Part two: Victoria Marine begins long road to recovery
June 9, 2010 at 1:09 a.m.
Editor's note: This is the second story in an ongoing series about Justin Rokohl, a Victoria Marine who resumes life after suffering severe injuries in the Middle East. Friday: Rokohl receives free land and a home.
Justin Rokohl shifted the bulk of his weight onto his left prosthetic leg, stepped toward the pool table and buried a solid in a corner pocket.
"You have bad days," he said, examining the remaining solids on the table. "There are mornings I wake up and say, 'Oh ... man.' I stay so busy, though, I don't have time to think about it."
Rokohl, a 23-year-old Victoria Marine, lost both legs in 2008 while serving in the Middle East. During the two years since, he battled physical, emotional and social challenges.
Jeff Rhoads, the Corpus Christi Marine who pulled Rokohl from the burning Humvee, said amid his friend's challenges lies a story that can inspire all.
"He lost his legs but he told himself nothing was ever going to hold him back," Rhoads, 23, said. "I can't imagine doing some of the stuff he does today."
'HIS LEGS WERE FLOPPING'
Rokohl drifted into and out of consciousness. His burning Humvee, destroyed hours before by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, glowed in the darkness.
Rhoads hovered over Rokohl, who lay flat in the dirt, surrounded by a growing pool of blood. The explosion broke Rokohl's back, femurs, hip and seven ribs.
"His legs were bent in so many ways," Rhoads said. "His left leg was on the wrong way and his toes were up by his face. His other leg was distorted in really bizarre ways, too. He got ice cold, really white. Then his stomach got hard."
Fears of internal injuries eased only when the military helicopter descended from the sky. Rhoads and others listened to the whir of chopper blades as they inched Rokohl onto a stretcher.
"His legs were flopping around and I was worried a bone could slice an artery," Rhoads said. "I had to bend his legs back into place and strap them down. He lost consciousness when I did that."
'TAKE THEM RIGHT NOW'
Rokohl remembers little about the helicopter ride except that he knew one of the medics inside. He once attended church with the man, and his face, which he hadn't seen for years, comforted him.
Rokohl spent two days inside a Middle East medical camp and then awoke in a U.S. military hospital in Germany. He underwent emergency surgery to repair his broken back.
"I woke up and I had this big tube down my throat," Rokohl said. "I remember asking one of the lady doctors if I was going to live, and she said, 'Yeah.'"
After a few weeks, the Marines transported Rokohl to a hospital in Bethesda, Md. There, doctors removed his mangled legs - from below his right knee and from above his left one - during two 12-hour surgeries.
"I could keep my legs and be in a wheelchair or lose the legs and have a chance to walk," Rokohl said. "I told doctors, 'Take them right now.'"
'THE TOUGHEST PART IS DONE'
After leaving the Maryland hospital, the Marine underwent rehab in Texas. He transferred to the Center for Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
"He wasn't down like you would expect," said Mark Heniser, Rokohl's physical therapist. "He's a hard charger and he's going to do what he's going to do."
Rokohl gelled with fellow wounded troops. To boost morale, he organized fishing trips. As a joke and a break from mental strain, he arranged dodge ball games.
"You have to understand amputees have a weird sense of humor," Rokohl said. "We would mess with each other, knock each other over. I think it helped us to get over our injuries."
From a wheelchair, Rokohl endured months of basic strength and range of motion exercises. He then learned to walk, get in a car and later more advanced activities.
"The first time we let him go home, he didn't have prosthetics," Heniser said. "He returned with pictures of him roping on a horse. He had his back brace on and both his upper legs were tied to the animal."
During the next year, Rokohl learned to run, scuba dive and attach different prosthetics for different activities. He has three sets of "legs."
"The hardest part is to just get going. It gets easier and better from there," Rokohl said. "The toughest part is done."
'SOME CRAZY STUFF LIKE THAT'
Rokohl is originally from Orange Grove, but he moved in with longtime family friends, who call Victoria home, in January.
When he left for war, his employer, a Texas oil field services company, promised he'd have a job upon his return. Rokohl's boss is Terry Reeb.
"He needs to be here for his job," said Kimberly Reeb, Terry Reeb's wife and Rokohl's so-called adoptive mother. "He moved in with us because he's always been like a son and because it's important for him to be centrally located. The bulk of his work begins in Victoria."
Rokohl drives a 1-ton dually for Valerus Compression Services, delivering tools and parts to oil fields across Texas. In six weeks, he drove 20,312 miles, he said.
Despite receiving $3,600 a month in military disability pay, he opts to work - and often 12-plus-hour days.
"I'd rather stay slim and in good shape, be doing something that makes money and gives me a better future," Rokohl said. "I don't want to sit in a wheelchair and get fat. I have to keep moving."
When he's not working, he rides horses, travels to professional sporting events or fishes in the Gulf of Mexico. Four months ago, the demands of a young woman replaced bits of his adventurous free time.
Rokohl jokes he has better luck with women after he suffered the injuries. He has a steady girlfriend who pushes him to do "normal" couple activities.
"My prosthetics sometimes limit you on the stuff you can do - like if my girlfriend wants to go walk on the beach or some crazy stuff like that," he said.
'YOU'LL HAVE A LOT OF HARD TIMES'
Rokohl mingled just weeks ago in the center of a few hundred veterans, many of whom displayed burns and missing limbs. Rokohl stood firmly in place but wavered a bit when he moved.
The rods in his femurs and back, as well as his replaced hip, keep him stiff - and mechanical legs don't balance body weight like their fleshy counterparts do.
Still, Rokohl walked through a crowd of hundreds during Warriors Weekend, an annual event to welcome U.S. military members home from war.
He shook hands with well-wishers and smiled. Even he appreciates the progress he enjoys since those early days of recovery.
Despite his positive attitude, Rokohl understands his new life poses struggles - and will until the end. The aches and pains of metal implants will likely require more surgery.
"I've been walking for about nine months but one day it kind of hit me," Rokohl said. "When you wake up and want a drink of water, you realize it's a whole lot of work to do simple things."
Unkind strangers sometimes remind him of his struggles. One day not long ago, an older man told the Marine he faces a tough future.
"You'll have a lot of hard times," the man told him. "You'll have to deal with this for the rest of your life."
Later that night, Rokohl approached Kimberly and Terry Reeb, who overheard the conversation.
Rokohl walked to the couple's bedroom doorway and said, straight-faced and based on the older man's talk, that he'd decided to give up and quit living an adventurous life.
After a few seconds, Rokohl burst into laughter, and so too did the Reebs.
"He doesn't let anything hold him down," Kimberly Reeb said. "He's so, so positive."
Rhoads, his friend and fellow Marine, has watched Rokohl closely since the explosion.
"Justin shows that no matter what happens to you, no matter how bad things are, you can always pull through it," Rhoads said. "Things can get better if you just put your mind to it."