanted to be a part of the best," he says.) If he had waited until his graduation from Virginia Tech in the spring of 2007, he could have tried to become an officer, as Carol hoped when she could not dissuade him from enlisting as a reservist. He would have had more of a leadership role that way. But Rob wanted to be a grunt. And he wanted to deploy as soon as possible.
When he learned that the reservist drill center near Virginia Tech only trained combat engineers, he was disappointed because he thought combat engineers just did construction. He wanted the infantry. His superiors assured him: You will be on the front lines.
In January 2008, Rob went to Habbaniya, Iraq, as a lance corporal specializing in IED (improvised explosive device) detection. He also found weapon caches and safely removed them, and his battalion helped police the area, a violent enclave in the Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. But by that time the Iraq War had crested. After two months, he started thinking, If I haven't been shot at yet, it probably won't happen. One day he heard that a Humvee had exploded and two Marines he did not know died, and the danger seemed real. But then it faded again. Rob did not feel like a man at war. Before he left Iraq, he told his pals, Afghanistan. I have to go to Afghanistan.
His tour of duty ended in August '08, and upon returning home, he applied for a variety of jobs and finally got one, installing traffic counters for the Virginia Department of Transportation. He was just killing time until he could go overseas. He was assigned to a base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in January 2010, having been promoted to corporal. After just one deployment, he was more experienced than many of his fellow Marines.
In April 2010 he went to Afghanistan. First his battalion established patrol bases and built them up. They cleared fields and blew up trees. Then came war, undeniable and raw. Marines noticed Taliban soldiers meeting early in the mornings, planning their next attack. Firefights ensued.
"You always wonder how you're going to react the first time, but I wasn't disappointed with myself," Rob says. "I did what I was supposed to do: shot back."
His battalion was in the Sangin District in southern Afghanistan, pushing toward the Helmand River. Rob did not need reminders of the perils that lurked beneath his feet, or the reasons he signed up. One July day, his buddy Daniel Jones was injured in an IED blast. An hour later, before Rob even heard about Daniel, another Marine stepped on an IED. But this Marine got lucky, because only the blasting cap exploded, and then Rob stepped in to clear the area, and that was when an IED blew his legs off.
Rob heard himself scream, but his mind felt disconnected from his body. He checked his vitals. Hands: still there. Penis: still there. But his legs were gone. He could not stomach the thought of what the future held. And so, in his shock and delirium, he asked one Corps brother after another to do him the ultimate favor.