Former Marine, wife use experience of traumatic injury to help others

Justin and Dahlia Constantine had only known each other for a few months when he was deployed with his Marine Corps unit to Iraq in summer of 2006. They had met while taking a Spanish class in Argentina, where he had mentioned that he was a lawyer in the Marines but hadn’t been deployed before. Less than two months after arriving in Al Anbar Province, Justin was shot by an enemy sniper behind his left ear, with the bullet exploding while exiting through his mouth.

“I talked to everyone who was involved that day, apparently I was awake and I was still functioning at the time, trying to fight when I was in shock,” Justin, 46, told “I remember a little from that morning but I don’t remember from the site when I was shot, I don’t remember walking in to the aid station and communicating with doctors or anything like that.”

A medic performed an emergency tracheotomy on Justin, saving his life during the live firefight. He was eventually airlifted to Landstuhl, Germany, which is when Dahlia, then enrolled in a doctoral program in Cambridge, England, would learn about his injury.

Justin was expected to return to base that night, promising he’d call or send an email when he did. But as the day went on, Dahlia began to worry. Coming back from a conference she passed an American cemetery from World War II, and her heart sunk as she realized that something might have gone wrong. She eventually received an email from his mother with the subject “Justin’s OK,” but nobody had any idea as to what had happened.  A few reports said that he had been killed in action.

Dahlia boarded a plane to Germany the next day and learned firsthand what had happened.

“We were in a long-distance relationship, I was just eager to see him no matter what he looked like,” Dahlia, 37, told “I just missed him.” 

“The doctor sat with me trying to explain that he was medicated, he wouldn’t recognize me, that I wouldn’t recognize him and trying to emotionally prepare me for what was about to happen,” she said. “They opened the door and he was bandaged from head to toe, except for one eye. I looked at that one eye and it was him.”

Justin lost nearly all of his teeth, part of his jaw, his palate, the end of his tongue, and nearly all sight in his left eye. Doctors placed him on a feeding tube and in an induced coma. His vocal cord was also swollen, leaving doctors to believe he wouldn’t be able to speak.

“Everything else was a mess and a disaster, but it was him, and it was me, and we would be OK,” Dahlia said.

Transitioning to a new life

The road to recovery and ensuing years would forge a bond between Justin and Dahlia that would connect them on a deep emotional level. Dahlia, a California native, dropped out of her program at Cambridge and followed him to Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, to become his fulltime caregiver. Justin would undergo two dozen facial reconstruction procedures, including one to rebuild his jaw which involved taking bone and bone marrow from his leg and hip.

The transition home was difficult, as Justin had to learn how to rely on others for help. The Marine who lead eight other Marines into battle now had to wear a towel over his shoulder and down his front, because the injury to his jaw caused him to drool excessively. He cannot run, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury.

“We didn’t go out to eat in public for about a year because it was such an embarrassing situation for me,” he said. “I didn’t like walking around in public because people would look and wonder what happen.”

“You have to get used to asking for help for everything,” Justin said. “Dahlia did everything – helped me take my clothes off, helped me wash, helped me with PTSD, I needed Dahlia’s support in everything.”

The couple spent many days during his recovery creating lists of places they wanted to visit and things they wanted to see. They wed in 2008, which was the same year Justin received a Purple Heart and wore his uniform for the first time since the injury.

The couple is also careful to say that Justin’s injury didn’t necessarily change their outlook on life, because they had been positive from the start, which helped them through their dark days. However, the accident did help them realize that they needed to prioritize their lives and spend time doing more things together, which is true to this day. Just as importantly, they know they need to take time apart to appreciate what they have.

“Some advice for caregivers in general, whether it’s your child, parents, spouse, is to take some time for yourself. It’s much easier said than done,” Dahlia said. “I would go to Starbucks and have a coffee, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, to rejuvenate and be a better caregiver and be better for yourself because you lose sight of yourself.”

As they approach the 10-year anniversary of Justin’s injury, the Constantines don’t have any grand plans to commemorate it. They honor it in their own way, but don’t allow it to define them as a couple.

Justin retired from the Marines as a Lt. Colonel in 2013, and recently published his first book, “My Battlefield, Your Office,” which targets mid-level corporate managers and shares ways to become a better leader. Dahlia has enrolled at Colombia University to pursue the doctoral degree in education curriculum and teaching that she put aside to care for Justin.

“We know we can tackle things now, we had the hard part up front,” Dahlia said. “Even when things get hard – which they do because that’s life – we can go back and say look, we accomplished this, how do we do this and use those same ideas now.” 

They both work to give back to the community they live in, and are exploring the possibility of writing a book together. Justin is also a motivational speaker and works with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help returning soldiers, injured veterans and their caregivers find employment. He works extensively with veterans groups to help soldiers find available resources. Justin may undergo a few more facial surgeries for symmetry, but has stopped going to counseling as he feels he is in a much better place than he was when he returned.

He also credits Dahlia with helping him return to his former self.

“She was there every single day,” Justin said of Dahlia. “That was a cornerstone to my recovery – this isn’t just for wounded warriors, this is for anyone – having a loved one with you makes a huge difference in what you’re going through.”

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