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thedrifter
03-16-08, 10:06 AM
A time to heal
Former Marine rises from devastating injuries suffered in Iraq to follow road to recovery

By Heath Urie
Sunday, March 16, 2008

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- A large plastic bin in the garage of Evan Morgan's Bakersfield home holds a handful of mementos from his days as a Marine.

There's a map of Iraq, covered with makeshift lamination and scribbles marking travel routes and radio codes. There's a flashlight, a rifle-cleaning kit and a pile of letters from home.

There's also a green bag, charred black on the outside and speckled with his own dried blood, and an unassuming black digital watch.

The face of the watch is shattered, with tiny pieces of glass that fall to the floor as Evan pulls it out. It last ran at 3 p.m. Jan. 1, 2005, when it -- just as life as Evan had known it -- came to a violent stop.

Looking at the watch, Evan explains that he woke up that afternoon with his back against the hot, sandy ground, with no clue how he ended up there with his Navy corpsman friend hovering above. He recalls seeing the Humvee he'd been commanding that afternoon in the Al Qaim area of the western Al Anbar Province still smoldering from the blast of an improvised mine.

"I knew something was bad," Evan said. "They told me not to look, but I did. I saw things were not good."

The blast, which detonated directly under the then-21-year-old's seat, severed his right leg above the knee and shredded his other leg almost beyond recognition. Something, perhaps the butt of his rifle, had rocketed into his face, dislodging his right eye and shattering several bones. Only a piece of homemade armor plating and a Kevlar blanket spared Evan's vital organs from the shrapnel.

His first comment to the Marines who surrounded him: "This sucks."

In the three years that followed, Evan set about rebuilding his life with the same sense of good-humored understatement.

The Fairview High School graduate has learned to walk and run, and is training to compete in grueling triathlons later this month and early next year. And his then-girlfriend Jillian -- who occupied his earliest moments of consciousness, as he feared whether she'd leave him because of his injuries -- has become his wife, and the mother of his 10-month-old daughter.

'Everything is tough at first'

Halfway around the world from where doctors were frantically working to stabilize Evan so he could be flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for surgery, Evan's parents, Brad and Charlotte Morgan, were sitting in their south Boulder home on Vassar Drive.

"It was dark outside, and we could hear two hard-soled pairs of shoes coming up the porch," Brad Morgan said.

Evan's mom ran to the door, her heart racing.

"I looked out the peephole and I saw two Marines," Charlotte Morgan said. "I screamed for (Brad)."

The news that Evan was alive but severely injured was a shock, Charlotte Morgan said, but the couple wasn't totally unprepared since each of their three boys had military experience.

Their eldest, Ian Morgan, became a Marine and retired from active duty in 1996. The middle son, Matt Morgan, still serves in the Air Force.

Evan had ambitions of joining the Marines from the time he was 8.

"The only thing I can remember saying I'd be before I wanted to be a Marine was a cowboy," Evan said. "It's all I ever wanted to do."

Doctors in Germany removed Evan's left leg below the knee, and stabilized him enough to send him to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he saw his parents again. He remained optimistic.

"I woke up to find that I didn't have any legs," he said. "But I don't remember being too worried. I guess it could have been worse. Once something happens, there's nothing you can do about it. There's always someone out there who has it worse, and there's always someone better than you."

But alone in a hospital bathroom one day, Evan faced the gravity of his situation.

He had rejoiced in his ability to use a wheelchair, but never considered the difficulty of using the men's room without any legs. For a brief, dark moment, he sat and sobbed over the long road ahead.

"That's what it seemed like at the time, a glimpse of the future," he said. "But everything is tough at first, it just all depends on the person."

In March 2007, Evan became one of the first Marines to be treated for injuries at Brooke Army Medical Center in Houston. Charlotte Morgan, a registered nurse, would stay by her son's side for three months as he endured a total of 28 surgeries.

'I had a job to do'

In the years of recuperation and physical therapy that followed, Evan has learned to use different medical tools and his own ingenuity to maneuver through life. He switches prostheses for different scenarios, but the legs can be uncomfortable, so he gets around in a wheelchair, too.

During an outing to the Valley Plaza Mall, a few miles from his home, Evan passes by a woman who leans over the perfume counter to get a better look at his left knee. Covered with muscle and skin grafted from his thigh, the joint is the most conspicuous part of his injuries.

"I've never asked anyone in my life why someone is in a wheelchair, but you'd be surprised how many people do," he said.

His face also draws attention.

At the mall, a young girl stops in mid-stride to stare at the fine blue lines circling Evan's right eye --reminders of a 16-hour surgery that saved his eye, but not its sight.

Such attention used to be hard to bear, Evan said, but he's accepted that as part of his life and admits he would be "fascinated" to see himself.

The gratitude of strangers can be even more difficult. People thank him, say they'll pray for him, or offer to pay for his meals in a restaurant. Some have even handed him money.

"I didn't join (the Marines) to be a hero or anything," Evan said. "I don't think -- I didn't do anything heroic. I had a job to do. It's not like I stormed a machine-gun nest or anything. I just got blown up.

"But, I'm getting better at accepting thanks."

'Just thankful he's here'

While today Evan is able to do most things he could have before, there are still daily challenges.

When he goes about cooking, Evan has to be careful not to burn himself on the oven door.

"I'm not used to reaching in so far to pull food out," he says, explaining that creative acrobatics are often necessary to accomplish simple tasks.

He has slipped on the driveway taking out the trash, and worries about carrying his daughter to her car seat -- partly because he could lose his balance and partly because his depth perception is affected by his vision loss.

So whenever necessary, Jillian takes over.

"She's always supportive," Evan said. "I don't know if I could have recovered as well without having her, or having the thought of having her."

Almost immediately after the accident, Jillian found out about Evan's fears that she might leave him because of the injuries. Evan's father even e-mailed her and asked that she at least wait until Evan was in rehab if she decided to move on.

She dismissed the thought.

"It was devastating, but at the same time I knew what kind of person he is and that he would be OK," Jillian said. "I'm just thankful he's here with us."

After months of painstakingly small steps toward recovery, largely with the help of his mother and Jillian, Evan took his first steps on custom-made prosthetic legs provided to him by the government.

"It was pretty emotional," Evan said. "I was crying."

The milestone had good timing, too, because Evan was prepared to ask Jillian to be his wife.

"I got down on my one knee -- holding onto my wheelchair, standing up on my knee -- and I proposed to her there. She was pretty quick to say 'yes.'"

On Aug. 19, 2005, just as Evan was getting used to having legs again, he was able to walk to an altar in the basement of Brooke Army Medical Center, where an Army chaplain married the pair in front of a few family members and lunchtime hospital staffers.

The day after the wedding, the young couple went tubing down the Guadalupe River.

Evan's mother recalls him "butt-walking" on his hands and rear end to get down steps leading to the river. It was another sign, she said, that her son was resolved to live normally.

On May 31, 2007, Jillian gave birth to Sophie, who giggles and drools as she rides on her father's lap. Evan said he hasn't put much thought into explaining his injuries to her, but one day he will.

"I think when she's old enough to ask why Dad's different, I'll tell her 'Daddy got hurt in the military,'" he said. "I think it will probably make her a more open-minded person in general."

'At least I haven't stubbed my toes'

One of the people working to help Evan transition to a normal life is prosthetics specialist Trevor Townsend, of the Valley Institute of Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Townsend said there aren't many veterans in Evan's position -- people with both legs removed make up only 8 percent of all amputee patients.

"The good thing he has going is that he's young and strong," Townsend said.

Evan had the option to cover his prosthetic legs to look more realistic, but he refused.

"It's bionic," Townsend said. "Evan wants to show it off."

Evan's right leg contains a microprocessor that senses the placement of the foot as it moves and adjusts the swing of the knee. At his request, the other leg contains a patch from his Marine uniform.

Evan is still getting used to the pressure that's sometimes uncomfortable when he wears any prosthesis, which is why he frequently relies on a crutch or wheelchair.

"I get frustrated by the fact that I can't wear my legs all the time," he said. "It takes patience to not be completely able-bodied."

It's more difficult to shake the memories of having legs.

"I can still think of how my foot would feel if I move my leg around," Evan said. "At least I haven't stubbed my toes in a long time."

There hasn't been a lot of phantom pain, he said, brushing his knee to "remind" his brain where his leg ends now.

"At first it would feel like I still had this leg and it was all mangled," he said. "That's probably the last feeling my brain received from the nerves there."

It's also odd to Evan that he used to have size 13 feet, but the prostheses take a size 11.

Evan is training to use a set of legs that are stronger, curved and made of a springy, composite material good for running. He wants to take up the sport to complement the hand cycling and wheelchair racing he already has become adept at -- recently participating in a half-marathon.

To train, Evan rides a hand cycle 26 to 40 miles a day, swims without his prostheses and works out several times a week -- all with a titanium rod implanted through the marrow of his right arm, which was also shattered in the blast.

The Challenged Athletes Foundation has provided Evan a racing wheelchair, and he wants to someday run the Bolder Boulder, both in a wheelchair and on his new legs.

He also hopes to be part of the Homes for Our Troops marathon team, which in October announced that Evan and Jillian would receive a new home through the donations of local companies.

The home will feature wider doorways, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and running room for Otis and Fiona, the family's dogs.

Ordinary life

Evan has promised himself he'll live an ordinary life, a resolution he keeps by indulging in video games, playing the guitar and picking up after the dogs.

He also makes his way to and from classes at California State University at Bakersfield, where he is majoring in history with the intention of teaching one day.

For fun, Evan still likes to shoot at the range and has befriended many locals at a small brewery in town, where he has occasionally had one too many beers and drank out of his prosthetic leg -- much to the delight of his friends.

Evan said he doesn't think about his military days much anymore, at least, not about the bad memories.

"I've been lucky to avoid any post-traumatic stress disorder," he said, though he still jumps at loud noises and doesn't like to be surprised on his blind right side.

"I miss running, jumping, shooting," he said. "But I don't have nightmares about Iraq."

There's part of him that would still be in the Marines if he physically could. "It's part of who I am," he said.

Evan insists he's "boring" for enjoying the pig-shaped mini keg of beer in his refrigerator, watching action and war movies for hours and for spending most of his days at home with his wife and daughter, cooking and cleaning up.

What he won't say -- but what those around him readily will -- is that being ordinary is the very thing that makes him so extraordinary.

"It's a really weird thing when your youngest son turns out to be one of the men you admire most in the world," Brad Morgan said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or urieh@dailycamera.com.

Ellie