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The Marine And The Orphan
MICHAEL ROSENBERG
August 27, 2012
The stories of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters are remarkable, and if they also prove inspirational, that's fine with them. But they have another narrative they prefer, the one that has brought them together to the brink of Paralympic rowing gold
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August 27, 2012

The Marine And The Orphan

The stories of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters are remarkable, and if they also prove inspirational, that's fine with them. But they have another narrative they prefer, the one that has brought them together to the brink of Paralympic rowing gold

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Oh, if they only knew the story, the whole story, going back to the orphanage ... but no. Who wants to be defined by the worst things that ever happened to them?

Oksana is still angry about the second amputation above the knee, but she made a decision: She would not waste a single day of her life ever again. "You don't get any second chances," she says. "You better not f--- up on the first one."

Strangers may focus on what she is missing, but hell, what are they missing? Are they busting their butts twice a day to be the best in the world at something, as she is?

Rob has it easier, in a sense. He is not as prone to feeling judged, so he doesn't mind the questions. When children ask about his prosthetic legs, he tells them his mom was a person but his dad was a robot, and so he is half-man, half-robot.

Adults' eyes do the math: crew cut + no legs + upright bearing = soldier. They view his missing legs as an achievement. They thank Rob, salute him and, with incredible frequency, try to pay him. Here is 50 bucks. Thank you.... Here is a hundred. Buy yourself dinner. Thank you. They don't realize that he doesn't want their money, that his entire sense of purpose revolves around not taking their money. For a long time, he refused. Then he decided that was wrong. Why should he deny them the joy of helping another person?

So now he accepts donations. But the cash does not stay in his pocket for long. If a stranger hands him $100 and Rob's dinner bill is $24.46, he leaves $75.54 as a tip.

What would he do with money anyway? He doesn't see the point of "stuff that doesn't have a use ... stuff you put up on a wall and display." He travels with an acoustic guitar and an iPad, but not much else. He has two duffel bags of clothes but doesn't wear most of them. He thinks he might give most of his clothes away too.

Rob lives on the $4,100 a month he gets from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and he enjoys living in hotels. When he and Oksana finished training in Orlando last winter, he went to the bank, cashed his monthly check, put it all inside a card that he wrote out in Spanish using Google Translator. Then he left the entire $4,100 for the cleaning woman at his hotel. He did not even know her name.

Sometimes Oksana will reach down to scratch her ankle, only to discover again that the ankle isn't there. And sometimes she and Rob each feel bursts of pain in legs they no longer have. This is a common phenomenon for amputees. It is called phantom pain. "Your brain is just amazing," Oksana says. "It still thinks your legs are there."

Phantom pain comes in various forms. When Oksana was a teenager, she got mad at Gay, and her brain told her that the woman standing in front of her was not her mom but was in fact an abuser from the orphanage. That was phantom pain. The nightmares about her last orphanage that she has even today: phantom pain. But the dread of going to sleep is real.

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