Corporal Todd Love doesn’t remember that last step he took. Actually, he remembers little of the events from 0710 on Oct. 25, 2010, or of the days and weeks thereafter. While on patrol in Sangin province, Afghanistan, he became an intended victim of a huge improvised explosive device (IED) buried by a Muslim terrorist alongside the main route leading from the village Love’s patrol had just passed.
Pressure detonated, the violent bone-ripping blast temporarily blinded and deafened all within 100 meters of the device. Most would feel the concussion of the shock wave and be thrown from their intended path, but as is often the case when at ground zero, few would remember actually hearing it. Memories, should there be any, would be a surrealistic slow-motion horror movie.
The road erupted. The earth shook, belching fire, rock, equipment and body parts. The life of Todd Love would be changed dramatically forever.
The horrific blast vaporized everything into a pink mist from Cpl Love’s groin down. His left arm was mangled badly and hung uselessly from just below the elbow. Had it not been for the searing heat of the blast cauterizing his major blood vessels and arteries, he would have bled out quickly.
Moments later when his unit corpsman reached his position, it logically and understandably was assumed that the corporal was dead. As per standard operating procedure of combat lifesaving, he was given shots of morphine to help cope with the unbearable pain that was sure to come should he possibly still be among the living. Reaching the site as the dust was settling, the corpsman noted that there were still signs of life.
Remarkably, Cpl Love regained consciousness. His first cognizant words were to inquire if he still had his manhood. The answer was, “Yes.”
His next question was about the status of his team leader, Cpl Kyle Thompson, who was just a few feet from him when the IED exploded. Thompson was hit in the face and lost an eye. Told of his team leader’s injuries, Cpl Love responded with the best dark humor he could muster: “Thompson ... Thompson ... it sucks to be you right now!”
At that point, the rest of the fire team knew that both Marines had every intention of making it home. An hour and 20 minutes later, a British helicopter, the closest aircraft to their position, arrived to retrieve the emergency medevacs. The day and the intense fire of close combat were far from over. At least 10 rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the medevac before it reached cruising altitude. Fortunately, all missed their mark.
Ten days later in intensive care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, and with his father, Gary, at his side, Todd Love lifted the covers to feel for what might be left. His singular statement was, “That high?” His father said, “Yes.” Cpl Love assessed the damage and perhaps his future and quietly filed those thoughts away. It was time to refocus.
The blast was a defining moment in life for the Marine. From that point on, the injuries he had suffered would affect not only him, but his family, friends, fellow Marines and everyone else who knew him. The important options in life were reduced actually to two: He could spend the rest of his life as a “victim” and depend on the world for his basic needs, or he could resolve to live life to the fullest with not much more than sheer determination. Cpl Love chose the latter.
Meeting him and his father for the first time at the Marine Corps Marathon last fall, I saw quiet determination in everything they both did. Neither wanted pity, distance or isolation. Both wanted only the opportunity to live, not just exist from day to day. They told me that at the invitation of Jeremy Soles, president of Team X-T.R.E.M.E., they had been invited to Hawaii, all expenses paid, to surf, scuba and skydive. All three sports are not for the weak or the timid, and the percentage of the able-bodied population who would do any, much less all three, is low. Cpl Love wanted to do it all.
Arriving in Hawaii, Todd and Gary Love toured the usual visitor sites. After some moments of reflection at Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, it was time for lunch. The closest restaurant was on a high second deck at the Rainbow Marina. Until arriving, no one in the party realized that there was no elevator. What might have been an awkward moment unfolded as if choreographed. Arriving at the bottom of the ladder well, Gary Love glanced at his son in his wheelchair, grabbed the chair with one hand and then bent down for Todd to sling his good arm around his father’s neck. Without missing a beat or a step, they climbed the two flights of stairs to the top landing. Somehow, they made it look so natural.
Back at their hotel in Honolulu, not wanting to wait for the elevator, Cpl Love took it upon himself to use the escalator. The hotel service attendant saw him and immediately rushed to reprimand him for a safety violation. With a twisted sense of humor only a wounded Marine could have, Cpl Love’s response was, “Come on now. You are trying to treat me like I’m disabled.”
That afternoon, with professional coaching, Cpl Love rode the waves on a surfboard. Just to prove he was a “natural,” he did a handstand on his prosthesis and his good arm. All was documented on camera—point proven.
The next day, with a device provided by the techs at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center (now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), he strapped a dolphinlike-fin device to his torso and scuba dove as if he had been doing it all his life.
There is nothing “natural” about leaping from an airplane in flight. Perhaps, that is exactly why Cpl Love wanted to do just that. Doing a tandem skydive with a triple amputee presents some unusual challenges. Without legs, there is nothing to cinch with the leg straps. Would the prosthetic arm change the body-flight dynamics?
The biggest and most obvious complication was who would be qualified, available and willing to be his tandem master. The only tandem master who both would and could was Michael Elliott, a former Golden Knight and retired U.S. Army sergeant first class. Elliott had jumped with President George H. W. Bush strapped to his body on two occasions and had jumped with a long list of amputees; he was one of the very few qualified to make a jump with Cpl Love.
Elliott, a master parachute rigger, made a tandem harness attached to a ballistic-material “bucket” in which Cpl Love would sit. At Skydive Hawaii, they tried it on. The fit was perfect. Cpl Love, his father and Team X-T.R.E.M.E. would do an exhibition skydive into the X-TERRA Games at Kualoa Ranch on the northeast shoreline of Oahu.
The ride to altitude was filled with the usual edgy humor. “Corporal Love, when you are about to land, don’t forget to lift your feet up,” and “Don’t worry if we have a high-speed malfunction. We will have the rest of our lives to figure it out and ride our reserve.” If there was tension on that flight, it wasn’t in the face of Cpl Love.
Watching the movement to the door with Cpl Love strapped to Michael Elliott’s body seemed surreal. The skies were broken with soft, dark clouds. The exit at about 9,000 feet was over the water. Within a couple hundred feet of leaving the aircraft, they were body-flight stable and smiling. At 5,000 feet they waved off and deployed the main canopy. Feet-dry at about 3,000 feet, they made lazy upwind spiral turns as they set up for the initial approach. Turning on final at about 200 feet, they headed into the wind line, flared and contacted the deck at the wind “T,” right on target. Cpl Love immediately was surrounded by people cheering loudly.
To him, it was just another day in the life of someone who intends to live it well. On that day, Love was all around us. Love was in the air.