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Brandon Rumbaugh: I thought the only thing that was going to define my life was being a 21-year-old retired Marine

I was hopeless until I started meeting Vietnam era veterans, he writes

Editor’s Note: Brandon Rumbaugh is a retired United States Marine, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for It’s About the Warrior Foundation, which assists veterans in hard times. He also runs A.C.T. (Action Conquers Terror) Motivational Speaking. This is part of the “First time I knew I wanted to serve” series. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

After spending two tours overseas, one in Iraq and the other Afghanistan, I had no idea what the transition back to a “normal” life would be like. Before I was injured, I was planning on serving my country for as long as I could. But after stepping on an IED on November 29, 2010, my thought process changed. I then imagined being in a wheelchair, having a caretaker, never getting married, never having kids and never being able to enjoy life again.

During my recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, I was shown – maybe in a way I wish I didn’t see – a new light. I was exposed to other men and woman who made my injuries look minimal. I saw wounded service members who were missing two legs and an arm, or even both legs and both arms. I subsequently looked at myself and said, “What excuses do I have to not live a normal, successful life?”

Brandon Rumbaugh
PHOTO: Evan Sanders
Brandon Rumbaugh

After the first year, I was walking well, and then I hit another bump in the road. I had my right leg amputated all the way up to my hip. Previously I had seven inches of my right leg, which allowed for an above-knee prosthetic to be attached with ease. I basically had to start all over again just a year into my recovery. That was the lowest point during my stay at Walter Reed.

Once again, the odds were stacked against me and I had no other choice but to push through as my brothers and sisters were doing the same. For two long years, I worked on my recovery at the center. I started every morning by going to the gym. I worked on my core strength, fitting my prosthetics, and learned how to walk all over again. 

Once I was stable enough, I returned to my hometown in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, because I knew I needed a strong support system in the coming years. I was welcomed with thank-you’s and offered help in any way needed. But I didn’t know exactly what “help” would look like for me at that time.

My life felt like it was going to be defined solely by being a 21-year-old retired United States Marine. I didn’t have many aspirations of doing anything more at that point in my life.

It wasn’t until someone asked me, “So Brandon, what is next?” To this day, that is the best thing anyone could have ever done for me. That simple question sparked something inside of me that drove me to find my purpose after losing both of my legs in combat.

In the time since, I joined the Board of Directors for It’s About the Warrior Foundation, a non-profit devoted to helping veterans in need of additional financial support. I currently manage the grant program for the organization. I’ve also started my own business – A.C.T. (Action Conquers Terror) Motivational Speaking, through which I travel around the world and share my story to various clients ranging from professional sports teams to Fortune 500 companies to university students. I even returned to Afghanistan this year to motivate the men and woman currently serving there.

I would hope that all of my brothers and sisters in a similar situation had the same support I did when returning home, but I know every situation is different. Historically, western Pennsylvania is very patriotic, very blue collar and has a hometown feel no matter where you go.

Was America prepared for my return home post-Afghanistan? Yes, it was, especially my hometown of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. I haven’t had a bad experience other than your typical handicapped parking spot dispute. There have been times when I pulled into a spot, and before I have been able to get out, someone has run over to the car saying, “You know this is a handicapped spot, right?”

What made my life so much easier is being constantly surrounded by Vietnam-era veterans. I would have these men randomly show up at my house on a weekend, ask if they could come in and talk to me to offer any support I may need.

I would be out in town and, sure enough, a Vietnam veteran would see me, give me a card and say “call me if you need anything.” In a way, I felt guilty because of how poorly they were treated when they returned home, but they made it their sole mission to ensure I was treated with dignity and respect because of how we failed them as a country when the Vietnam War ended.

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In short, America has been there for me in all aspects. I now live in a handicapped-accessible house – newly built with my needs in mind and no mortgage – that was put together by Homes For Our Troops and the community in which I live. That alone has allowed me to focus on my new life, to attack a new career and explore without thinking about having to provide a home.

At the end of the day, 99% of what I have accomplished after my injuries was possible because of other people who lent a helping hand, gave me advice, or were there when I needed someone. This is how it should be for all veterans.